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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.

Within, 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 nearly thirty 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 was odd to see it still going strong at Thetford. 

My 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. 

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