The first time I tried to visit Newarke Houses Museum was the very day it closed to be refurbished. Doh! Since then I have been back twice, one a very quick run round and last Sunday 19 August, a proper visit with four other intrepid museum crawlers which will be the subject of this review.
Newarke Houses is located in enemy territory... ahem its close to De Montfort University, taking over the premises of some ancient almshouses close to Leicester Castle (or what remains of the castle). As explained above I did not have the opportunity to see it prior to its renovation with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund so I cannot make any comparisons as to what it was like before. But the new museum is certainly very smart looking with colourful text panels and well laid out rooms that seem spacious rather than cluttered.
Like dutiful visitors we followed the rooms as laid out on the map in the entrance, starting in a room which looked at travel and the diverse population of Leicester. It was good to see that visitors were encouraged to add to a map of the world, saying where they had come from. Hopefully the number of people who contribute will grow with time as it was looking a bit sparse! There were some films which looked at Leicester from the eyes of young people living here which glossed over the reality of life somewhat; the film of Highfields made no mention of the seedy side but then that's hardly a topic matter for a museum is it?
I was most engaged with the reconstruction of a drapers shop from the 1940s and Wharf Street, a reconstruction of a cobbled street with shops and dingy pub.
A place where the spirit of nostalgia seemed to work its evil spell, I found myself wishing I lived in a more simple time with no computers or mobile phones where the pub served oatmeal stout. Shaking away these evasive thoughts I instead tried to be critical about the terribly shoddy looking notices which warned people not to touch as it would set the alarms off. But even when an alarm was inadvertently set off no angry museum workers appeared so it seemed rather pointless to spoil the intricate displays with them. Still despite the prettiness of the reconstruction it seemed to be missing something.... people most of all, despite the soundtracks that made me jump. Also the ceiling was too low which spoiled the effect of 'being' outside (and I promised not to be critical, the girl can't help herself....)
I reserved most of my ire however for a film about the modern growth of Leicester which managed to be both highly patronising and historically suspect. The surroundings of the old fashioned cinema were plush and relaxing but the film... well maybe it was just me but the voiceover sounded like something out of Blue Peter and it was incredibly biased in the way that it presented the 1960s virtual demolition of the city as a positive and progressive event. Fair enough that they have chosen to present only a snippet of Leicester history in detail (the 1940s onwards in the main) for those who only a rudimentary knowledge of Leicester's history like myself I found it really irritating to have the entire 19th century dismissed as some period of poverty and slum dwelling. That's not to say that it didn't have its problems but I object to the sweeping generalisations made that serve to reinforce people's prejudices about the world and history, just as the reconstructed street probably taps into misplaced nostalgia for a time when there was apparently no crime and everyone could leave their doors open. Still I have no evidence for this and I should probably stop being so defensive but I could not help but have a bad feeling about the presentation of the past. Perhaps I have been reading too much Lowenthal!!
Upstairs the bulk of the display is linked to the First and Second World Wars and is also the new home for the Leicestershire Regiment. I must admit most of the collections here were the usual uniforms and weapons but there was a pleasing emphasis on letters and personal artefacts which helped to show that these were people as well as soldiers. Most fascinating, and the subject of much debate, was the curious tiger's head snuffbox in one room which was not only supremely ugly and distasteful, it was also on wheels! I can only imagine what larks the officers had pushing that thing around the table in the mess...
Also of interest was a small display on the home front and a reconstructed Anderson shelter to crawl into; it felt very claustrophobic so I'm glad I wasn't around during the war. But then people coped with all sorts of horror in those days so we could be here today.
The last couple of rooms were a reconstruction of living rooms from the 1950s and 1970s, and most bizarrely, a room from the 17th century! This was a bit jarring considering the bulk of the museum deals with the period 1940 to the modern day, with a small excursion into the first world war period. It gave me the sense that Newarke Houses is a bit of a leftover museum where things which do not quite fit in elsewhere can go. This is far from being negative, only seeking to endear it to me further and partly making up for the dreadful film.
Also there are some lovely gardens out the back to sit in but due to the rainstorm (which fortunately held off for our picnic in Castle Park) we were unable to appreciate the tranquility of it except looking down from the window on the staircase.
One of the museum guides assured us it was peaceful enough to imagine you were no longer in the city and, later on, walking through the cobbled streets around the castle we could understand what he meant.
As with most of the new museums I have been too recently, including Clifton Park in Rotherham and Weston Park in Sheffield, there is a similar feel to them, like the HLF are employing the same designer who fetishes stripped wood floors, bright colour palette and generally a lack of text with the emphasis on films and interactives (which of course fail to work properly). I did like the museum. It felt homely and accessible. It was enough to while away the afternoon without feeling too much 'museum fatigue.' However if I was looking to understand Leicester as a city I do not think I gleaned it from this museum; there were some interesting glimpses of it for example the interview in the 1970s living room with a family forced to move to Leicester from Uganda and the comments of people living in the city which sound horribly familar to those people today expressing anti-immigrant sentiment.
I do not feel I understand why Leicester has been so popular for immigrants, why textiles was such an important industry nor the probable devestation it caused when it collapsed. How did Leicester come to be the second wealthiest city in the world by 1936? I didn't get it and the museum raised more questions than it cared to answer. So if you are seeking history as a means of looking for the 'soul' of Leicester then I suggest that you will not find it in the museum.... instead it will be on the streets and in the minds of people around you. Perhaps it is not the museum's role to provide this but although I enjoyed the visit it left me feeling curiously empty.
(Thanks to Amy for suggesting the visit and to everyone who came, Mayra, Magnus and Naz, without whom I would have been much more disappointed :D)
The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.