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  • Writer's pictureLondon Museums Group Team

Luton: A Right Old Royal Town

Originally posted on 1 Nov 2011 #LMGBlogArchive #LMGBlogArchiveProject

Last summer I ventured from Wimbledon to Luton on the Thameslink train. It chugged its way there, stopping at many stops before reaching its final destination.  Visions what I would encounter when I arrived awoke curiosity.  I was to meet the archaeologist Tim Vickers at the Wardown Park Museum to talk about the innovative use of objects in an archaeological collection. Until August 2011 Tim’s job title was Archaeologist, but in a recent restructuring he was renamed Collections Care Officer.  I wanted to talk to Tim about Wardown Park Museum’s successful bid to the Museums Association’s Effective Collections Fund to undergo a specialist review of their large archaeological collection (approximately 150,000 objects) to establish new ways of improving physical access and engagement. Currently 3000 objects are on permanent display.

The entrance to Wardown Park Museum
The entrance to Wardown Park Museum

When we applied, we were coming from a Luton perspective.  Luton doesn’t have the best reputation externally.  It is in the news for all the wrong kinds of things.  Most people don’t realize that Luton had the largest Manor in the Doomsday Book.  It was a Royal Manor from at least the 10th Century. When William the Conqueror invaded, Leighton Buzzard, Houghton Regis, and Luton were all Royal Manors.  You can tell where the army went through the area because if you compare the taxable incomes in the Domesday Book with tax records from Edward the Confessor for Luton, Houghton Regis, Leighton Buzzard and other manors in Bedfordshire, the tax revenues stayed the same. Elsewhere they decreased a lot because the army went through and basically ransacked everything.  We also have the Luton Guild Register [15th /16th Century], which is on display here [see picture] and was the largest guild or one of the largest in the country. We’ve got archaeological collections, which go back 470,000 years.

Image of The Guild by kind permission of Luton Culture
Image of The Guild by kind permission of Luton Culture

We started to think: how could we have a more personal and direct interaction using the collection locally?  Approximately 15% of the collection is from the Luton area. So how could we use this to reach out to all different groups: school groups, community groups to archaeological societies? And what objects do we have that actually opens up new possibilities?

I think that if people have a good sense of pride in where they live, a sense of heritage, history and tradition, that they actually feel more positive about the present.’

What would I discover on my visit?  Early conversations with Tim had made me think about the importance of a sense of a place to people in a community and how a museum and its collections can be an important part of this process.  Tim was already utilising his collection in many ways with the local community and I couldn’t wait to talk to him about this and the ideas and recommendations from the collections review.  How was an archaeological collection being used to create a sense of place, ‘a sense of pride in where [people] live’?  Tim trained in archaeology and anthropology and worked as a digger for the Cambridge Archeological Unit before arriving at Wardown Park Museum in 2007. His approach to objects is to use them to develop projects with colleagues and get them out of the cupboards, store etc:

‘I really enjoyed the digging and finding the objects but wasn’t interested in the rat race.  The passion I have is how to use objects in an experimental way through access and education.  It’s getting involved, breaking the boundaries between you, the curator – a stuffy person who sits in an office looking at objects – and the people who go out and teach about it’.

How can a museum create ‘a sense of place’ and why is that important?  This blog focuses on how a museum can function as a ‘place’ that is used by local residents as part of their everyday life, a ‘place’ where conversations, debates, and events take place in a safe environment and where shelter can be sought on a rainy day! Through all of these experiences the people visiting the museum have the opportunity to take part in activities to meet their neighbours and others from their community they may not meet on a day-to-day basis.  Recently I’ve noticed a few adverts for example: West Berkshire Newbury Museum redevelopment consultation; Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames Council job advert for a Learning Engagement Officer and project officer roles at the University of Reading; with ‘the sense of place’ being an integral part of projects or museum strategy.

But what is this ‘sense of place’ that museums are trying to achieve? If we look at artist and writer Lucy R. Lippard’s description of the book ‘In Lure of the Local’

‘this book is concerned not with the history of nature and the landscape but with the historical narrative as it is written in the landscape or place by the people who live or lived there.  The intersections of nature, culture, history, and ideology form the ground on which we stand – our land, our place, the local.  The lure of the local is the pull of place that operates on each of us, exposing our politics and our spiritual legacies.  It is the geographical component of the psychological need to belong somewhere, one antidote to a prevailing alienation.  The lure of the local is that undertone to modern life that connects it to the past we know so little and the future we are aimlessly concocting….These days the notion of the local is attractive to many who have never really experienced it, who may or may not be willing to take the responsibility and study the local knowledge that distinguishes every place from every other place.’

