Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life
Founded: 1924 Governance: LA-supported trust Scope: Local history Visited: Autumn 2014
Another site of the great Norfolk Museums Service, Ancient House is, if not exactly ancient, certainly venerable
with its 15th-century origins. It was transformed from a pair of shops
to a museum thanks to the good offices of that extraordinary figure
Prince Frederick Duleep Singh, archaeologist, antiquary, and son of the
last Sikh Maharajah. Prince Frederick bought the Ancient House (as it
would become) and presented it to the Corporation of Thetford as the town's museum.
its air is redolent with the scent of old wood and smoke;
timber-framing is visible everywhere and several of the ground floor
rooms are arranged to display the fabric of the house as the main
exhibit to which the artefacts are just illustration. The layout is the
first test the visitor faces as you must initially find your way to the
'front desk' which is actually towards the back, and from there they
tell you how to navigate the building. Thetford's two most famous sons,
the aforementioned Prince Frederick and 18th-century radical
pamphleteer and campaigner Tom Paine, whose death mask you can see
in the photos below, both feature in the displays, an incongruous
couple in all sorts of ways. One other peculiarity of Thetford Museum
is that many of the labels - at least when I visited - exhibit a
copy-writing technique we were introduced to when I did my Museum
Studies training at Leicester University some twenty-odd years ago, in
which curators try to write display text in short sentences, minimising
subordinate clauses, and starting every new sentence on a new line.
It's supposed to produce accessible text, but is in fact incredibly
hard to do and what you produce can end up reading like a strange kind
of museological haiku. I had a go at it at High Wycombe and soon abandoned it. It's odd to see it still going strong at Thetford.
favourite artefacts were easily the colossal Mannerist busts of the
Roman emperors Otho and Tiberius which originated in Italy but for some
peculiar reason ended up gracing the frontage of a Thetford theatre. Otho looks as though he has not only eaten all the pies, but possibly the baker as well.