Challenge Dan: Getting to grips with history at Shropshire Museums' Collections Centre
Our region is blessed with a plethora of great attractions that are fun for all the family. But, when taking on the challenge of finding a day out with a difference that was both fun and educational, a particular hidden gem caught my eye.
Based in Ludlow, Shropshire Museums’ Collections Centre offers anyone with a curiosity for history the chance to get behind the scenes with some of the region’s greatest treasures and up-close to historical artefacts that aren’t currently on show in the county’s museums. “This is really the heart of the museum service for Shropshire,” said curator Emma-Kate Lanyon, as I began my tour. “It’s here that we store all of the collections that aren’t on display. We allow people to come and have a look at those collections, and it’s where we do all the collections care – recording, photographing and conservation work.”
This place was a true Aladdin’s Cave of heritage, and I was itching to explore it in earnest. With Emma-Kate as my guide, a wonderful afternoon of discovery was surely on the cards. With a skip in my step, I was taken to the first of the collection centre’s many stores – Natural Sciences.
The Natural Sciences Store
“This and our geology store are really the foundation collections for the museum service,” said Emma-Kate. “In this store we’ve got collections of pressed plants, we’ve got butterfly and moth collections, and we’ve got a huge quantity of taxidermy as well.”
Exploring the wonders of the Natural Sciences Store was fascinating, and for anybody with an interest in the history of nature it would have been nothing less than paradise. The sheer quantity of enchanting items was breathtaking, and the numerous taxidermy pieces were incredible; an insight into the historical interest of a past age, and a window into an amazing skill. It would have been easy to have got happily lost among the various birds and beasts that could be seen, but the collections centre had far more to appreciate. It was soon time to check out the Geology Store, and some of its gargantuan guests...
The Geology Store
“This is one of our most important collections,” said Emma-Kate as we entered the next impressive room and met its most famous residents. “One of the most interesting finds from the county is of course the Shropshire mammoths. These poor creatures, which were some of the last mammoths to live in what is now the British Isles, got stuck in a pool of sticky mud. As the glaciers were melting it was leaving all these wet areas where it was lovely lush grass to feed on, but very sticky mud to get out of!”
Being up-close with the mammoth bones was a real treat, and the little boy in me couldn’t help but grin at being so near to the remains of these fantastic prehistoric beasts.
“Size-wise they’re equivalent really to a modern-day elephant,” Emma-Kate told me. “We know the male was just coming in to full size. He had had quite an interesting life. He had damage to one of his shoulder blades, so he’d obviously been in a fight! They’re really important for science because because they got trapped and buried in this peat that wasn’t full of oxygen, the bones were preserved and survived until today.”
A true treat for youngsters and older visitors alike, the mammoths were the showpiece of the geology store. But the collections centre had many more delights still to come...
The Costume Centre
For anybody with a passion for fashion through the ages, this store is a delicious wonder that you would never want to leave.
“We’ve got 200 years plus of fashion and history in this store, ranging from Queen Victoria’s stockings right up to teddy boy outfits,” said Emma-Kate as we made our way through the rows of fabulous apparel. “It gives you a wonderful idea of how people have dressed in the county over the years, and it just gives you a real kind of close relationship with people. One thing that stood out for me was cataloguing a Victorian wedding dress just before I got married. It’s those poignant things that make you feel that you’ve got that connection with the past.”
I have to confess to have been itching to try a few pieces on, particularly the old military uniforms. Though, restraining myself and playing by the rules, I was happy to simply marvel at the many outfits that yielded such a wonderful insight into the past, and, as Emma-Kate said, made me feel so close to the people of ages gone by. My enjoyment of history had gone into overdrive, but there was still more to discover...
The Archaeology Lab
In the centre’s archaeology lab, collections project officer Katie Miller was hard at work. In this fascinating section of the collections centre, volunteers can assist with documenting, researching and packing Shropshire’s archaeology collection – truly getting into the work behind bringing history to the public. “We are a publicly accessible laboratory,” said Katie. “We’re basically giving people a chance to get hands-on with their history, working with collections that range anywhere from pre-history all the way to the Industrial Revolution, and also gaining skills in databasing and photography, as well as researching. We do drop-in sessions that people can come to most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Not only do they get to learn about all this wonderful stuff, we hope they get to learn a new skill as well.”
Getting a close-up glimpse at a number of Roman pieces from Wroxeter (once Roman Britain’s fourth-largest town) I was positively in heaven, and learning about the work that goes into these archaeological finds following their discovery was a wonderful and enriching way to end one of the most interesting afternoons I’d had in a long time.
The rest is history
As solid days out go, the Shropshire Museums’ Collections Centre gets top marks from me. A truly fascinating learning experience that celebrates the joy of history to the fullest, it is a gem of the region that can, and should, be enjoyed by all.
“One of the great things about coming on a store tour is that you get to be really close-up with this stuff; you can smell it, touch it, and then really feel a connection with it,” said Emma-Kate. “All the details are on our website, and it’s just a case of arranging a date with us. You can either just have a look in the stores or we can get some stuff out for you to look at. There’s a whole range of options that we have available and it’s used by everyone from primary school groups to just groups of like-minded adults that want to have an interesting afternoon.”
For more information, visit www.shropshiremuseums.org.uk