Local museums

31 January 2016
Ben Pentreath

I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always preferred a small local museum to the big boys. Something about the charm of the displays; the often rare survivals of cutting edge display designs which are now 30 or 40 years out of date, and so completely perfect; their celebration, by definition, of things that are somehow not quite TOP rate (because they all get sent to London), but are all the more interesting for it. Oh – and they always, without exception, contain great examples of pottery, and Victorian letterpress typography.

This Saturday Charlie and I found ourselves in Dorchester. I’ve got to be honest, we don’t normally end up in Dorchester on a Saturday morning. Given the choice we’d normally head to Bridport, or maybe just mooch around at home. Dorchester always feels a little…. sad. Don’t get me wrong. I’m attached to the place – I was born there, after all. And I guess that at least 2 days in every month I spend working on Prince Charles’s new town of Poundbury, the urban extension of Dorchester. But it’s one of those places that you might not necessarily want to potter around and lose yourself in.

Well, I had to make an emergency trip to the bank, which for various reasons took rather longer than expected and Charlie had exhausted the bookshops by the time he came back to find me. We could have jumped in the car and popped along the coast to Bridport, as per usual, but I happened to say – “C, remind me, did we ever go to the Dorset County Museum yet” and the answer was no.  So we popped in.  It’s perfect.


This is the fabulous Victorian Hall.P1070253 P1070258

I adored this photograph of wool being baled in the 19th century. Something about it reminded me of the Agricultural and Pastoral show we visited in New Zealand back in March…P1070259

Or the Locks’ seeds sheds – note the To Let sign… the firm was about to close.P1070260

This remarkable shop front is really what Bridie and I would like our shop to look like, as regular readers of the blog will know. So stunningly beautiful.P1070262

You will share my heartbreak that the same shopfront today looks like this:


Tiny fragments remain.  if you have time, or interest, read my blog from 3 or 4 years ago now – A Manifesto: In Praise of the High Street.  My heart sinks. Well done, Santander Bank.

Here is a photo of the High Street in the late 19th century, but I love the fact that the photographer is a rare enough sight to make people watch and stand still. And I love that pram.P1070265

Across the hall, one of many cases containing fine examples of English china, and a friendly slipware owl.P1070267

The Victorian Hall is a remarkable feat of cast iron engineering.P1070271

Through a corner of a display case in the Archeology gallery, we saw this beautiful painting, in oil, painted in 1933 by an artist called Norman Lupton – The Southern face of Maiden Castle, the great neolithic hill fort that rises to the south of Dorchester. It really is a beautiful painting, and perhaps demands to be better seen. It reminded me so much of Paul Nash, or Ravilious, and we can imagine the warm, breezy summer’s day when it was painted, without a hint of pretension or cleverness – but just carefully applied impasto paint.P1070275

I found a better image online:

(c) Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

but which does little to capture the chalky calm of the original.  And I found a fragment of a history of Norman Lupton on wikipedia…

brother and sister Agnes and Norman Darnton Lupton, left a substantial bequest to the Leeds Art Gallery in 1952. Norman had attended both Marlborough College and Trinity College, Cambridge and was a mechanical engineer and a successful artist. The sibling’s donation to the gallery – “one of the finest collections of English watercolours in private hands” – included works by John Sell Cotman, Thomas Girtin, and J. M. W. Turner.

I’d love to know more about him.

This is the study of Thomas Hardy, in a corner of the Hardy gallery, P1070277

And in the section devoted to William Barnes, ‘The Dorset Poet’, this beautiful poster. How ideal that the advertisement announces, at the end, that ‘THE ROOM WILL BE WELL WARMED’.

This beautiful panelled room was a gift from Tyneham, the remarkable, abandoned Ghost Village in the isle of Purbeck, which I have yet to visit but we must.P1070279 P1070280

At the front of the museum, the Weymouth Bay Pliosaur, 155 million years old.P1070281

This 1960s mural was a little cheerier.P1070284 P1070286

The museum has everything on Charlie and my tick lists; stuffed birds:P1070289

Old carts and stencilled signs:P1070291

A recreated 19th century cottage, complete with labels and a carbon water filter:P1070292 P1070293 P1070294

Completely unnecessary but perfect decoration on Pond & Son’s press, from Blandford:

And then THIS.  The Museum Society’s Library.  The most perfect, dreamy room in the whole of Dorset, perhaps. And just a step away from the High Street.P1070305 P1070306 P1070308 P1070309 P1070310

There is a wonderful, random collection of old chairs, and tucked in the bay window (but just out of sight) an enormous squashy old sofa.P1070311Iron spiral stairs lead to the first floor gallery.
P1070312 P1070313

And this is the lending book wall. Incredible. A dream.P1070314 P1070322 Is this not the best room you’ve ever seen? It is open to members only. We immediately joined the society.

I love local museums, but the Dorset County Museum must rate a little more special than many.  We made our way home, happy.

But there is a postscript. The story of the weekend does not quite end there.  Yesterday night we went to the most amazing 50th birthday party of our friend Edward Hurst, who I have certainly written about before. This was the scene in Edward and Jane’s barn for the great dinner that we were about to enjoy. It’s one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve seen in years.

