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Museum of Lincolnshire Life.

* Such a quantity of bygones is assembled here that you begin to wonder whether the people of Lincolnshire have anything much over twenty years left in their houses at all. Their former possessions are guarded in a red-brick fort of 1857, originally a barracks for the Royal North Lincoln Militia, whose badge is above the gate. In the 1960s a local arts organisation moved in and the Lincolnshire Local History Society, which had meanwhile been gathering material for a folk museum, saw an opportunity. By 1969 the local historians had successfully infiltrated the building and in 1974 the county council took the whole thing over as a museum of social history for Lincolnshire. The collection, which is almost entirely from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, comes from the local history society plus numerous items donated since.

The museum costs the county council about 170,000 [pounds] a year to run, partly offset by admission fees and sales. Seldom buying anything, and spending its money on conservation and storage, it is offered far more than it can accept. It is now filling gaps and collecting things from the 1950s on. Its 1985 tractor was one of the last made by a Lincoln firm in business here for 120 years, and it has its first computer and first microwave oven, gathered in before they become expensive collector s items. The museum draws about 45,000 visitors a year, of whom roughly one-third are locals, one-third are school groups and one-third are tourists from outside the county. Of those from abroad, Australians are the most numerous - Australia has strong Lincolnshire links - and the United States. Canada, Germany and Holland are well represented.

The museum takes all aspects of social history for its province. In a wide sweep it covers home life and domestic equipment, shopping and advertising, farming, industry. windmills, transport, trades and crafts, religion, education. crime and police, popular entertainment, poaching and other country sports and pursuits. including ice skating and eel catching with basket or spear in the Fens. military history with the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment s collection, children s games. toys and dolls, folk beliefs and customs - all with an engaging Lincolnshire flavour.

There are four main dialect areas in the county and you can hear traditional stories told in them by picking up telephones. Dialect tapes are on sale in the museum shop and the list of dialect words includes `tut' for a ghost and `elted up' for smeared with mud. `Barnacles' are spectacles and `doggerybaw' is Lincolnshire for nonsense. Star strange items range from the leather hood used in the annual traditional Haxey Hood game and the extraordinary floral hat worn by the Lord of the Hood (he is supported by the Chief Boggan and the Fool - the game is a giant football scrimmage with the hood as the ball) to the huge black 1880s horse-drawn `charabier', or funeral coach, with separate compartments for the coffin and the mourners.

An old, evocative snapshot shows the composer, Percy Grainger, with his singers at Brigg in 1906: he noted down traditional Lincolnshire airs, including the tune of `Brig Fair'. There are waggish postcards, faded song sheets, bakelite 1930s radios, and ancient advertisements for corsets and hair waver, arsenical soap and Reckitt's Blue. With the black-and-white photos of Lincolnshire churches comes a bouquet of eccentric Lincolnshire epitaphs. `Affliction dug this grave for me,' says one from North Hykeham vengefully, `and time is digging shine for thee.'

Many of the displays are organised as period rooms, shops and workshops. There is even a museum within a museum in a section equipped with battered old cases of fossils and war souvenirs and a bottle of stones from a turkey's gizzard. The curator, Rodney Cousins, who has been here fifteen years, says other cities might have split the collection up into separate museums - industrial, agricultural, transport and so on - but as it is, the museum offers `a little bit of something for everyone'. Each display is small enough to encourage lingering over it, and visitors who come looking for one subject area often find themselves drawn to others. There is a certain mysterious but prevailing cheerfulness in the atmosphere which affects visitors, who can be heard round corners, laughing happily.

Outside in the courtyard are two ornately decorated cast iron pillars from the Grantham forge of Richard Hornby and Sons, dated 1860 and inscribed with deedy maxims - `Waste Not Want Not' and `Everything In Its Place' in curly white lettering - as well as a nobly capacious, bright green public urinal (for display purposes only). Also here are the museum's early Lincoln industrial machines, with steam traction engines and steam navvies including a huge lumbering thing built by the Lincoln firm of Ruston and Proctor in 1909. These dinosaurs of an earlier age are laboriously set going on steaming days for their silent, awed and worshipping acolytes. The museum's volunteers, who preserve the skills of the steam age as well as the machines, take their charges round the country to rallies and village fairs in a crowded programme.

There are lively temporary exhibitions all year round, plus craft demonstrations, events and children's activity days. Some 10,000 children visit the museum every year and special programmes for school parties show children how things worked in the past and let them try them for themselves - the heavyweight old printing machine, for instance. They can experience an 1890s school lesson, play Victorian children's games and explore the two World Wars or themes like `wheels, gears and cogs' through the museum's collection. What Rodney Cousins most wants for the future is a bigger lecture and presentation room for school and adult groups.

Mr Cousins, who is not a Lincolnshire man himself - he comes from across the Nottinghamshire border in Newark - connects the strong current interest in social history, bygones and ordinary people's life in the past, which draws so many visitors to museums, with the vogue for family history, perhaps Britain's fastest growing hobby. After a century and more of drastic change and with people more mobile and families being split up, a psychological need for security drives people back to find roots in the past. Perhaps, too, there is a need to recover an English national identity that seems increasingly threatened.

Richard Cavendish is a freelance journalist and the General Editor of the Automobile Association's Roadbook of Britain (1995).
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Title Annotation:in England
Author:Cavendish, Richard
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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