Lucy R. Lippard, page 7, The Lure of the Local:  Senses of Place in a Multicentred Society. 1997. The New Press, New York.

We can begin to see that the relationships between space, environment and human interaction is part of everyday life and key to understanding ones role and function in society.  Lippard talks about movement in ones life, how human nomads meet humans who have never moved, yet these relationships create and develop an understanding of place, a way of learning about others and creating an understanding of our environment and society. The museum is not only a container of objects of human movement, human stillness, past and present but an environment and an object for human discourse. What role has the Wardown Park Museum in connecting space, environment and human interaction?

To prepare for my interview with Tim Vickers and try and find human narratives of Wardown Park Museum I had contacted a close friend, Adam Huszcza, who grew up in Luton and visits his mum and dad in Luton regularly to ask him about his memories of the Museum.  Adam kindly set up a Facebook page for all of his Luton contacts to post their memories too.  This was a lighthearted way to investigate how a museum and its objects can play a role in a person’s ‘a sense of place’.  Here are a few quotes:

I visited often when I was little. The old waxy lady in black with white apron (I think she was lace-making) was the biggest draw as a child – we all swore we saw her move! As a teen I loved the archaeology – the finds from the local area. In adulthood I’ve only visited when there’s been an art exhibition on. My children are 9, 17 and 20 and all have fond memories too. The skeleton, the war area and sweet shop areas are favourites for them ( :-). Sue Palmer, Facebook comment 11’

During the teachers strikes in the 80s we used to go to the museum most lunchtimes. It was a very cold winter and the museum was warm. We used to sit in the TV theatre watching the history of hat making while eating our sandwiches. Also ever since I was a small child, the old lace maker scared the life out of me. Did she move?? Michelle Meenan Facebook comment 11’

Hi, I remember the two graves of the dog and cat that used to live at the house when it was privately owned (before it eventually became the museum). I think they were called Toss and Sandy? There were two headstones across from the lawn near where the crazy golf was, with their names and dates on. It’s been years since I’ve been there (live in New Zealand now), but you’ve made me think of them again! I wonder if they’re still there?? Probably worn down quite a bit if they are. My biggest memory is of the lace-making lady too, and the art/model gallery where you could walk along the creaky ramp, push the buttons and watch each of the model villages light up! The bees too were a favourite. Happy days! Laura Cummings Facebook comment 11’

These short stories of experiences and memories of the Museum show how:

  • Visiting has changed for the visitor as a child to a mother, but the memories are still there, and the Museum is a central part of growing up, not only a place to visit as a child but also as an adult with next generations.

  • Archaeology and the connection to the local area are fondly remembered as well as the Lace Lady. 

  • A specific object and its story can stay in a person’s memory and draws on many human interactions: What story did the Lace Lady tell?  Why was she so alluring, or spookily alluring? 

  • The environment and warmth of the Museum is also pointed out here, and placed within a political context of the strikes in the 80s when most of us of a certain age had to leave the school premises and have lunch elsewhere. Wardown Park Museum in this instance became a guardian to those school children eating their packed lunch in a cold winter. 

  • The traveller to New Zealand has warm happy memories of many experiences and visits – ‘Happy days!’

Again it can be seen that objects in the museum, human movement and the museum as an object itself all play a part in ‘a sense of place’ through memories that link humans to others and create connections, from the past to the present.  How can the Museum provide ‘a sense of place’ in this time of constant change economically and politically?

A quote from Marc Auge’s book Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity starts to unpick how an architectural object like a museum can have a role in time and a ‘sense of place’ in relation to the future:

‘…architecture seems to allude to a planetary society that is yet to materialize.  It suggests the brilliant fragments of a splintered utopia in which we would believe, a society of transparency.  It sketches something that is of the order of utopia and at the same time the order of allusion by drawing in broad strokes a time that has not yet arrived, that will perhaps never arrive, but that remains within the realms of the possible.  In this sense, large-scale contemporary urban architecture reproduces in reverse the relation with time expressed by the spectacle of ruin.  What we perceive in ruins is the impossibility of imagining completely what they would have represented to those who saw them before they crumbled.  They speak not of history but of time, pure time.

