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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

A letter from the Ministry to the Cuming Museum

The Ministry would like to express our condolences to the Cuming Museum in Southwark, which caught fire yesterday afternoon. Almost everyone who works in a museum can tell you emotively about a time their building caught fire, was bombed or suffered flood damage. Sometimes I think we don’t consider a fire something that could happen to our museums in modern times, if only that was true.

Over the last 24 hours on twitter there has been an outpouring of sentiment from museum professionals who, like me, only have one question on their mind: ‘Why the hell didn’t I visit while I had the chance?’ Although the Cuming Museum is well known in the London museum community for its interesting exhibits, its Monday-Friday opening hours have made it something of an enigma for most of us. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been to Borough Market on a Saturday morning and thought, ‘Oh isn’t the Cuming Museum around here? I’d love to visit some time.’

There are lots of reasons to love the Cuming Museum and its collections which are as eccentric as Southwark itself. Let’s not forget that Southwark, situated in medieval times just outside the city gates, has been a crystallising point for everything marginal in London’s history. Bear-bating, stew-houses, theatres, markets, hospitals and body snatchers have all mingled in this part of the city. The Museum is particularly well known for the original collection of the Cuming family including ancient Egyptian objects and imports from across the Empire, as well as an interesting group of objects made by 19th century forgers William Smith and Charles Eaton.

I was particularly keen to visit the Museum because it holds a large part of the collections of Edward Lovett, an early twentieth century anthropologist famously interested in the charms and magical practices of his contemporary London. There has been a resurgence in interest in Lovett as a collector of late, partially due to his strong ties with Henry Wellcome. Some academics have argued that Wellcome’s propensity to collect magical-medical charms from all over the world was directly influenced by Lovett and his interests. Wellcome did succeed in getting Lovett to sell some of his collection to him, but not all. Much of it came to rest in the Cuming Museum. Interestingly, the Wellcome Trust have recently come out with an app called ‘Magic London’ which draws on Lovett’s collection of London folklore from his book ‘Magic in Modern London’. Many of Lovett’s objects, particularly his blue bead necklaces believed to ward off bronchitis, were included in the Wellcome Collection’s Miracles and Charms exhibition in 2011.

The good news is that from initial reports it seems that the museum’s stores have not been particularly damaged. And as most museum professionals know, only a small proportion of objects are on display at a given time. Unfortunately for us, they tend to be our favourite ones. I am sure that the fire brigade did admirably in evacuating as many artefacts as possible, but I fear my wonderful bead necklaces may not have been a top priority.

When museums (and archives and libraries) suffer a disaster, our museum-loving hearts break. This is partially because we think of our collections as our children, but also because each museum represents many individual’s life work. Not only the people who made the objects or cared for them, but those who collected them, catalogued them, conserved them and displayed them. Museums are nothing if not a labour of love.

Hopefully the Southwark Council will be feeling giving when it comes to re-building the infrastructure of the museum, but no matter what the Cuming Museum has a long road ahead of it. Just the task of trying to re-identify salvaged objects will be Herculean, and I shudder to think what archival materials may have been lost. I’m not sure what assistance we could possibly offer, but maybe it’s enough to say this:

Dear Cuming Museum staff, supporters and friends, London’s museum community is with you. We are sorry for the terrible loss you have suffered, and we would help in any way we could. You are a valued member of our community and we look forward to when you can open your doors again. We are really going to be better at visiting the next time around. 

1 comment:

  1. :( It is so sad to hear about the fire .. I am very glad everyone was okay and hope they can get things up and running again!

    Just thought it is worth pointing out however that the Cuming Museum was/is normally open on Saturdays.. I have visited a few times on weekends..