When I decided on a theme for this blog, one of the main inspirations was a museum I worked in about ten years ago: Bexhill Costume Museum. Sadly, this space no longer exists in the sense that I remember. Although some of the objects are still on display, the reason why it was visited by so many art and visual culture students also ceases to exist, after its move to a new (and totally different) site.
Once housed in a building that was part of Bexhill’s Manor House (a 95 year old visitor, and ex Manor House employee, once told me that the structure was used as a library), the costume museum remained unchanged for several years – to the extent that many people considered the means of display and unusual atmosphere, aside from the objects, to be worth experiencing in themselves. The space was filled with mannequins clothed in vintage costume, local artefacts and a variety of domestic objects. As a volunteer guide, I began to know these objects very well, and the memories that they sparked in visitors. Bizarrely, my emotional attachment to this space has prevented me from visiting the collection at its new location in Bexhill Museum, near Egerton Park. But earlier this month, I braved it!
Bexhill Museum was once formed of a single display room, but following extensive refurbishment the building re-opened in 2009 to include two lower levels, and an accessible reception/shop area. These lower levels are now home to the previously mentioned collection of costumes, and a variety of vintage motors. The upper level contains The Sargent Collection: a diverse group of objects that includes a range of taxidermy animals, curious things from around the world and a locally famous giant crab. Upon walking into this first room, I was struck by the old display cases that I remembered from visiting as a child. As the website describes, this room successfully retains ‘the atmosphere of a small Edwardian museum.’ Things have changed though. There are more artefacts on display, which actually makes the museum more of a maximal space than before! The taxidermy British wildlife remain on one side of the room, as does the amazing Japanese spider crab, but interspersed between these cases are model planes, more ethnographic material and objects of local interest.
The biggest change to the museum is the addition of two extra rooms, and walking into the costume section was like a bit like stepping back in time. I was surprised by how familiar some of the things on display were, and seeing them in a new context felt a little strange. The tiny Georgian shoes, the miniature school uniforms, and the old hand-pumped vacuum cleaner were all there, but behind glass. Previously, at the old site, many objects had been kept out of cases so that the public were able to get a closer look, or in some cases touch.
The on-going debate between caring for objects and making them accessible is one that I consider on a daily basis, especially in my work at an archive and at a gallery. It can be hard for visitors to come to terms with the fact that their favourite object is no longer on display, usually because it needs time to ‘rest’, or it has become too fragile to touch. And this need to leave a legacy for future generations is also difficult to consider when something is imbued with happy memories. Getting the balance right is difficult, and is sometimes simply impossible. So, while I miss the unusual space that was Bexhill Costume Museum, I understand that its new home is necessary, and I feel lucky to have once experienced a unique space.