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Bridport Museum

Founded: 1932       Governance: LA-supported Trust        Scope: Local history    Visited: Autumn 2017

It's not often that I get the chance to gain a before-and-after impression of a museum: Bridport allows me that chance, having been completely refurbished between my two visits in 2011 and 2017. Formerly it was a standard small-town local history museum jammed with stuff and not always coherently; now coherence is its backbone and this is thoroughly refreshing. There is no doubt about what sort of place Bridport is, if you pay the remotest degree of attention to the displays: it's 'A town on the Jurassic Coast', 'An eventful town', 'A place to work', etc. The displays are no longer that object-heavy, and some of the artefacts are relegated to a completely promiscuous gathering in a side room as they were collected without information or context (the kind of thing, the display text informs you with what almost seems a sigh of resignation, that every museum finds in its collection), and there are disorientating moments when you realise that what you're looking at doesn't actually include anything authentically historical at all. But there are points of great flair and style: chief among these are the ropemaking display and the Roman lorica. Bridport's famous rope industry actually dominated the town less than you might imagine, but one room is devoted to it and is overpowered, rightly, by the mighty spinning machine at one end: the texts make it clear how people's very lives were controlled by this very thing, this thing, here. Upstairs in the archaeology display, a pitiful handful of bronze fitments are brought alive by being mounted on a translucent plastic lorica which glows an unearthly blue, brilliantly drawing you into the room as you ascend the stairs. 

Here you can look out on the street through three arched windows in an alcove. I often complain that museums make too little of their buildings, but charismatic though Bridport's setting is - a Tudor-Gothic glory in dark honey-coloured stone - nobody knows its history, and after a catastrophic fire in 1876, the wonderful frontage is just that, a facade only.  Enjoy it, then, as a somewhat reticent artefact in its own right. The Museum is free to go in and a model of clarity and intent.

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