Conservation in a Rural Life Museum

In preparation for the upcoming exhibition Norfolk’s Last Horseman we met with a conservator to assess the objects that are going on display. At first glance it might seem that the objects require little more than a gentle clean for aesthetic purposes. They are a collection of tools and equipment, among many, a horse bridal rope and blacksmith’s hammer. They were the everyday necessaries of farm life and local trade. Once fit for purpose they are now redundant and have settled into their retirement shrouded in dust, rust and rose-tinted nostalgia.

We once met a curator who suggested that agricultural collections rarely differ from one another.  Broadly speaking this can be true. However, it is the social history they underpin that makes each collection special. The potential an object holds to tell a story is what makes it truly unique. In cataloguing the Horseman objects I came across this.


I naively presumed it was a part of a horse cart or harness. It hinges at the base, fastened together with leather and has circular indents in the middle. It wasn’t until we went through the objects with their previous owner that I discovered how simple yet special this item was. This item once belonged to a Saddle Maker. Its purpose was for securing a leather cricket ball in place and was held between his knees. The children in his village used to play cricket together and when one of their balls became unstitched they would ask him to mend it using his leather working tools. This must have happened so many times that he made something to enable him to do the job.

The object doesn’t have a name because its purpose was evident only to the man who required it. When looking in the dictionary we might only be able to find it under thingy-ma-jig or what-jer-ma-call-it. The object tells a story of village life, children playing cricket together on the green and the kind-heartedness of a local tradesman.

In the museum if we want to tell others of this story we need to pay attention to the longevity of the object’s life. Unlike a gilt framed oil painting this object was never intended to live a long time. It was there to do a job and once its job was done the wood might be chiselled into a door stop or even thrown onto the fire.  And again unlike the painting it hasn’t been protected from the damp or dust. Its preservation has never been an issue until the day it passed through the museum doors.  Now it’s here we have a decision to make. The dirt and dust are its history and part of the story it has to tell. To clean it for aesthetic reasons might make it appear more attractive but would detract from its purpose. All we need do is protect it from any further harm. In this instance we are not conserving an object as the sum of all its parts. What we are really conserving is a story.

Norfolk’s Last Horseman opens on the 9th of March at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, Dereham until November 2014.

Etta Griffiths, Rural Collections Management Trainee.


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