What would the purpose be of an expanded Museum of Cambridge?


Ten months on from when I first made a call for the Cambridge and County Folk Museum / Museum of Cambridge to be expanded, some more thoughts about purpose following an intense summer of research in local archives.

The picture postcard view of Cambridge looks something like this:

“Stereotypically, this is what many politicians still think Cambridge is like – ex public schoolboys punting peacefully along the River Cam in front of King’s College Chapel, while other groups of splendid chaps work on complicated stuff like hard sciences – none of your media studies or sociology here thank you very much!”

Sociology was first introduced to Cambridge nearly half a century ago – as this video shows! During the 1960s, the second half of this video in the East Anglian Film Archive shows what Cambridge the town was like in that decade of huge change.

The original concept from last year

I wrote about it here shortly before I went into hospital just before Christmas 2017. Which was a wake-up call to tell me that perhaps I didn’t have as long left as I thought I had – hitting the big four-zero next year.

Essentially my idea involves rebuilding the old Assizes Court on Castle Hill – inexplicably demolished in the 1950s.

Shire House Law Courts

Above: Shire House Court House in Cooper’s Annals Vol V.

Castle Hill Prison 1920 EPW000056

Above: You can see the building to the far centre-left, next to where the County Gaol used to be – just on front of Castle Mound. 


Above – the building being demolished in the mid-1950s. Source – Cambs Collection. It’s a tragedy that the statues were not saved – representing Justice, Liberty, Power and Truth.

Comparing Cambridge with Peterborough

The Peterborough Museum building looks far more grand than the small but historically significant (due to its age) former pub that the Cambridge and County Folk Museum / Museum of Cambridge is housed in. Alongside the small town museum, Cambridge has the Museums of Cambridge University covering the ancient world, exquisite ceramics (Fitzwilliam Museum), modern art (Kettle’s Yard), the museums of:

  • Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
  • Museum of Zoology
  • Museum of Classical Archaeology

Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, The Polar Museum, and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

Notice how there isn’t a “Museum of the University of Cambridge”.

Other subject-specific museums include the Museum of Technology at the old pumping station, and the Museum of Computing History, amongst others listed on WikiP.

“So, if we’re looking for something to tell the story of the city, what’s missing?”

For a start, the civic institutions.

  • Addenbrooke’s Hospital (and healthcare generally)
  • The Borough Police
  • The Fire Brigade
  • The Cambridgeshire Regiment
  • The Uniformed and non-uniformed civic society organisations
  • The Mayor, Aldermen and local councils

Then there are the providers of industry during the industrial revolution and into the 20th Century

  • Cambridge Water Company
  • Cambridge Electrical Company
  • Cambridge Gas Company
  • Cambridge Street Tram Company
  • The various bus companies
  • The various railway companies

Cambridge’s last street tram now resides in Ipswich – volunteers there having kindly restored it and keeping it safe at their East Anglian Transport Museum.

Small collections scattered all over the place, or kept out of sight of the public

One of the reasons we know so little about the history of Cambridge the town is because you have to look very hard to try and find it. Much of what is accessible is only in paper format – mainly in books that are photo-rich (Thanks to the Cambridgeshire Collection) and are aimed at the mass market. As a result, what’s out there tends to be more about street scenes and individual events rather than the actions of individual groups of people. One welcome recent departure from this is Sue Slack’s book on Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote.

The story of Cambridge Industries

Much is made of all things science and high end engineering in and around Cambridge, but what we don’t have or tap into nearly enough are the histories of those firms and employers that have been around for a long time. The same goes for the fields of construction, property, retail, and food production. Several of the founders and families behind those firms were important civic and philanthropic figures in town. In the first half of the 20th Century the name ‘Kerridge’ was associated with the building trade. Today it’s associated with a civic sports hall because one of the family members – Kelsey, a onetime councillor for Cambridge Conservative Party, headed up the campaign for a large sports centre for the people of Cambridge.

One other thing it’s worth adding – which is especially notable for the Conservatives, is that one of their social conventions was that while they pushed for lower taxes as a political policy, part of the ‘deal’ was that they would contribute in cash and kind towards large civic amenities. Conservative Councillor and Mayor Mrs Jean Barker – later Baroness Trumpington was instrumental in raising money for the Frank Lee Centre at Addenbrooke’s – named after Sir Francis Lee, a former chair of governors at Addenbrooke’s.

Without a frequently visited place or facility to store and tell the civic stories – such as how Clara Rackham spent half a century campaigning for a new indoor swimming pool in Cambridge (the one that today we call Parkside Pools), or Florence Ada Keynes steamrollering through opposition to unpopular plans for a new guildhall (which she got built just in time for WW2 to break out), or Ellice Hopkins’ managing to raise enough money for a new church and Cambridge’s first working men’s institute (which had the patronage of both Henry and Millicent Garrett Fawcett in the 1860s), such things remain locked away inside archives or only glimpsed by niche audiences who read local history publications – online and off.

