Museum Snapshots

The Museum of Rail Travel, Keighley

The Museum of Rail Travel is devoted to railway carriages through the ages. It is run by the Vintage Carriages Trust, formed in 1965 by a group of volunteers interested in the preservation of wooden-bodied carriages, and now has nine historic railway carriages, three small steam locomotives, a railbus and a large collection of railway signs, posters and magazines. Visitors can enter the carriages and numerous films have been shot using the carriages as a film set, including the Railway Children.

Interior of Museum of Rail Travel, Keighley, showing the side of a rail carriage

The Museum is on the outskirts of Keighley in West Yorkshire, adjacent to Ingrow West railway station and Ingrow Loco Museum. The station is part of Keighley and Worth Valley Railway (KWVR), a five-mile long heritage railway that runs to Oxenhope reopened by the KWVR Preservation Society in 1968, the first privatisation of any part of British Railways. The Museum of Rail Travel is in a purpose-built carriage works/museum with sets of rails connecting it to the adjacent railway. The building is divided into two main sections – a museum space containing a series of historic carriages, signs and displays and a large workshop area devoted to carriage repair and restoration. The building also contains a well-stocked shop selling new and second-hand railway enthusiast books and a substantial collection of railway magazines and journals (13,000), which are for sale and are an important income stream for the Trust.

Visitors can sit in many of the carriage compartments and stickers on windows of the carriages detail films the carriage has featured in, listing the title, year made, stars and location of the carriage for filming. Somewhat surprisingly many of the mannequins featured in displays are, on close examination, incognito members of the royal family. A young queen is off to Brighton and Princess Margaret sits on a station bench in a scarf and enormous sunglasses.

Interior of Museum of Rail Travel, Keighley, with a seated Princess Margaret mannequin

Text and photographs by Toby Butler

Museum Snapshots

King Edward Mine, Cornwall

King Edward Mine Museum interprets the history of Cornish mining on the site of a tin mine used by the Camborne School of Mines for training from 1897. The School moved to Poole in the 1970s leaving many of the buildings redundant. The King Edward Mine Preservation Group was set up in 1987 to preserve the buildings and collect, restore and display industrial machinery used by the Cornish mining industry by a group of volunteers (initially mostly staff from the Camborne School of Mines). The project has received major European and Lottery funding and is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (2006). 

A private road leads to the mine complex, which is remarkably complete and includes an array of workshops and historic industrial buildings, several of which are now listed, and a popular café. Several buildings on the site have been converted for small business use. It includes an Edwardian lecture room, complete with rock samples and books, although this is not currently part of the public exhibition. 

Interior of King Edward Mine museum with displays

The museum first opened in 2005 and now has displays over several buildings. A stone-built Boiler House (1906) contains contextual displays on the people and land surrounding the mine, and covers social history, archaeology, geology and the history of tin mining, mostly with the use of illustrated display boards addressing questions about mining (e.g. “was it dangerous or unhealthy for children to work at the mines?”) with some related objects, mostly in cases and video/audio displays (one speaker is memorably installed in a Cornish pasty which can be lifted to the ear). The winder and compressor house contain displays on winding machinery and drilling, along with explanations of the various processes carried out to extract tin at the mine in the Edwardian period. The displays range from large machinery with detailed and illustrated explanation on information panels, to objects and models in cases, often making use of extensive archive photographs of the site and the machinery. A large corrugated iron clad mill building contains an array of working machinery, much of which has been restored to working condition and visitors can see it in action, including enormous stamping machines used to crush rock.

The founder of the museum Tony Brooks has published an illustrated history of the mine, including a section on the early preservation work King Edward Mine: An Illustrated Account of Underground and Surface Operations 1897-2001 (Cornish Hillside Publications, 2002).

Text and pictures by Toby Butler

Copyright: Mapping Museums

Research Process Museum Snapshots

On the road with the Mapping Museums Project

(Header photo: Toby’s car parked on the single track road on the way to Gairloch)

I have driven the length and breadth of Britain for Mapping Museums to complete one of the most rewarding tasks on the project – interviewing people who have set up independent museums. I have now recorded more than 60 museum founders and in the process I have driven 5,870 miles to meet them and it’s time to reflect on the trials and tribulations of life on the road as an academic field researcher.

