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Portsmouth City Museum

Founded: 1972        Governance: Local Authority        Scope: Local history, art    Visited: Summer 2017

No museum  I have ever visited has had so grim and forbidding a setting as Portsmouth Museum: you have to take your courage in your hands even to go up to the door. Once inside, I viewed the whitewashed staircases with their iron balustrades, and my guess was that the building had been a mental hospital. In fact it turns out to have been a barracks, an institutional setting of a different sort, and a madness of a different brand (says someone who once worked for the Army).

You might have thought that, Portsmouth being the city is, the leitmotif of the Museum would be the sea and seafaring, but the displays don't ambush you with boats and Heave-Ho-Me-Hearty as soon as you enter the galleries. Instead the first offering is an exhibit about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who apparently lived in Portsmouth for a bit but isn't someone I naturally associate with the place. Then you go up some stairs and find yourself in a series of room displays which give you an entrée into the history of Portsmouth proper, which is all fun though I would have liked more of an overview of the development of the town (I enjoy my maps, me). These culminate in a fantastically weird mocked-up café with a terrifying mannekin of a little girl having an ice cream. Beyond that is the completely random computer gaming room (at least it seemed random to me), which displays some primeval PCs from the 1980s and invites visitors to play antiquated video games at the consoles round the walls; and then, beyond that, we find the Portsmouth FC display. My interest in association football is barely visible to the naked eye, and yet I liked this: you can just picture thousands of souls making their way through the bright blue turnstile, just as in the Dockyard gallery you can be moved by the bike a dock worker rode to work each day for forty long years. Though the idea of Portsmouth as a developing settlement may be a little understated, the idea of it as a place to work - especially over most of the twentieth century - is very clear indeed. The rooms of art, fine and applied, provide visual palate-cleansers here and there. Out in the town (I didn't venture into the Dockyard area) you can follow a trail along a pattern of chains laid in stone in the pavements which takes you around most of the historic sites that survived the bombardment of World War Two, converting the centre of the city into a sort of open-air museum in its own right, an atmospheric companion-piece to the indoors one. 

I sat in the museum café enjoying a cup of tea and a brie-and-onion sandwich and felt very relaxed indeed for the first time in my week off: sad that I only had one day of it left. As well as Conan Doyle, another thing I don't associate with Portsmouth is corset-making, but one of the UK's leading firms in this area, Vollers, has been based in the city since the 1800s. As the display reticently points out, their clientele is a little different these days.

Portsmouth City MuseumPortsmouth City Museum
Portsmouth City MuseumPortsmouth City MuseumPortsmouth City Museum
Portsmouth City MuseumPortsmouth City MuseumPortsmouth City Museum
Portsmouth City MuseumPortsmouth City Museum
Portsmouth City MuseumPortsmouth City Museum
Portsmouth City MuseumPortsmouth City Museum
Portsmouth City MuseumPortsmouth City Museum
Portsmouth City MuseumPortsmouth City Museum
Portsmouth City MuseumPortsmouth City Museum
Portsmouth City MuseumPortsmouth City Museum

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