Children visiting the galleries at Haslemere Museum for the first time should be forgiven for thinking they’ve stumbled upon Aladdin’s Cave! Even for adults the incredible variety and extent of exhibits is amazing. But it also begs some questions: how does a local museum in a small town come to have no less than three large galleries displaying objects mostly unrelated to the town or its history? How on earth did it acquire such diverse artefacts as a 2,500 year-old Egyptian Mummy, a meteorite fragment and a 3-metre stuffed crocodile? What are a giant ammonite, Zulu beadwork and Ancient Greek oil jugs doing in a museum in Haslemere?
The answer lies in the Museum’s unusual history. Curator, Julia Tanner explains: “Our Museum was founded in 1888 by eminent London surgeon, Sir Jonathan Hutchinson FRS, who lived in Haslemere. Hutchinson’s passion was education and he believed that seeing and handling unfamiliar objects was of great educational value to the general public. By purchasing at auction and on overseas travel, he built up an extraordinary collection of artefacts which he exhibited, firstly at his Haslemere home. His personally guided tours on Sunday afternoons became so popular that by 1895 he had to move his museum into the town”.
When he died in 1913, Hutchinson left his museum to the town. Many of the objects on display today are items he collected but, such is the success of this Museum, many further gifts have added to the collections, most notably the fine European Peasant Art Collection, given in 1926. The Museum now has one of the largest natural history collections in Southern England, with over 240,000 specimens and a human history collection with over 140,000 objects from around the world.
Julia adds: “Despite the staggering diversity of artefacts, our collections fall surprisingly neatly into three broad categories, Geology, Natural History and Human History, and we have a dedicated gallery for each”.
At the entrance to the Geology Gallery a fine array of minerals including agate, amethyst and jasper glitter. This gallery uses a time-line to explain evolution, the key geological periods and fossilisation, all illustrated by objects from the collection of over 20,000 fossils and 5,000 mineral samples. So the side-room displaying some field note-books and watercolours of renowned geologist, Sir Archibald Geikie, initially appears oddly out-of-place.
Julia explains: “Geikie was a patient of Hutchinson’s who retired to Haslemere in 1901. After Hutchinson’s death he set up our Board of Trustees, became its first chairman and left his private collection to us”.
The next gallery, the Natural History Gallery is a complete contrast. Why? Julia continues: “This gallery’s Edwardian decor deliberately captures the essence of that era because a large proportion of the exhibits are taxidermy specimens which were fashionable at that time. We display magnificent birds, fearsome mammals, a 3-metre crocodile and a rather scary Giant Japanese Spider Crab as well as many less threatening objects from our sea-shell and plant collections.
“Great favourites with children are the butterfly collection, displayed in the drawers of some tall cabinets, and the Siberian Brown Bear. He is known as ‘Arthur’, is the Museum mascot and was given to the Museum by the Sisson family in the 1930s.”
The Human History Collection is perhaps the Museum’s most wide-ranging. The Gallery displays start with prehistoric times, showing some superb Stone Age tools and glazed ceramics from Ancient Greece. But this is just the beginning. A remarkable Ancient Egyptian collection is displayed in its own room to protect it from light damage.
“This Collection is probably our best known. The toe peeping out from our famous 2,500 year-old mummy really transfixes visitors, especially children, but we also have two highly decorated mummy coffin lids, some surprisingly attractive ancient jewellery and a mummified cat”, says Julia.
This Human History Collection, however, is not entirely drawn from ancient times. Julia adds: “Our African and Asian artefacts are mostly from the 1800s and 1900s. Some of these, such as the stunning Zulu beadwork, are thought to have been acquired by Hutchinson when he travelled to South Africa.
And our European Peasant Art Collection, a collection of beautifully painted household objects and intricately embroidered textiles, came mostly from North-Eastern Europe and dates from the 1600s. Many of these artefacts were collected in the 1880s by a master at Charterhouse, Reverend Gerald Davis. Their designs became the inspiration for Haslemere’s own Arts & Crafts movement in the early 1900s.”
Thoughtfully, Julia concludes: “In many ways Haslemere Museum really is an ‘Aladdin’s Cave’, but perhaps more importantly, it has enormous appeal, particularly to children, and is as Sir Jonathan Hutchinson intended, more a Museum for Haslemere than one of Haslemere.”
Haslemere Educational Museum is an independent museum. We receive no public funding and rely on the generosity of local people to survive.
Haslemere Educational Museum, 78 High Street, Haslemere
GU27 2LA. T: 01428 642112. www.haslemeremuseum.co.uk.
For more details or to buy tickets, go to www.haslemerehall.co.uk or call 01428 642161.