First there is the driving. We felt it was important to get as wider geographical demographic spread as possible, and as many museums were in remote locations the car was the only practical option. I visited and photographed 40 museums, which in itself was a joy, but along the way I also got to see some stunning parts of Britain  that were new to me – redundant mills in Lancashire; the snow swept Yorkshire Dales in December; the ruins of World War II airfields in Lincolnshire. I kicked myself for not exploring these areas before, all just a few hours’ drive away from my own home in Kent.

The luxury of a car also meant I could take as much equipment and luggage as I liked. For each trip I would carefully go through my packing list: laptop and digital recording equipment for interviews, notepad and paperwork, SLR camera for photographing museums inside and out, battery chargers, folding bicycle (for exercise and to give me a break from the car), a thermos flask for in-transit tea, wellies and two coats along with the usual clothes and toiletries. I also had room for a couple of bulky luxuries to make life on the road easier; firstly a four gang extension lead, with various chargers attached, perfect for charging all my equipment in rooms with few plug sockets. And finally my own feather pillow, which pretty much guaranteed me a good night’s sleep.

Between interviews life on the road was solitary, apart from the odd hitchhiker and a few days when my path crossed with Jake, my project colleague who was researching some of the underlying causes of museum development in Cornwall. In the car the radio and downloaded BBC Sounds programmes were my main companion – along with the scenery. This was most spectacular in the Highlands of Scotland, which I criss-crossed to make meetings with founders of croft and clan museums. Many of the small museums in the Highlands (such as Laidhay Croft Museum and Gairloch Heritage Museum) hug the coast road, often single track, with passing places to allow other vehicles to get by. and astonishing views of lochs, mountains, cliffs and ancient peat bogs. The bright gorse flowers were made even brighter by sunshine in an unseasonal heatwave (‘Auch, it’s always like this in Scotland’, I was told several times).

Roadside sign for Laidhay Croft Museum
Fair weather driving in the Highlands

Cars wait on a road on Skye while Sheep are being moved
Temporary road closure: crofters at work on Skye

Much of this work fell over the winter months, when many smaller museums have shut their doors and the people who run them have more time to talk. The week before Christmas I experienced the childish excitement of a snow flurry in Pateley Bridge, a picturesque little town in the Yorkshire Moors. I was there to interview Eileen Burgess, the 89-year old retired school teacher and co-founder of Nidderdale Museum (a huge local history museum in what was once the town workhouse). I stayed above a pub and after work went for a snowy walk in the upper dale. That evening I joined the town’s Christmas fair wandering from shop to shop to be offered mulled wine and Christmas nibbles – so warmly welcomed that for an evening I felt like an honorary Yorkshireman.

The hardest weather was at Land’s End. I needed to get to the Isles of Scilly and there had been a long period of gale force winds and even supply boats hadn’t got through to the islands for a week. A morning flight from a Cornish airfield was my only option. I stayed at the Land’s End Hotel the night before; the hotel is on the cliffs next to the famous landmark. Before I went to bed I ventured out and could see huge waves crashing on the shore below. The wind howled all night. The next day I discovered that a crew of French fisherman had been rescued from a fishing boat caught up on the rocks below.

The next morning the wind was still gusty, but the direction was favourable for flying and I was relieved to get a call from the airport to say the flight was possible. But they warned that the unpredictable forecast meant they couldn’t guarantee the return journey and I would have to risk getting stranded on the Isles of Scilly. I had a tight interview schedule and I had driven so far; I decided to risk it.

View downwards from a small plane as it crosses the Cornish coast.
The view from the plane, Cornish coast

After a frankly terrifying flight on the sort of small plane that has a passenger sat next to the pilot, I had a few hours to interview Richard Larne, author, wreck diver and founder of the Charlestown Shipwreck Centre. After a fascinating interview in a café in St Mary’s, I got an urgent call from the airport recommending I get the next flight before the weather turned. Richard kindly agreed to rush me to the airport in his car for an even bumpier flight back to the mainland (as it turned out, this was indeed the last flight for some days). When we landed with a thump I gave a cheer, along with the five other passengers. Now all was well and we were both very relieved; Richard had narrowly escaped an uninvited house guest for who knows how long, and I could make my next interview on time. And so the extraordinary journey continued – next up would be Tony Brooks, ex-head of mining at Camborne School of Mines and the founder of the King Edward Mine Museum. I’ll discuss the wonderful array of project interviewees in my next post.

