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Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell

Founded: 1970    Governance: Local Authority        Scope: Local history        Visited: Autumn 2019

When I was just starting out in the wondrous museum world, I had very definite ideas as to what museum displays should be like: they ought to have a point of view and put it across clearly, and present a possibly challenging examination of identity and maybe even conflict, bringing out the jagged edges of a community’s history. In my first job I had to put together a little display case of ‘law and order’ related items in our Victorian room at the Priest’s House in Wimborne: I included a little diagram listing who the magistrates were at the time the room was set, an intimidating list of local clergy and gentry. ‘They had it all sewn up, didn’t they?’ commented Stephen the curator. I was awfully pleased he’d noticed.

I still don’t completely disavow that approach, and I thrill a bit when I can ‘read’ what a museum is trying to tell me. But I am more tolerant of other museological avenues now. Bourne Hall exemplifies a much more elliptic and open-ended strategy: the displays here come alongside you and tell you apparently random stories, yet by the time you leave, you find you have indeed discovered the personality of Ewell town almost despite yourself.

Modern Bourne Hall replaced an older building in 1962, supposedly demolished because it was too run-down to repair although one wonders whether the same decision would be taken nowadays. All around is the parkland that once belonged to the mansion, complete with a swan-haunted lake; the building houses not only the Museum, but the borough library and a variety of meeting rooms. Once through the swishing doors you ascend a staircase to the mezzanine where the displays are, and there you wander. Undirected, your eye is drawn by this or that object (scout banners, uniform jackets, a carving of a white hart atop a case, a pair of strangely stacked bowler hats) and slowly, sidelong, the story of a community emerges through the episodes from its past it has remembered. Beneath the seemingly-promiscuous assemblage, a penetrating sense of what matters has been at work to select what you’re seeing, or at least the background details and narratives that reveal what the objects have witnessed. Reaching the mocked-up Roman villa on the far side, you look back and realise you’ve come on quite a journey and perhaps weren’t really aware of it. You go downstairs for a coffee, and smile to yourself as you remember the stories you’ll take away.

Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell
Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell
Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell

Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell
Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell
Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell
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