Object Lessons: An exploration of the collection at the Whitaker

Photograph by 'Impression Photography' Haslingden

Photograph by 'Impression Photography' Haslingden

Do you collect anything?

Books? Vinyl LPs? Shoes? Ornamental Owls? Dust?

Maybe you don’t but I bet that you know someone who does.

I inherited the collecting gene (citation needed) and now find myself travelling all over the UK attempting to make a living dealing in antiques. Museum collections provide an essential learning environment towards this endeavour. 

Humans are unique in the way we collect items purely for the satisfaction of seeking and owning them
— Christian Jarrett

People have collected ever since we adopted a settled rather than nomadic existence and there is tangible evidence of a dedicated collection of Mesopotamian antiquities dating to 530 BCE in modern day Iraq. Private museums certainly existed during the Italian Renaissance. The wealthiest patrons, such as The Vatican and European Royalty also maintained significant galleries featuring what were considered the highest forms of human artistic endeavour of the day.

Collecting, and essentially showing off your collection, was a way in which you could demonstrate not just your wealth, but your taste, sophistication and importantly your influence. Alas, for the ordinary person, this was not a luxury that life afforded.

The origin of museums as we know them begins in the 17th century when Elias Ashmole donated his illustrious ‘cabinet of curiosities’ to the University of Oxford in 1677. Now known as The Ashmolean it is considered to be the first truly public museum. Today it’s estimated by the Museums Association that there are around 2,500 such establishments in the UK.

Though facing considerable competition for your time and attention, The Whitaker, as the museum and art gallery for the Rossendale Valley, has a lot to offer. The museum houses both the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Local? Well, once you discover that the flagstones in Trafalgar Square came from Rossendale then you might begin to develop an unexpected notion that you would like to find out more about the history of quarrying in the area. Enter the museums galleries and there you will discover many more intriguing objects that form the social history collections made up from thousands of locally donated and acquired objects. 

'Tiger & Python' Natural History Exhibit

'Tiger & Python' Natural History Exhibit

Not local? How about the world class ‘Tiger and Python’ taxidermy installation, photographed by National Geographic, engraved by Thomas Bewick, painted by Alexandre Isidore and part of the permanent collection of the Louvre, Paris? Actually, there are around 9,000 preserved animals here as well as exceptional folk art that you won’t find anywhere else.

However, despite the best presentation efforts, many of the items in our museums would benefit from further explanation. Their individual turn in the spotlight, so to speak. Put simply, the information available at point of viewing will usually be insufficient to give the full story, explore the wider context or connect to current events in a manner needed to make an object more than just ‘something to look at’.

That brown glazed bottle in the shape of a man that you observe briefly before moving on? It’s a ‘Reform Flask’, an important link to the development of our modern political system started by The Great Reform Act of 1832. It represents political satire, characterisation and demonstrates affiliation in a handy sized portable gin holder. The current political scene may leave you cold but gin? Tell me more…

In order to help elicit more detailed stories about and behind the objects at the Whitaker I’ve been granted access to the entire collection. That’s not just the impressive collection on display but the thousands of pieces in the former servants’ sleeping quarters that serve as the dedicated storage and curatorial space. 

Essentially, my task is to regularly select something and present it in an informative and engaging manner.

In time, Object Lessons will explore everything from the naïve painting of early 19th century enigmatic local character Betty Treacle to a beautifully made early 20th century scale miniature tool set to a wonderful 18th century handwritten musical score by a local organist.

The sheer number and variety of items available for this extra exposure means that there will be something to tantalise even the most resistant of taste buds. 

I look forward to offering you this most delightful form of ‘show and tell’ from my buffet cart selection of bite sized wonders.

Mick Stephens (Twitter – @brownbowlerhat)
Independent Antiques Dealer & Valuer / Whitaker Museum Collections Consultant