By Toby Butler (Research Fellow, Mapping Museums Project)

Museum Snapshots

Nidderdale Museum, Yorkshire

The Nidderdale Museum is located in the market town of Pateley Bridge in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Nidderdale, one of the larger Yorkshire Dales. It was established in 1975 by members of a WEA adult education local history class who had published a landmark local history book, A History of Nidderdale in 1967. The museum has an extensive collection concerned with life in the Nidderdale valley and includes a variety of interiors featuring objects donated or rescued from local buildings including a kitchen, pub ‘snug’, school, Victorian parlour, dairy, shoe makers, magistrates court and even a walk-through reconstruction of a mineral mine shaft. It won the National Heritage Museum of the Year Award in 1990 for the ‘museum which does the most with the least’.

The museum is run by the Nidderdale Museum Society and housed in an old workhouse, built in 1863. This became the Rural District Council offices until local government reorganisation in 1974, when the district council was amalgamated into Harrogate Borough Council and the building became available (the latter owns and maintains the building). The museum has 11 themed exhibition rooms situated on one upper floor, a large research/library room and store rooms, workshops and meeting rooms on the ground floor. Apart from entire rescued interiors like the town court room, striking objects include a wooden haberdashery box marked ‘BLIND’ belonging to a local blind hawker in the 1920s; an astonishing early electric hair curler from a hairdressers featuring more than a dozen wired curlers dangling from the ceiling and a large collection of Methodist related ceramics and other items from local chapels. Highlights of the collection and an account of the history of the museum feature in a book, Traces of Nidderdale in 40 Years and 40 Objects: Stories of the Museum by Joanna Moody (2014).

Display at Nidderdale Museum including a mannequin with an early electric hair curler
The electric hair curler on display

Text and pictures by Toby Butler

Copyright: Mapping Museums

Museum Snapshots

Horwich Heritage Centre, Lancashire

Horwich Heritage Centre is a local history centre in Horwich, a town of 20,000 people near Bolton in Lancashire, on the edge of the West Pennine Moors. The town expanded rapidly in the 18th and 19th century as bleach works, cotton mills and a large railway locomotive works came to the town. The museum first opened in 1995 and is now housed in what was a rifle range, part of an early 20th Century territorial army barracks. The displays cover a range of industrial and social history of the town and the surrounding area. Exhibits include an iron toll gate post, a replica of an engine cab, a scale model of the locomotive works, a huge gas lamp from a cottage hospital and a large collection of models, household items, photographs and ephemera organised thematically on various local history including a Victorian kitchen, domestic life 1900 to 1950s, mining, and transport and wartime history. The museum has regularly updated temporary exhibition space, a research area for local study and a small shop.


Entrance to Horwich Heritage Centre
Entrance to Horwich Heritage Centre

The Centre is run by Horwich Heritage, a voluntary organisation established in 1985 following the closure of the locomotive works two years before (the works once employed thousands of people). The aim was to set up a history society that would, in part, help to boost the morale of the town and it soon attracted more than 150 members. A small room was offered by the local council to have exhibitions in a community centre that was used for displays for ten years from 1995 to 2005. The Council then offered them tenancy of the current building and it took three months to set up the displays. A range of activities and new exhibitions bring in around 3,000 people a year (the centre is open two hours a day). Horwich Heritage has also been working to save some of the historic buildings in the works, and are developing a heritage trail around the site, and working with the developers on street naming. It has also been actively restoring and protecting local features and details of this work can be found in the news section of their website.

Text and pictures by Toby Butler.


Museum Snapshots

Aldbourne Heritage Centre

Aldbourne Heritage Centre is concerned with the history and heritage of Aldbourne Village in Wiltshire. It was established by Aldbourne Heritage Group in 2014 and the displays include the Aldbourne Cup, a pottery vessel dating from 1500BC; a collection of bells made in a local bell foundry and various aspects of farming, local industry and the social history of the village. It has a display on the ‘Band of Brothers’ commemorating the history of the nearby Second World War US paratrooper base made famous by an HBO TV series. The Centre also has an extensive archive of 10,000 photographs and hosts regular history talks at the nearby Methodist Church.


