A Tale of Two Lions

Review of Clifton Park Museum in Rotherham and Weston Park Museum in Sheffield

You would be forgiven for thinking that you were experiencing deja vu if you visited Clifton Park Museum in Rotherham and Weston Park Museum in Sheffield on the same day, as I did. Not only are both museums just outside the town centre of each respective city, but both cover local history as well as having wider collections, both have been the subject of millions of pounds in restoration, both are set in the grounds of a lovely park and both have a stuffed lion on display! I was intrigued to see how each museum dealt with a similar subject matter and was relieved to see that they were both quite different, and well worth a visit to each (although maybe not on the same day... I was a bit 'museumed out' by the end!)

First I went to Clifton Park Museum, former home of the Walker family who made their money from steel (if you are not aware, Sheffield and the surrounding area are very famous for making steel before the industry was scaled down in the 1980s and 1990s). The house and grounds were left to the town and are preserved as a public park, which looked very attractive in the sunshine. The museum re-opened a couple of years ago after major renovation work and although I was not familiar with the museum before, I found the present museum very appealing. It is first and foremost a museum but they have also kept some semblance of its use as a family home; so in the dining room the table was all laid out with plates and cutlery (made in Sheffield of course) and several portraits of the family on the walls. Very minimal but enough to give you an impression of who once lived there, helped by the 'House Detective' posters which encourage visitors to think about how the room may have appeared when it was lived in.
The presentation of the exhibits was pretty traditional with everything in glass cases and neatly labelled, with some interactives to keep the children happy. However what impressed me most about the museum was the interpretation. The labels were very informative, telling stories where possible about the object and how it had come to be in the museum. There was an entire room (the Library) which talked about why the museum existed, what it was going to tell us about history and why, which to my mind is incredibly rare. The labels were also honest if they did not know what an object was, again it was less of the 'authoritative' voice of the curator and with a couple of objects in the twentieth century galleries they even asked if anyone could help identify a couple of objects. I found this approach very refreshing; after all most of the collections were very familiar to most local history museums (domestic, industrial revolution, clothes, furniture...) but with the approach taken I felt I knew something of who might have owned the object and why it was important. There was also a room of local children's work based on one of the paintings in the museum and it was pleasing to see that it was treated as specially as the permanent collections. My only reservation/gripe is that despite the reference to people moving into the area during the Industrial Revolution, and comparing it to immigration today, there was little evidence of the different cultures and ethnic groups who live in contemporary Rotherham on display. However, the museum did profess a commitment to contemporary collecting (a display of mobile phones was illuminating) so perhaps we can see more about that in the future.
And what of the lion? Well he was stuck behind glass but I was interested to learn that 'Nelson' as he is called, may have been one of the models for the lions in Trafalgar Square which made him suddenly very glamourous (probably why he has a room all to himself). He was in much better condition than the stuffed bear in the room next to him who had been trotted out to school children for many decades and looked a bit worn and sorry for himself.
I left Rotherham feeling that here was a little gem of a museum tucked away which I wanted to tell people about. Speaking to a friend later, he had not even known it was there despite living close to Rotherham all his life so hopefully I will have encouraged him to visit. Not that the place was empty, in fact it was very lively and most unlike the stuffy, tomb-like image that museums have thank goodness!

Weston Park Museum is much grander than Clifton Park, as you might see from the photograph. However it is also no longer a stuffy mausoleum to random objects as it once used to be (as a student I used to visit quite a lot as the main University campus is only down the road). Now it is very PINK and has lots of light wooden floorboards and high ceilings painted white which give it a very different, spacious and welcoming atmosphere. I must admit to liking the museum when it was a gloomy jumble of things Sheffield and non-Sheffield but I also like the renovation. It is definitely £19m well spent.

So what do the people of Sheffield get for all that money from the HLF? Well, apart from the cosmetic enhancements to the building, they get a vibrant and thematically arranged museum which covers the local history of Sheffield, natural history collections, treasures, and art. Developed with learning in mind, the collections have been arranged so that visitors are asked questions and there are many interactives to engage children (and adults of course) and good use of multi-media techniques such as video and models that you can get close to. Weston Park has always been a museum so there is not the same intimate atmosphere as at Clifton Park, neither were the labels and interpretation quite so open about the museum's role in shaping what we see. Yet neither was the museum a traditional temple to culture; each gallery had artwork made by local community groups displayed next to the actual collections which inspired them, treated as though they are of the same value. There is the sense that the people of Sheffield are part of the museum, as much as the museum is part of Sheffield.
There are imaginative uses for seemingly un-connected objects; putting the most 'precious' together in the Treasures gallery is inspired as a Native American ghost warrior shirt can sit comfortably next to an Egyptian mummy and decorative helmets. The natural history gallery has the usual stuffed animals but displayed in novel ways; for example a reconstruction of a kitchen is an unexpected means of showing how many parasites and insects (yuck) there are around the house! There is also a living ant farm and bee colony; hours can be spent watching the bees fly in and ants carting about impossibly big pieces of leaf and fungus. And then there is the Sheffield lion, un-glamourously called Joey, who has been patted by so many children and adults he has lost most of his fur. Sadly I was not allowed to take a photo so you will just have to imagine a lion shape of brown leather with patches of dull yellow fur clinging to it. Getting so close to an exhibit this old (and precious) must be fairly rare so it feels quite a privilege in that respect.
However, if I have a complaint then it would be that there is far too much nostalgia in the Sheffield history gallery, particularly for the industrial areas of the city which are now lost and the hideous tower blocks of Park Hill which overlook the train station and are Grade II listed. Until this section the museum seemed fairly balanced and it would be interesting to put in multiple perspectives, perhaps from younger people who might feel differently about the changing nature of the city. For instance, the restored butcher's shop has a fascinating video about the couple who used to own it but I was the youngest person watching it; most of the onlookers were older people who remembered Attercliffe (where the shop used to be) and agreed with the sentiments expressed. However, this is a small quibble and there was more than enough to celebrate the Sheffield of 'now', not least a wall of faces which cleverly mixed ancient and medieval representations of human faces with modern photographs of the city's diverse residents. There are mirrors within the display which indicate that you, the visitor, are equally a part of Sheffield, whoever you are.

The obvious criticisms for both museums can be imagined; that they are too politically correct, that they are "dumbing-down", no longer quiet or inviting respect. However I think the vibrant and engaging displays more than make up for the potential loss of detail; what I think I will take away is that it is people who make cities what they are and these two museums celebrate that notion.


Amy said…
Thanks for this review Ceri. Makes me think I should pull myself together, get dressed and out of the house to do a review too! ;)
Ceri said…
Unless we start a 'National Visit Museums in your Pyjamas Day'? Could be fun ;)
Amy said…
Yeah, but you know me - I'd still have to do my make-up and hair before I went out the house, even if I was just wearing my PJs. ;)

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