What is true of the past is perhaps also true of the future.  To perceive pure time is to grasp in the present a lack that structures the present moment by orientating it towards the past or the future.  It arises equally well from the sight of the Acropolis or of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.  Both structures have an allusive existence.  So it can happen that architecture, against the grain of the current dominant ideology of which it is part, seems to restore the meaning of time to us and speak to us of the future.

Marc, Auge, Introduction. Page xvi – xvii, Non Places: an introduction to supermodernity, Verso, London, New York, Second Edition 2008. First published by Verso in 1995. 

The essence of being able to draw the links of time – past present and future – through a museum linking humans, objects in the museum and the museum itself is one that Wardown Park Museum’s display ‘Life in Ancient Greece’ demonstrates, bringing the concept ‘a sense of place’ to life.  The objects in the exhibition are on loan from the British Museum and are on the theme of Greeks, Athletes and Warriors.  The exhibition panels were written to compliment the school curriculum and  ‘so they related to the Luton audience.  The Greeks weren’t in Luton – so why are we doing an exhibition on them? The exhibition is about democracy, music, war, heroes and myth.  We also put some contemporary reference points in around XFactor and Pop Idol which I am proud of. And rather than the labels reading ‘this is a pot dating from such and such’ it was more of a case of asking the viewer ‘can you see this or can you find this?’  We’re trying to engage people more with the labels.  If people want more detailed information this is available in the catalogue. The image below shows the text from one of the exhibition panels, taking the viewer on a journey from the objects on display to the object of the Museum itself.  The concept of taking the viewer from the past, to the present through contemporary reference points and themes and then linking this to the actual physical Museum creates ‘a sense of place’ experience which hopefully will be taken away, remembered and passed on.

This approach is taken out on the road in experimental archaeology programmes run by the museum.

‘Youngsters who took part in gifted and talented summer schools programmes at the Museum really liked archaeology.  They wanted to actually dig a test pit, get their hands dirty, not just have a talk, so we organized a test pit project in an area of Luton where the 1842 map showed a road and a bridge over the River Lea.  Then they dug a little trench across the existing road through the old road surface and took part in some experimental archaeology.  At the end they did a little show and tell to their parents.  We’ve been repeating this format at different locations around the town.  Families that were keen would have all of their children attend the summer school.  One family came from Sri Lanka. We were at Fallowfield and the mother said ‘wow, you know, we can’t believe that there’s something so old. It’s 160 years old [the tithe map road dating to 1842) in a 1930s town estate (this was how old she thought Luton was). It just so happened that the top of a thatched 14th Century building could also be seen from where we were standing, the Moat House, which is like a moated manor house.  I replied ‘that building there, that’s around 1315’.  ‘Wow’ she replied ‘amazing’ and you could see all of sudden her sense of that place, the perception that Luton has only been around since the 1930s, had changed.’

Let’s look now at the human story within the Museum stating with Tim’s everyday objects that arrive:

Tim with a new object to investigate
Tim with a new object to investigate

‘Well no day’s ever the same.  Someone brought this, an object [see picture] they found whilst metal detecting and they would like it to be identified.  It’s like a Roman little intaglio.  It would have a god in the middle and there would have been a ring or something similar on it.  Managing volunteers is a big part of my job and running the archaeological group and I try to find time and keep up to date by reading material in the library.  At the moment I am organising a trip to the British Museum for the archaeological group volunteers and I also run the local art competition because it’s a real community project.  My friends always joke: what did you do today? And I’ll say mm what did I do today? It’s a good question as it is not a monotonous job at all and my day is very varied really.’

Tim works with objects from the past, responds to everyday unforeseen circumstances in the present and plans projects to take place in the future.  His role within the Museum is fluid while the museum sits within a more complicated structure.  Luton Culture is a trust, governed by a Board of Trustees, made up of Councillors, and the Leader. The Council distributes the funding to the Trust and provides human resources and information management as part of a service agreement.  A Luton Heritage Forum was set up to provide ‘an independent critical inclusive voice for what the Council does in terms of heritage’. There’s recently been a restructuring of roles where specialisms as ‘community history curator’, rural trades curator’ are now  ‘local collections curator’ and ‘significant collections curator’.  Tim Vickers’s title changing from Archaeologist to Collections Care Officer reflects Tim’s passion for objects in all of the collections ‘I can get involved with anything archaeological that happens in the borough.  The structure here at the Museum gives you a lot of flexibility to be creative and develop ideas. The Effective Collections assessment of the archaeological collection has given us a nice foundation to actually see what further work we can do with our collections.  Before the application for the funding, I was thinking of ways to make better use of the collections so that people in Luton could find out what’s going on locally through objects.’