Entrance to Aldbourne Heritage Centre.
Entrance to Aldbourne Heritage Centre

Unusually, the Heritage Centre is situated in converted public toilets, near the centre of the village. The building is stone, brick and tile and was converted to an internet café by a youth group before it became a heritage centre. It is a small, one-room museum with a modern, well-lit and carpeted interior and public toilets are still situated at one end of the building. It is immediately adjacent to a pub with a Dalek outside. A well-known series of episodes of Dr Who (The Daemons) was filmed in the village in 1971 starring John Pertwee in which the Doctor visits ‘Devils End’ to investigate a satanic vicar and discover the secret of mysterious burial mound.  A timeline featuring major episodes in village history runs around the top of the room and current displays covered the bell foundry (including bell ringing and a substantial collection of bells); Dr Who and the Daemons; historic houses; enclosure; notable residents of Aldbourne; the inhabitants of Aldbourne in 1809; the Aldbourne Cup, Aldbourne WI and US Airborne in Aldbourne 1943-4. The Centre also has a substantial website including digital records of Rolls of Honour, grave inscriptions and field maps.

Photo and text by Toby Butler.


Museum Snapshots

Blue Town Heritage Centre, Sheerness

The Blue Town Heritage Centre is situated on an atmospheric Victorian high street on the outskirts of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. Blue Town was a community built for dock workers and a high dock wall looms opposite the Centre. Unusually, the building combines a museum, cinema and a working music hall theatre.

Jenny Hurkett, the founder and manager of the Centre, converted a kitchen showroom she owned with her husband after screening a film on local history that attracted hundreds of visitors. She was motivated by a strong feeling that Sheppey’s history, including the docks and its role in aviation history, was being ignored by regional tourist authorities. Jenny discovered the building was on the site of the Criterion Music Hall (bombed in WW2) and they then rebuilt a theatre which is regularly open for music hall, variety shows, cinema screenings and conferences. Local prisoners were involved in the conversion work. She also established the Eastchurch Aviation Museum and chairs a network of museums in Swale.

The Heritage Centre covers various aspects of local history including the development of the docks at Sheerness; the Blue Town community (named after the blue paint from the dockyard used to protect the wooden houses); a local co-operative movement that predates Rochdale and other aspects of local and domestic history. Upstairs is a purpose-built gallery devoted maritime history full of models, tools, signs, maps and ephemera relating to the docks and the working life of the docker community. It also includes a reconstructed deck scene of the HMS Victory including a captain’s cabin and a gruesome surgeon’s room, complete with sawn-off legs. The centre also provides historic tours of the island and includes a café. It also has a role as community hub and often hosts groups with special needs, alongside their busy theatre and cinema programme.

Photo and text by Robin Newton-Clare and Toby Butler.

Museum Snapshots

The Rifles Museum, Winchester

The Rifles Museum (also known as the Rifles Collection) is the regimental museum of The Rifles, the largest infantry regiment in the British Army. The Rifles were formed from four existing regiments in 2007 following re-organisation. The museum has an unusually modern focus, including recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and it is particularly concerned with the lived experience of the soldier in these campaigns.

The exhibition begins with the formation of the regiment and focuses predominantly on Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Regiment has been serving. The display consists mainly of information panels and glass cases containing uniform, military equipment, ephemera and souvenirs taken by soldiers. There is a particular focus inter-cultural issues involved in working in these countries. It includes a display of Afghan life and features guides given to soldiers on local customs and useful phrases. The middle of the exhibition space contains a memorial and contemplation area, featuring a cross made of wooden pallets built in Afghanistan to remember members of the regiment who had recently died. The galleries are spacious and large artwork and photography were notable features compared to other regimental museums on the site. A merchandise area has regimental caps, sweatshirts and other clothing for sale. It also had an area for children to dress up in military uniform and sit on a quad bike for photo-opportunities. One display features Iraq ‘tour’ T-shirts featuring Basra Palace, where the Rifles were stationed for some time. The designs parody the famous Carlsberg advert: ‘Basra – probably the worst palace in the world’.


