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Feather's Miscellany: Museums And Education

...Early on my father must have realised I had a flair for language and history which developed at school and university.

Both subjects were nurtured by my visits to the town’s museum, which stood on our doorstep in Victoria Park. It was a wonderland stimulating the imagination, for by simply gazing at its exhibits you could travel back to the beginning of time or journey across the globe and back without leaving dear, old Keighley, the Keighworth of my novels and short stories...

John Waddington-Feather pays tribute to the museum which had a huge influence on the course of his life.

A wise parent will expose a child to as wide a range of educational experience as possible, and observe which innate talents of the child emerge. I believe there is no better place to foster a child’s curiosity and talents than an educational museum.

I was lucky enough to have parents who gave me full rein early on in life to choose what I wanted to study and later what career I wanted to follow. I suspect my father would have liked me to go into the family business of estate agency and auctioneering, or take over my godfather’s accountancy firm; but I was not cut out for either of those professions and I wasn’t pushed into them. Early on my father must have realised I had a flair for language and history which developed at school and university.

Both subjects were nurtured by my visits to the town’s museum, which stood on our doorstep in Victoria Park. It was a wonderland stimulating the imagination, for by simply gazing at its exhibits you could travel back to the beginning of time or journey across the globe and back without leaving dear, old Keighley, the Keighworth of my novels and short stories.

I still am rapt when I stroll round that first museum’s successor, Cliffe Castle Museum and Art Gallery. Such an impact did the museum make on me that I opened my detective novel, “The Museum Mystery”, with a detailed description of it:

“The Museum in Keighworth had started life in grand fashion. It had been the mansion of a self-made mill-master….No expense had been spared. It was still called the Mansion House by the older folk and stood foursquare solid.

It had one attribute singularly lacking in Keighworth – refinement. An Italian architect had designed the Mansion House in the classical style and it was beautifully proportioned. Its drive swept up to a portico and pediment supported by four Ionic pillars. Built to impress, it was still impressive….Rows of moth-eaten, big-game trophies stared down glassy-eyed from the walls: heads of lions, tigers, bison, grizzlies, elephants, rhinos, crocodiles – enough to give conservationists nightmares. Beneath them ranged a display of their human counterparts - a grisly collection of shrunken heads from Borneo.”

And that was only for starters. In other display cases were uniforms worn by local men from Waterloo to the present (my own National Serviceman’s paratrooper uniform, my denizen smock and helmet among them; somewhere in store now.) Alongside them displayed under glass were butterflies and moths; and next to them, birds’ eggs, all accurately labelled. Further up the aisle was a box containing early dentistry instruments which gave you toothache just looking at them. Round the corner in its own glass ‘coffin’ was a scary Egyptian mummy; and there was much else, too much to list now.

The geology of the area was set out clearly with rock samples from various locations; so were the flora and fauna of Airedale and beyond. All very educational and stimulating and taken in at various periods of my life as I grew up; right from primary school where our teachers took us round the museum and park, to the present day in my seventies, and I’m still being educated each time I visit the place.

Keighley’s museum began as an exhibition by the Keighley Scientific and literary Association in 1881. By the time I was born in 1933 it was a flourishing seat of learning. A unique exhibition of lichens and fungi collected to a local man was housed in it, as well as implements from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages. One innovation was a room furnished as a seventeenth century yeoman’s living room, and in the next room was the complete workshop of a distant relative, Timmy Feather, the last handloom weaver in the area.

There’d been earlier supervisors who’d set up the museum, but in my time it was overseen and developed as a place of learning by Maurice Longbottom and John Ogden, two far-seeing and devoted curators who added much to its display and contents.

Maurice Longbottom opened a study room where researchers and students could work quietly. There was a library and a catalogue of all the exhibits, which was constantly being added to. One of the fascinating exhibits was the Egyptian mummy, brought back to Keighley, like so many of the things on display, by a wealthy manufacturer, J.J.Brigg, after a nineteenth century tour round the Middle East.

It would be unthinkable these days to lift such a priceless object from its original site and bring it to Britain. It lay in a glass-topped case with a black oil-cloth covering, which pulled back to reveal it staring back at you from the dead. As a boy, I never stopped wondering what I’d find underneath that covering each time I drew it back. By the 1940s it had begun to crumble and lost a toe bone, which lay ominously brown and dried up inside the case by the foot of the mummy. What else might have dropped from that mysterious, unsmiling figure I hate to imagine, but it survived long enough to make the move to Cliffe Castle where it is preserved in a humidified, controlled atmosphere. A forensic study was made on it some years ago giving a much clearer account of the young woman inside the wrappings and how she had been crushed to death millennia earlier. As an adult, I find this new research very interesting, but the mummy doesn’t have quite the same aura as she had in the old museum. You didn’t stay long near her when dusk fell in winter.

As you entered the museum through a domed, glass conservatory an aged white cockatoo sat on its perch regarding you with an evil eye. Woe betide anyone who dared to stroke it. It damned near took your finger off! Behind it was an aviary full of exotic birds, each named on a label on the cage.

Exhibits weren’t confined to the inside of the museum. Outside were stone kitchens from centuries-old farmhouses in the neighbourhood; and by a children’s play area was a pair of wrought-iron, toll gates from a toll-house on a main road out of the town.

John Ogden supervised the transfer to grander and larger premises at Cliffe Castle in the late 1950s. The Castle was built in the 1870s by another mill-magnate in the 1870s and a descendent, Countess Manvers, lived there till she married into ‘real’ aristocracy and moved south to an estate there. She put Cliffe Castle on the market and it was snapped up by yet another local, self-made millionaire and philanthropist, Sir Bracewell Smith, a Lord Mayor of London where he’d made his fortune in property dealing.

He presented it to Keighley Borough Council, which spent some time debating (a better word might be ‘squabbling’) among themselves what to do with what some of them regarded as a white elephant. Finally, a visionary member pf Council, Alderman John Stanley Bell, a schoolmaster, persuaded them to turn it into an educational museum to replace the one in Victoria Park, which had become too small.

John Ogden was the first curator there and the move from the old museum went very smoothly, though he must have put in an enormous amount of work preparing the Castle for its new role. He also introduced an art gallery, which has grown in prestige over the years and encourages young, local artists by exhibiting their work alongside that of more established and international artists of the calibre of Hockney and Lowrie.

More recently, part of the museum has been restored to its original state as the living room of the Butterfield family. Original portraits and furniture have been purchased and put into place, evoking something of the grandiose atmosphere in which the newly rich family of Keighley manufacturers lived. They lacked ancient aristocratic lineage, but made up for it as best they could with a lavish display of wealth – including a huge, stained-glass window of the Butterfield family in Tudor dress, overlooking the grand staircase which guests had to climb on their way to their bedrooms. They had property in Paris and Nice and their connection with the court of the French Emperor, Louis Napoleon III, is emphasised again and again in a life-size oil-painting of the Emperor and busts of his family, as the Butterfields never quite made it to the English court.

Yet I and many others owe them a debt. Their mock Tudor Castle and all that went with it is now a leading educational museum and art gallery in the North of England and I for one am grateful for it and the people over the years who have made it such a valuable place of interest and study.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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