The Effective Collections evaluation of the collection has encouraged Tim Vickers and his colleagues to work in new ways with objects in their collection, enabling access to the many objects that are in storage. Don Henson, Former Head of Education at the Council for British Archaeology, was recruited to evaluate the archaeological collection – some 150,000 objects – and, using Bloom’s constructive theory of accessing objects, recommend effective ways to utilise the collection.  Luton has very close links with teachers in the borough. There is a curriculum network group for art, and literacy and geography that meets regularly to discuss what’s happening in the curriculum and how the Museum’s collections can be used as learning tools.  As a result,  Tim Vickers and his team have produced resource packs for schools, the i idea being that these learning resource tools can be used for other collections.  The Effective Collections project has meant that I am working with the education team a lot more closely which is good.  We have conversations about handling – about using real things rather than replicas.  My approach is,‘well it’s going to be in boxes for 50 years, so it’s worth taking a managed risk with the objects. When you assess the risk you generally see that things can be used. Archaeologists, we can get a little bit, you know, another piece of a pot, another piece of flint… but to see someone else’s reaction when you say oh yes, this is5,000 years old’ and the say ‘WOW, 5,000 years old!’ It does actually make a big difference when people touch the real thing.’

Tim holding a medieval pottery pilgrim bottle
Tim holding a medieval pottery pilgrim bottle

Found under the National Westminster Bank, George Street, Luton. It is also the first object to be accessioned into the Museums collection.

Handling objects is a key learning tool that the Museum embraces.  Above Tim is showing me one of many objects that have recently been catalogued by a PhD student but stay in the store for most of their life.  The story around the object above is keen to be told and accessed and here Tim talks about again the psychological drawing of: object, past, present, future, and ‘a sense of place’:

‘Getting your hands on material, getting your hands on objects and appreciating it is really important.  If you understand where you are from then actually it can you help you look at the future.  We use objects to start positive conversations about the area with youngsters who are growing up here and this works across the board with a lot of people who visit the Museum.

We now have a monthly young archaeology group. We see it more as a museum club that has evolved from the archaeology summer school.  We’ve got 20 members and it’s free and we all meet one Saturday every month 11am until 1.00pm.  We are now at the stage where people bring their friends and brothers and sisters of members join when they are old enough. The age group is 8 to 16, we’ve got some who are 8 and the eldest is about 14/15.

We always learn about an archaeological technique.  It’s not just about making things or playing with dough.  We always try to do experimental archaeology, something active; aerial photography, covering an object with soil and planting cress seeds to see you could get crop marks.

One group member who was 10 was really struggling at school, struggling to communicate and concentrate and was getting into trouble and at risk of being expelled or punished.  By coming to the club, enjoying it and being with others gaining social skills, the group member is now really keen on education and learning again and is enjoying being back in school.’ 

The work that goes on at Luton’s Wardown Park Museum and the passion its officers and curators have in utilising their objects to communicate with their community in a wide context is commendable. They have created a a Museum that contributes to local people’s ‘sense of place’ and touches on the idea of social responsibility of Museums.

In 2008, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation commissioned a viewpoint report: Can Museums be a potent force in social and urban regeneration?  Some fascinating case studies are included, I copy a couple of the key points below:

Museums are seen as cultural spaces of mutual understanding and cohesion where cultural identity can be developed. This may be driven by museum professionals or communities. Such identities may reflect previously unacknowledged histories or more recent social change such as migration or post-industrialisation.

Remaining challenges include: convincing other agencies of museums’ role in tackling social change; reflecting the speed of social change, which may require adapting complex organizational structures; acknowledging concerns about traditional curatorial remits; exploring legitimate areas that some still feel too sensitive for social history; addressing the physical accessibility of older museums.

Simon Tait, Can Museums be a potent force in social and urban regeneration? September 2008. Viewpoint. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Should we now start capturing the ‘evidence’ of the Museum as place to create ‘a sense of place’ to assist with ‘social regeneration’?  Is this part of the function of the Museum in 2011…?

Where are we?

To end this blog on a light-hearted note I attach here a picture here of Adam and I after the visit to the Wardown Park Museum in Luton.  We took this picture and posted it on Facebook to ask: where are we?  As it looked like we could have been in New York, Leeds or Luton?  A journey of human movement:  The Luton Town Hall in the background looks very much like St James’ Hospital in Leeds where Adam used to live and I used to go to University.  Adam regularly visits his parents who moved to Luton from Poland in the 1950s.

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