Who are the Taliban? exhibition
Exhibition at the Rifles Museum

The museum, which opened in 2013, is close to the Rifles regimental headquarters at the Peninsula Barracks in Winchester. The Barracks are extensive buildings built in the early 20th century and are grade II listed, how housing several military museums alongside regimental offices and private flats. The Rifles Museum shares a building with the Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum. The latter was one of the constituent regiments merged in 2007 to form the Rifles and has a much larger exhibition space over two floors including a huge model display of the Battle of Waterloo. The Rifles Museum is separately managed and has a smaller exhibition space on the ground floor. Visitors can enter the Rifles Museum directly (entry is free) but chronologically it focuses entirely on the period after the formation of the regiment in 2007 so visitors are encouraged to see it after the Green Jackets Museum (which focuses entirely on an earlier period, 1741 to 2007). The museum is run by the Rifles Regimental Museum Trust (registered as a charity in 2017).

Photo and text by Dr Toby Butler.

Museum Snapshots

Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Museum, Hever

The museum is dedicated to displaying uniform, medals, weapons, armoured vehicles, models and memorabilia relating to the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Regiment (the Kent Yeomanry were formed in 1794 and the Sharpshooters were formed in London in 1900. They amalgamated in 1961 and their squadrons are a part of the Territorial Army, currently based at Croydon and Bexleyheath).

The museum is situated in the extensive grounds of Hever Castle in Kent. From the outside it has the appearance of an army field camp, with two hall-sized khaki tents, a flag pole and an armoured car and field gun on display immediately outside; perhaps something of a surprise to visitors to the picturesque castle once owned by the Boleyn family. The tents cover much more permanent structures; one is an education room and the other contains a professionally designed and curated display space.

Inside the displays are chronologically organised, starting with the formation of the Yeomanry for the expected French invasion in 1794 and covering 200 years of regimental history up to the recent present (the squadrons have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan). This includes Gallipoli and the Great War (along with a life-sized recreation of a trench with sound and visual effects), World War II (which includes a hands-on recreation of a tank turret) and more recent conflicts. A registry section includes a list of all members of the regiment who were lost in action and a medal chest containing drawers of military medals donated by families. The museum is generally unstaffed and the displays have been designed accordingly.

The Museum was formed to preserve and display the property of the regiment, at the time of a regimental re-organisation. The museum opened to the public in 1966 at Squerrye’s Court in Westerham where it had a room for public display, given by the owner who was a serving member of the regiment. In 1985 It moved to historic property nearby, Hever Castle, and was similarly housed in a room above the keep. The Castle eventually paid for the construction of the new buildings in the grounds and the museum moved in 2015 after a £275,000 fundraising campaign for the interior fit-out by the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Museum Trust.

Photo and text by Dr Toby Butler.

Museum Snapshots

The Micro Museum, Ramsgate

The Micro Museum encompasses vintage computers, video gaming and micro-electronics, such as mobile phones, small electronic games and toys. An array of working micro-computers and games consoles are available for visitors to try out, playing games and programming for as long as they wish. The museum also includes displays on the history of computing.

The museum is located in what used to be a stone mason’s workshop and later a plumber’s merchant, next to a large parish church in central Ramsgate. The reception area has a working BBC micro-computer and libraries of games and magazines on shelves. This leads to a large room which contains both the displays and a large array of different consoles and computers, set up to play at seated workstations. Wall posters cover the history of computing and floor to ceiling units display a huge array of computers and gaming consoles through the ages, mostly divided up by decade and in the case of smaller objects, by type (abacus, calculators, Furbies, mobile phones, LCD games, joysticks and so on). A Sinclair C5 is on display with accompanying information on the career of Clive Sinclair.


Interior of the Micro Museum

Carol and Mike Deer are semi-retired co-owners of the Micro-Museum and it is run as a small family business, with the involvement of a few volunteers. Mike used to work as a gallery attendant at the Museum of London. Carol describes the museum as a showcase for their personal collection of computers, games and electronics (‘basically anything that’s got a micro-chip in it that interests us’ from the 1970s to 2000. Mike started collecting in 1981 when he bought a Sinclair ZX81 in his mid-twenties. This led to buying more powerful home computers and electronic games. As consumer electronics developed so quickly computers and games were soon regarded as obsolescent and could be bought cheaply. The collection was amassed over 40 years and the museum opened permanently to the public in 2014.

Photos and text by Dr Toby Butler.