Scrapbook #3

This week’s feature is from Fiona Candlin, Professor of Museology at Birkbeck, University of London. Fiona’s last book ‘Micromuseology’ was an analysis of small independent museums and included a chapter on the Bakelite Museum, which is the subject of the film featured here. She is the principal investigator on a large scale research project called ‘Mapping Museums’ which has documented museums open in the UK since 1960. It has a particular focus on the small independent museums that are often overlooked by official data. She is currently writing a book provisionally titled ‘Why so many ordinary people opened thousands of new museums’. 

The Bakelite Museum, housed for decades in drowsy Somerset, is a sprawling collection of objects made of vintage and mid-twentieth century plastics. Curated by Patrick Cook, this private museum is a place of forgotten materials, unsurpassed kitsch and a gateway to a reverie of nostalgia. But both Patrick and the museum have been living on borrowed time. Now they have no choice but to confront some uncomfortable truths about their relationship. 

During the late twentieth century there was a museums boom in the UK. The numbers of museums more than trebled rising from around 1000 in 1960 to almost 3,000 by the millennia, peaking at 3365 in 2015. There have also been numerous museum closures. Around eight hundred museums in the UK have closed since 1960, and the vast majority of those have been small independent museums or what we call micromuseums. 

Micromuseums close for all kinds of reasons. The rent on the building is increased beyond affordable limits; the original founders no longer have the capacity to run a museum or they pass away, and there is no one to take their place; there are insufficient volunteers to open the museum; or attendance is so low that the museum cannot raise enough money to pay the bills. 

If micromuseums close, they can disappear without trace. When the Mapping Museums research team were researching museums open in the UK over the past six decades, we would sometimes come across a postcard or a flyer from a museum that had long since gone. Looking for more information, we might discover a mention in an out of date guidebook or archived television programme, but it was extremely rare to find photographs or a catalogue. 

The absence of information about micromuseums – both those that closed and those that remain open – is a problem for several reasons. Almost half the museums in the UK are micromuseums. The history of UK museums is a history of museums that have been opened and run by private individuals, businesses, and most of all by community or special interest groups. It is a history of volunteering, of DIY museums, and of having your own show. If we lose sight of these museums then it’s easy to assume that museums are run by qualified museum professionals, that they adhere to normative standards, and that they usually stay open. 

It is important to document micromuseums because they often embody the concerns of specific groups at particular times and in particular places. Understanding what those concerns are is a means of understanding what people cared about. And it is important because micromuseums often construct exhibitions that have no obvious counterparts in major museums. The Bakelite Museum was a case in point because many of the artefacts were organised to create surreal juxtapositions or visual jokes. Tiny plastic living room furniture that was made for a doll’s house, including a television set, was placed on top of a television set, a dentist’s case of plastic false teeth and a clock embedded in a plastic ostrich with bendy legs were placed on a Bakelite coffin to form a memento mori, and wooden shoe- trees surrounded an electric heater evoking images of footwear being kicked off and feet warmed. 

The Mapping Museums team was keen to preserve a record of the grass roots of museum practice and to understand why so many people had chosen to open their own museums. To that end, we created a database of UK museums since 1960. We analysed that data and wrote a report that looked at trends in growth and closure of museums over that time, and we conducted interviews with the founders of over forty micromuseums. And when Patrick Cook, the founder and owner of the Bakelite Museum realised that he was going to have to close the Bakelite Museum, which he founded and owned, we asked him if we could film the process of packing the collections. He very generously agreed and we worked with the Derek Jarman Lab to make this film. 

The Bakelite Museum opened in 1985 in London and moved to Williton in Somerset in the mid 1990s. It closed in 2018 when the lease ran out on the building. Patrick spent a number of years looking for alternative accommodation but in all cases the costs proved to be prohibitively high. The huge collection of plastic radios, telephones, hairdryers, furniture, flasks, and picnic hampers is now in storage, awaiting another space.  

Further links:

Le Chant du Styrène – Alan Resnais https://vimeo.com/209229131

The Fourth Kingdom https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnvgyKwBXXQ