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.

Research Process

Mapping Museums: Why bother?

Readers who have followed our blogs to date may have realised how much work, time, and money is involved in mapping museums across the UK. The team currently comprises of two professors, and two full time researchers, one in computer science and one collecting and analysing data. By the end of its four-year life span, the project will have cost over a million pounds. On a more personal note, I spent well over a year planning the project and writing a proposal and it now dominates a good part of my waking life, all of which begs the question: why bother? Why does this subject merit such personal, economic, and intellectual investment?

There are pragmatic reasons for the research. The lack of data and of historical research means that museum professionals and policy makers do not have a clear idea of when or where the independent museum sector emerged in the UK, or how it has changed. There is no long-term information on patterns of museums opening and closing, or of their subject matter. Museum professionals who have spent their working lives in a particular region, have been involved with the Area Museums Councils, or with a special interest group, may have a good grasp of the museums in their locale or remit, but their knowledge is not always documented or relayed. In consequence, younger staff charged with supporting museums or staff who are responsible for making decisions about funding may not always have a clear overview of the sector. By compiling a dataset of museums, and modelling trends, this project has the potential to inform museum policy and funding at a national level.

There are also historical reasons for mapping museums in the UK. The museums boom of the 1970s and 1980s (or possibly 1990s) is generally considered to be one of the most significant cultural phenomena of the late twentieth century and yet we know very little about it. Commentators of the time generally linked the rising number of museums to the conservative administration led by Margaret Thatcher, to the economic policy of the time, and to consequent de-industrialisation. This led to the wave of new museums being characterised as entrepreneurial, nostalgic, and often as politically reactionary, but there is very little evidence to substantiate those claims. It might be that many of the new museums were dedicated to rural life and were coterminous with the industrialisation of farming, or they may have focused on religion, or writers, or teddy bears. The Mapping Museums research will enable researchers to revisit the museums boom, and potentially to recast the museums of that period.

For me, though, the main point of the project is linked to who established independent museums and to the people still running them. Museums are generally discussed in relation to the national or public sector, while curation and other forms of museum work are understood to be specialised professional roles. And yet, in 1983 the Museums and Libraries Council commented that most of these new, small enterprises had ‘been set up in an initial wave of enthusiasm and volunteer effort’, and my initial research suggested that the vast majority were founded by private individuals, families, businesses, special interest and community groups. It is likely that amateurs drove the expansion of the museum sector. In identifying these venues and in documenting the work of the founders and volunteers, the Mapping Museums project will show how the recent history of museums was a grass-roots endeavour, or as Raphael Samuels put it, ‘the work of a thousand hands’.

©Fiona Candlin September 2017



Research Process

Not Knowing About Museums

There is a lot that we don’t know about museums. In an age when it is possible to download an institution’s annual reports and follow their exhibitions and events via social media, it seems unlikely that academics, museum professionals, and the museum-going public would be so uninformed about the recent history, characteristics, and scope of the sector. That situation seems doubly unlikely if we note the growth of audit culture, in which public venues are required to account for themselves to taxpayers and policy-makers, and trebly so when we consider the vast scholarship on museums. And yet it is the case. This situation is not limited to museums in developing nations. It equally applies to America and Western Europe. Granted, these areas contain tens of thousands of museums, but even at the smaller scale of the UK, which is the focus of this research, our overview of museums is remarkably sketchy.

We do know that the number of museums boomed in the late twentieth century. In 1960, the Standing Commission for Museums and Galleries took a census and listed some 896 museums. When the same commission took a census a decade later they reported that there were over 1,000 museums and, sounding somewhat anxious, they commented that there were no controls on their formation. No such restrictions were introduced and the number of museums continued to rise. The 1978 Standing Commission described the ‘sheer proliferation’ and ‘bewildering fecundity’ of the sector and, in the mid-1980s commentators started declaring that museums were opening at the rate of one a fortnight, and then one a week, or even three a week. By 1986 government reports placed the number of museums between 2000 and 2,300, although one survey thought it might be as high as 3,500. The official total subsequently inched to around 2,500 and, according to the Museums Association, that figure has remained more or less stable. At the very least, the number of museums has increased by around 180%.

We also know that the vast majority of those museums were independent, in that they did not receive direct funding from the state. In 1960 when the Standing Commission conducted its survey, around 300 museums were independently managed, about one third of the total, whereas in 1986 that statistic was more or less reversed, with around 1800 of a total 2,300 museums being independent, the remainder being national, local authority, university or regimental museums. This made them the single biggest type of museum within the sector.

The boom in the number of museums was and is recognized as a cultural phenomenon, but beyond the rising numbers and the fact that the majority of the museums were independent organisations, we have very little information about it. We don’t know exactly where the new museums opened within the UK, or when, or what subject matter they covered. Nor do we know if these new museums survived, or when they closed, or how many new museums opened: There may be around 2,500 museums but it is entirely possible that hundreds have closed and hundreds have opened in the past few decades.

Now I confess, that when I first realized that there was relatively little information on the development of the museum sector, I judged it to be little more than an inconvenience. At the time I was working on my book Micromuseology: an analysis of small independent museums and I was wholly uninterested in the specifics of whether there were more museums in the English Midlands than in the Scottish Highlands, or how many museums were devoted to hats as opposed to trains. That seemed like bean counting, a quantitative exercise that would reveal nothing of substantial interest about the sector. It took some time before I realized quite how wrong I was. Having this information would enable me to write new and very different histories of museums in the UK, and to begin to understand how the sector had changed. More than that, it would allow me rethink dominant preconceptions about the location and production of culture in Britain. Once I realised what the information would enable I started to wonder if it could be compiled, and is so, how. Over the following year I began to plan the Mapping Museum project, which eventually gained funding in June 2016 and was launched in the October of that year.

Over the next few blog posts I’ll explain a little about why the data was missing and how the Mapping team has begun to compile a dataset of all museums that opened (and closed) in the UK between 1960 and 2020.


©Fiona Candlin May 2017