Museum Review: Melton Carnegie Museum

Yesterday I found myself in Melton Mowbray, on a mission to find the perfect pork pie (and this is where they can be had!). While there, I thought I should have a quick look at the town's museum. I was impressed; for a tiny local museum, just four (small) galleries and a shop and a reception desk, the displays were engaging and well-designed, employing various different techniques (interpretive, interactive and design) to reach diverse audiences.

The museum has clearly been redeveloped as a whole entity, which means that design and interpretive styles are consistent across all the galleries, in contrast with the rather piecemeal approach of many small, local authority museums.

The first gallery looks at the production of the town's most famous exports: pork pies and stilton cheese, as well as the saddlery industry. The displays take the form of shop and workshop reconstructions, but really benefit from an imaginative use of screen-printed hangings (featuring blown-up black and white archive photographs), which lend a sense of intimacy (as if one is peeking 'round the door), while maintaining accessibility. As well as, perhaps unintentionally, being reminiscent of that wobbly-screen device to denote 'going back in time' that's become such a television cliche. Sadly, the photograph doesn't do this feature justice.

The second gallery looks at the development of the town, from the earliest times to the present day. It's housed in a very small space, and so the narrative is necessarily brief, but it picks out the 'highlights' of Melton's history and cultural identity. One aspect which features particularly heavily (unsurprisingly with the knowledge that an interest group is one of the museum's key funding sources) throughout the museum, is the local hunt. That kind of thing isn't really my cup of tea, but it was interesting to note that the phrase 'paint the town red' originates in the town.

Also featured was, apparently, a long popular object in the museum's collection, which has, over the years, achieved some notoriety in the town, even being displayed in a peep show to raise money for the war effort: a stuffed two-headed calf, born in Melton at the turn of the last century. Poor thing.

A temporary display on the subject of the women's suffrage movement is currently on display. All very professionally done, but virtually entirely text-driven, which would tax even the most interested of visitors (and I'm including myself in that category!). Given that it was curated by the local records office, the reliance on the written word is hardly surprising.
The final gallery is devoted to the local hunt. As I've already hinted, I - personally - find the whole concept of fox hunting utterly repellent and, quite frankly, reprehensible (and before anyone accuses me of being a namby-pamby townie, I'd like to point out that I'm a country girl, if not born, most definitely bred!). I did, therefore, refuse to look around the display. But my visiting companion assures me that visitors were invited to leave comments about how they feel about hunting. What is then done with the comments, if anything, I'm not sure.
Overall, Melton Carnegie Museum is, in my opinion, well worth a visit. It's a very small museum, but the displays are very well done and exceed all expectations. The focus on hunting aside, I would give it four out of five stars, not least because it is a brilliant example of what a local museum can be, given a bit of time, money and imagination.


Ceri said…
Very nice review and I was surprised to see the two headed calf, for some reason I got it into my head it was in a jar! Thank goodness it looks more like a stuffed teddy.

As for hunting, I know it is an activity I totally disagree with yet I would be interested to see how the museum had presented it. As a challenging subject it goes beyond for me the cosy nostalgic glow that tends to characterise these local museums, finally something to present a challenge to the idea that everything in the countryside is rosy and quaint - or should become a curiosity like the two headed calf thing.
Amy said…
Interestingly, there's an article about the Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature (The Museum of Hunting and Nature) in Paris, in the latest issue of Museum Practice.

I really dislike the connection between hunting and the countyside in the popular imagination. And that's largely the fault of organisations like the Countryside Alliance, which - incidentally - started out as a pressure group to combat rural poverty and call for improvements in infrastructure and services, which was later highjacked by the fox hunting brigade, whom I might add are usually Hooray Henrys and Chelsea Farmers who have about as much connection with the countryside as...well...I can't think of anything suitably witty at the moment, but you get my drift!

I'm not saying hunting shouldn't be presented and discussed in a museum environment, but I have concerns when it becomes the public face of a pro-hunting organisation.

As an aside, the juxtaposition of 'Hunting' and 'Nature' in the name of the Paris museum is very telling. Like, somehow, pretending that hunting is a natural pursuit makes it okay. As if blasting birds out of the sky in a hail of gunshot, or goading dogs to tear foxes and hares apart limb by limb is 'natural'. I'd better stop now before I say something really inflammatory! ;)

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