UnknownAlthough we were, how can I put it, a little worse for wear this morning.

Have a great week ahead.

17 comments on this post

I love the Museum Society’s Library, it’s maintained it’s old world vibe.

The Dorchester Museum is truly a delight! The colors in the Victorian Hall look so festive. There is indeed something about that wall of books in the museum society library that puts one into kid-in-a-candy-shop mode.

Robert G’s comment below about how modernization can ruin a museum’s unique atmosphere struck me because I happen to be reading Ashley & Allegra Hicks’s 1998 book, “Design Alchemy,” in which Hicks states: “Museums around the world are being savagely purged of their original atmosphere in an effort to make them more politically correct and better ‘edutainment.’ This is one of the great tragedies of our time. The joys of discovery and of unexpected juxtapositions are vanishing forever. The hugely inspiring, chaotic displays of old…are giving way to didactic presentations that allow no room for imagination or inspiration.”

May Dorchester’s museum never face such a fate!

Charles Ward-Jacksonsays:

As a barrister I used to practice on the Western Circuit. Everyone in my chambers used to dread being sent to “Dorch” because it was so remote, but I rather looked forward to it. I would get off the train and walk to court through the town with a spring in my step, savouring the (to a Londoner) rustic charm of the place.

At the far end of the high street there is (as you would expect) a monument to Thomas Hardy. The inscription includes an elegiac reminiscence of Hardy’s to this effect: when he was young, on a summer’s day, it was possible to observe a butterfly float in from the countryside, flutter up the full length of the High Street, and disappear into the meadows beyond!


Thank you very much for the Local Museum Tour. Loved it. Interesting artist Lupton. Here’s another for your itinerary: Sidmouth. Best, Nicola


The Rotunda Museum in Scarborough,built 1829 is everything you love.I grew up a short walk away and it was my playground/education/solace .You should try and visit.


Glorious! Thank you for sharing. The museum is a treasure.

I love this and agree 100% that small museums are the best – that local is the level that matters most and that if we wish to avoid the annihilation, homogenization and commercialization of our cultural heritage – places like this matter. My Housing Our History FB site is loaded with case studies – though not so crisply presented. Great photos tell the story. Good good show!

Love this. If you are every in Santa Barbara CA you need to see our museum: We turned 100 last Sunday and that’s old for this area. Your post made me appreciate our small quaint museum!

I can’t believe I have never been to this museum, it looks wonderful, especially that library! We’re in the process of revamping my home office with some built in shelves, and whilst nothing on that scale is possible in our little Yorkshire cottage, it would be inspiring to look at. I shall certainly visit next time I am in Dorset at Easter.


I’ve spent many, many hours in Dorchester (my sister lived in a house built by Thomas Hardy) I loved wandering around the town but never came across that museum. It’s many years ago now and I have to admit the last time I went to ‘Dorch, it was rather sad. Such a beautiful part of our country though, you’ve made me yearn to visit and seek out that lovely museum. As always, a lovely post, thank you. Oh yes, dreamy barn, must have been a great atmosphere!!


I share your appreciation for small museums. One of the most fascinating and least expected ones I’ve every stumbled upon was in Caltigirone sicily. That area is known for it’s long history of making innovative pottery. Now the town is filled with potters making very traditional pieces but the museum has the most astounding collection of pieces and fragments that are ancient but many are show designs that appear fresh and contemporary as well. If by chance you go there, and like us are looking for a potter who does less traditional work, just across the road from the museum there is a dusty, open by chance, mother and son studion that gave all we were looking for a more. tiny, modigliani like creches, one beautiful reticulated artichoke in a blue/purple matte glaze. I hope you, or someone who reads this, appreciates it as we did. btw, the famous caligirone stairs are within a short walk of the museum.

Have you ever visited the Russell-Cotes museum in Bournemouth? It is quite the most extraordinary house and art collection I’ve ever visited. Decor to die for…

David Sanderssays:

Lovely old museum Ben; I also think it’s the slightly random, uncurated nature of the small museums that enchants; sometimes a big budget is not always a good thing.
Iv’e always been fascinated by earlier period shopfronts,and have small collection of old photographs (circa 1900s) of old shopfronts in Christchurch NZ – all little architectural jewels. Of course, nearly all of them have gone now, after the big earthquake.

Dear Ben,

the museum is an utter delight. My favourite local museum is the Norris Museum in that lovely market town of St Ives, Huntingdonshire. Both are worth a visit. Lincoln museum was, a few years ago, in the surviving part of the Medieval Greyfriars until, that is, they built a swanky new structure which is dubbed ‘The Collection’ All the atmosphere has gone and the friary building stands empty. A great shame.


yes, I share your heartbreak about the shop front. I certainly do.

You do make homesick! I’m laying on the sofa, whippet asleep between my knees, wishing and … you’re right about that last photograph, it really must have been breathtaking to walk into that large candlelit room. I saw the photograph on your instagram first.

Best wishes to you both.

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