Home Page Hail to an excellent history exhibition - as far as it goes 23/08/13

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

This week I returned from a few days away exploring some more of Britain’s heritage just in time for the launch of an exhibition which details some of Haverhill’s heritage.


It’s on in the arts centre at the moment and it’s called ‘Hail, Haverhill, hail’, which is not a reference to the likely weather to be experienced here, but rather an apostrophe quoted from the beginning of an early 19th century poem about the town by the Bard of Haverhill, John Webb, who was more well-known and highly regarded nationally then than he is even locally now.


After looking around this excellent little exhibition - which aims to show just a small amount of what could be put together to display in a Haverhill museum, if we ever get one - I tried to imagine what a visitor, such as I have been recently in other places, would have made of it and what impression it would leave in his mind of the town.


I suppose the over-riding impression is of a working-class community, because almost everything in the exhibition is a relic from, or photo of, ordinary people. There are no aristocrats mentioned, and the town’s benefactors were traders and industrialists – ordinary people put in a position of a small amount of power locally due to the money they had made.


There are sections on education, starting with the board school in the 1870s, on pastimes – what people did when they were not working – and on trade, as represented by the town’s shops and market.


There’s a section about the War and then, of course, there is a chunk about the expansion scheme and how things changed during the 1950s and 1960s.


This is all very fascinating in its way, but it does still tend to promulgate the myth that Haverhill sprang into being out of the ground around 1850. I doubt if there is a single artefact in the exhibition which predates that.


The prevailing impression continues to be that Haverhill and the camera were invented at the same time. Haverhill’s excellent local history group, which cares for all these and many more historical items in its collection, has a huge quantity of photographs, which are probably still being catalogued. It’s an enormous job.


But thinking back to museums in towns I have visited over the years, photographs normally come in one section at the end of the display, labelled something like ‘19th Century To The Present Day’ and, to be honest, I often skip those bits, or only look at them very cursorily.


History teaching has changed out of all recognition in my lifetime, and it means that a generation or two have grown up more interested in what ordinary people did in their everyday lives than in major events or historical figures – unless they have just been made into a Hollywood blockbuster.


Nevertheless, numbers of people who visit museums regularly are not vast. The director of the British Museum has said that on average people visit it twice in their lives, once when they are brought by their parents and once when they bring their children.


The common denominator in that is children and, to be successful, a museum has to appeal to the young. There are things in Hail Haverhill Hail which would interest children, but I doubt if these would be enough on their own for a full-scale town museum.


Children like castles, battles, treasure and things like that. Of course, in most places there are no artefacts left from the age when such things were around. But people use imagination based on scholarship. So you would arrive to see artists’ impressions or dioramas of Stone Age people hunting sabre-tooth tigers, before moving on to the Iron Age, the Romans, the Saxons, the Normans and so on.


There may only be one tiny artefact from each huge period, but it is enough to hang a display around which will fire the young imagination with a sense of history.


Now you may think this is a hopeless quest in the case of Haverhill, but that is not so. Contrary to general belief, there are bits and pieces, both artefacts and documentary references, around from these distant times and it is these things which would need to be the centrepiece of any Haverhill museum.


Whether or not a certain shop used to be a drapers or a rope-makers, and where bricks were made in Haverhill, may be fascinating to us who live here and who remember such things, but they are of limited interest to anyone else.


A museum has to be for everybody, not just those of us who like to look back on what Haverhill was like before expansion, or when we were growing up.


So where are these more ancient relics of Haverhill’s past? Scattered all over the place, I imagine, depending on who dug them up. But some of them are doubtless in Bury St Edmunds or Ipswich because there is nowhere safe for them to be displayed in Haverhill.


The Haverhill area is rich in romantic history and connections, from Boudicca to Elizabeth I. Any museum should reflect that, otherwise it would be in danger of becoming a dusty room for navel-gazing Haverhillians.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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