There’s no surer way of provoking interest than by putting up a big ol’ sign saying “No.” This “no” could be followed by anything, really. In Museum Land, there are usually lots of “nos” for us to deal with: no photos, no touching, no licking the objects… Usually we understand not to do these things, but put up a big ol’ sign and automatically, we feel a kind of compulsion to do the forbidden thing.
Working in Museum Land, I get behind the scenes quite a bit. However, my ‘behind the scene’ usually means nothing more than access to the staff canteen in the British Museum. So, whenever another museum offers the chance to see the bit that the public don’t normally see, store-rooms for example, or usually unseen artefacts, I jump at the chance to go.
Who wouldn’t want to get behind the door that says “No public access”?
Recently, I got to go behind the scenes at Brighton’s Preston Manor. Preston Manor is reportedly one of the most haunted buildings in the UK, and I’ve already been on one of their infamous Ghost Tours. This time though, the ghostly goings on were kept to a minimum. The manor itself seems so full of secrets that I really couldn’t wait to get going.
Usually when we go to a museum, we see the story that the museum is trying to tell. We see the objects, not the offices. But, mundane as work spaces can be, getting to see an office as a museum visitor is still really interesting. Alongside the spreadsheets, there were things from archives as well as objects that needed to go away for some conservation work. Specifically in this case, a large carpet that was off to the Horniman Museum’s massive freezer.
“I’ve seen that massive freezer,” said I, a veteran of Behind the Scenes tours, “It really is big.”
“But why would you need to freeze the carpet?” asked another member of the group.
Any museum-folk, especially the conservators will be able to answer this in a heartbeat. It kills any and all bugs that might be living on it.
Coming back to the tour, yes we’re in an office, but you don’t get to talk about stuff like this in any other kind of office.
The tour didn’t just include the offices, staff kitchen and costume store (Preston Manor has a lot of costumed tours) but also the history of the house as a museum.
“A lot of what we know about the house and the museum comes from this book” says one of the tour leaders, holding a battered book.
“I’ve got that one,” I say, instantly flashing back to the swot I was at school.
Which book are we talking about? It’s A Time Remembered by Margery Roberts. Margery used to live at Preston Manor, she was the original curator’s daughter and became the curator herself. (Insert comment about nepotism here).
Margery’s story is a fascinating one. Her and her family moved into the Manor in 1933, shortly after Lady Thomas-Stanford’s death. Lady Thomas-Standford wanted to turn the house into a museum, but she was afraid that if she left it to her son, he “would turn the house into a casino.”
We were shown around the part of the house where the Roberts’ lived, and even though it’s office space now, there’s something about it that still feels homey. Maybe it’s the layout. Maybe it’s the fireplaces. I’m not really sure.
Mary’s story is not one that Preston Manor tells all that much. They usually focus on the much more illustrious Stanford Family, the owners of the house and their servants or the resident ghosts. Discovering the Roberts’ story, and seeing the continuation of it was really rather nice.
If you would like to see behind the scenes at Preston Manor, keep an eye on their What’s On page.