Museums don’t have to be just full of very old stuff

And they don’t have to be passive places either. One of the things I’ve started doing is getting some of the prints from the Palmer Clarke archive of glass plate negatives scanned and professionally digitally restored, and colourised to bring to life some of Cambridge’s historical heroes.

Eglantyne Jebb Palmer Clarke High Res_1.1 colourised before after

Above – Eglantyne Jebb – Founder of Save the Children, from her Cambridge days in the very early 1900s, by Palmer Clarke in the Cambridgeshire Collection, digitised by Nick Harris of Photo Restoration Services, commissioned by Antony Carpen. (Each commission for each digital photo I get restored, colourised and printed, depending on how much work needs being done by the Collection and PRS sets me back around £100 a time. So if you are circulating the low-res copies as inevitably happens in social media world, please link back to this blogpost for the sources – and keep the watermark on the bottom right as well. (And if you can afford to support my own research, please click here)

I will be depositing print and digital copies of all the commissions I am issuing back to the Cambridgeshire Collection. If you want digital or hard copies, please contact the Cambridgeshire Collection in the first instance as they are being run on a shoe string of a budget ***and could really do with the extra income that such commissions bring in*** They also could do with volunteers to help with scanning and cataloguing their huge collection of negatives, many of which have not been seen before.

“Will there be a public display of the photo reproductions?”

I hope so – it depends on the costs and willingness of suitable institutions to host one. It is things like this that local museums are ideally suited for – whether as temporary exhibitions or as permanent ones. The reason why I would like to do one with large reproductions from the archives is because the larger prints have far greater an impact on the viewer than when looking at a small reproduction in a book.


Above – Puffles the Dragon Fairy inspecting an A2 print out of Eglantyne Jebb from the Palmer Clarke Archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection, commissioned by Antony Carpen. If you would like your own copies of this photo minus dragon, please get in touch with the Cambridgeshire Collection.

As you can see from the photo above, even with a photo of a photo, the level of detail of Eglantyne’s face and hair is incredible. You can actually make out some of the freckles on her face underneath her makeup. Note Puffles still has an election wrist band on from the local elections earlier this year, along with a badge that the Cambridgeshire County Archive archivists gave to Puffles. Which makes me wonder what local historians of 100 years in the future will make of Puffles. But hey, traditions have to start somewhere. Who was the person who decided Cambridge’s coat of arms would be adorned with smiling sea horses with forearms?


Above: From the Cambridgeshire Collection in an ‘odds and ends’ folder (which is where lots of the interesting stuff tends to find its way) the two Cambridge sea horses having a conversation underneath the Cambridge Free Library’s banner. Some of the prints from the Victorian era are exquisite.

Hoovering up lost trinkets on sale online

I found this on sale online.

Having only recently written articles about the Cambridge Working Men’s Club’s opening in the 1860s, I noted this would have been one of their earliest events. At the moment I’m picking things like this up and depositing them in local museum collections with the story behind the object. One of the great things about social media and being here in Cambridge is that there is nearly always an expert in the field who can advise on something like this – and if no one here will know, they will have a connection who will.

A town full of multi-talented individuals – putting them into categories has limitations

I met the late, great Professor Stephen Hawking shortly before he passed away, at a talk at Anglia Ruskin University.

The talk had nothing to do with physics or astronomy, but was all about the history of Cambridge’s railways, given by local historian Tony Kirby, who also wrote the official history of Anglia Ruskin University. None of us in the room bar Mr Kirby had any idea Prof Hawking was interested in local transport history – in particular railway history, but his carers told us he was passionate about it.

The history of Cambridge the town is full of people with multiple interests. Dr Alex Wood of Cambridge Labour Party is one such figure – a professor of physics at Emmanuel College, he was also a Presbyterian preacher at St Columba’s across the road. Another is local school teacher Vickey Dixon who, in 1992 took time out from her teaching job in South Cambridge to play for Great Britain’s hockey team at the Barcelona Olympics – coming back with a bronze medal. Frida Stewart – musician, peace campaigner, anti-fascist fighter who broke out of a wartime prison camp in occupied France during WW2. You can’t put people like this into single subject silos because there was so much more to them.

For me, this is why Cambridge needs an expanded civic museum that not only tells the story of the city, but also is done at scale that enables the organisations and businesses that helped make the city to contribute towards both its upkeep and future success – and as a result removing the dependence on successive grants from an increasingly stretched public sector.

And finally….

A larger Museum of Cambridge could also act as both magnet and big sign post for the other smaller museums – perhaps to be part of a wider civic federation that enables the smaller museums to piggy-back onto the larger main one in order to increase the number of visitors to the smaller museums. For example the Cambridge Museum of Technology is actually an integral part of Cambridge’s history. No pumping station, no sanitation. Simple as. Hence part of an expanded Museum of Cambridge would need to incorporate linking up with its counterpart.



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