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Arts: Why the Museum of Cambridge is a local hero

Last month, the Museum of Cambridge announced it has been awarded a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant of £210,600 to support its transformational project, Museum Making. Velvet speaks to chair of trustees Lucy Walker about what the grant means for this little Cambridge gem

It's great news that The National Lottery Heritage Fund has given you such a generous grant. Can you tell us about the project, Museum Making?

Museum Making is all about rediscovering our fabulous collections and giving everyone in Cambridge, residents and visitors, the chance to explore what we’ve got and to enjoy conversations about shared and different heritages. The objects in our collections are from Cambridge and the East Anglian fens and mainly from about 1750-1950. Although there are still many ‘local’ families in Cambridge, residents and visitors come from all over the UK, and all over the world, so our challenge is to give new life to local stories through our objects, and to find resonance with the diversity of people who live in Cambridge today. But I think you’d be surprised by just how many of us can find a connection between the objects in the museum and our own parents, grandparents and great grandparents, where ever we come from!

What difference is this money going to make to the museum and its future in Cambridge?

The museum, still known and loved by many as the Cambridge and County Folk Museum, opened in 1936 in the wonderful 16th century timber-framed building, the former White Horse Inn, where it still is today, in the heart of the ancient town. We want to re-position the museum within the wider cultural offer of Cambridge but this is quite a challenge in a city that already has eight world-class university museums and three other excellent independent museums! But we know that our museum has its own considerable and special significance, particularly in a city that is growing so fast. Clearly the National Lottery Heritage Fund has confidence in the museum, and the trustees will be using the grant as the cornerstone for future development.

You have a background in archaeology and heritage, don't you? Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your involvement in local history?

I’ve had a career in field and research archaeology in Britain and Europe for many years, and have organised and run archaeology and landscape history tours in the UK and abroad. I live in the Mill Road area and have long been intrigued by this 19th and 20th century world of small streets and rows of terraced housing. It represents the changing society of the period when so many people migrated from the countryside to the towns.After WW2 it became home to families from much further away, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, the Caribbean Islands, countries in Africa, and more. As property prices rose, the population started to change again so there are many significant stories to tell here.

I was closely involved in the Mill Road History Project, also supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, out of which grew the Mill Road History Society. We’ve been uncovering the local history of streets, buildings and places, and also personal stories through oral histories, and there is still so much to do. It’s exciting! As part of the project we built the website Capturing Cambridge which is now being hosted by the Museum of Cambridge. The site has grown hugely and includes material from all around Cambridge and from different cultural groups as well.

You're going to be displaying objects that haven't been seen in the museum for a while. What sort of things can we expect to see? Do you have a favourite object?

There are a huge number of objects in store that relate to almost every aspect of working and domestic life – from the intimate world of families at home, to the more publicly known local trades and businesses. We also have objects generously donated by the university colleges, including (one of my favourites) a superbly engineered small-industrial-scale apple peeler, for all those apple pies and crumbles that have been made for the students over the years.

We have a characterful (literally) collection of painted pub signs which we hope eventually to restore and display as part of an exhibition on the theme of Cambridge pubs, which would include, of course, our own well-stocked bar.Then there is the unique set of diaries written by the redoubtable Enid Porter, the museum’s longest-serving curator, in which she recorded oral histories and reminiscences.

As for me, my favourite object is a small brown leather suitcase containing letters sent by a soldier in Northern France in WW1 to his young wife. He wrote home more or less every day and each letter is in its original stamped envelope. They are full of promise and historically very precious so we’re hoping to get a grant to have them digitised.

All in all I think it’s fair to say that this project is going to be a genuine voyage of discovery for everyone.

You're going to be recruiting 30 community curators. That sounds very exciting! What will the role entail and what sort of volunteers are you looking for?

We’re hoping to attract volunteers from all the different communities we have in and around Cambridge. We’ll train them in curation, collections management and museum practice, and then they’ll be able to design and co-create exhibitions within the museum and also pop-up exhibitions at popular local venues around Cambridge. It is a very exciting project. The exhibitions will explore themes of storytelling, travel, and belonging, and the challenges of ‘making a museum’. We want the museum’s collections to be seen in a new light, by many new eyes and with the Cambridge community at the heart of making this happen.

The Museum of Cambridge is at 2/3 Castle Hill, Cambridge CB3 0AQ. For more information on the collections and the museum’s opening hours, and to access the Capturing Cambridge website, visit museumofcambridge.org.uk

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