Settling in Exeter and a Visit to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum

I moved from Croscombe near Glastonbury to Exeter this past Saturday. Saturday itself was a rough day. I don’t deal well with change, especially if I’m facing it alone. I love traveling and exploring, but it’s something I’ve always done with other people… either my mom and my sister, or Michael. It’s just more enjoyable if you get to share a new place or experience with someone else. So, Saturday felt quite lonely indeed.

IMG_1505It was while schlepping my suitcase up and over to the second platform at Castle Cary Station that my mood began to darken. I had packed a lot of cold weather clothes…certainly more than I have actually ended up wearing so far. I prefer to travel light. I hate being weighed down and I was very weighed down on Saturday. I had my backpack, full of laptop and camera equipment, my suitcase and an extra tote bag of nonperishable groceries that I was bringing with me because I wasn’t about to “donate” them to the AirBnB I was leaving. I got on the train, stored my things in the cargo cubbies they have available and spent most of the short hour-long ride on my phone. I arrived into Exeter St. David’s train station and got off without too much trouble. I was happy to see an elevator at this much larger station. My right bicep was already angry with me for the earlier schlepping. I’m out of shape, y’all… this is no secret. 🙂

I was supposed to catch a second commuter train for a quick ten minute ride to St. James Park but when it pulled up it was standing room only and I wasn’t in the mood to fight my way on board. I exited the station and paid for a taxi. Checking into the new flat I realized quickly that though they didn’t misrepresent it on AirBnB, it was a lot smaller than I anticipated. I immediately felt physically and emotionally boxed in. I spent the afternoon wallowing in self pity on the bed, unashamedly wishing I had pepperoni pizza with hot sauce and ranch. I eventually forced myself out of the flat and walked the twenty minutes down the road to the center of town where I bought a few groceries to get me through the first day. Mind you, there is a Pizza Hut on my street but I refuse to give into temptation. 🙂 It was the Saturday before Easter Sunday and I knew a lot of places would be closed for the holiday so I bought the essentials. I had a quiet evening to myself, still feeling very down and out, but woke up Sunday morning feeling somewhat refreshed.

I made myself shower, wash my hair and walked back into town to visit the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. When I got there I decided to start with a cup of hot chocolate and a muffin in the cafe. I used their free wifi to have a quick WhatsApp phone call with mom to assure her I was feeling better and that I would be fine in a few days.

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Then I set about exploring what turned out to be a really interesting museum! I had absolutely no expectations going in. In fact, if I had an preconceived notions about the place they were derived from it’s rather posh name. The museum is small and only has two floors, but I would argue that they use their space remarkably well. They have an immense collection and rather than the minimal, often austere, display style that many art museums tend to have, this museum felt like an homage to the original “Cabinets of Curiosity” which displayed all number of fascinating things. And this collection has many fascinating things! This museum is equal parts history, natural history and art museum all rolled into one strange ensemble. And yet, it works. I’m still not entirely sure how…

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The main exhibit hall is dedicating to telling the history of Exeter, the county of Devon and the larger southwest region. It starts in prehistory and ends in the 1960s. It’s remarkable that they were able to squeeze that timeline into so small a space. Obviously, things were left out, but the story that was told was one, I think, of craftsmanship – the things that humans have made… stone tools, Roman pottery, medieval metal works, Victorian clothes, WWII gas masks.

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There are a handful of small one-room exhibits in the space, including one on birds and one on insects. These rooms are clearly directed toward a younger audience and are follow of more tactile and interactive exhibit features.

The second large exhibit hall was dedicated to something I think museum should talk about more… why on Earth do these collections exist in the first place? Why do we collect? When did it start and why? Who were the first collectors? A whole course could be taught on the history of museums. I crammed it all into a single week when I taught Museum Methods last year. I wish I could have taken my students through this exhibit because it shows the vast range of human collecting affinities and also told the story of how museums came to be.

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The value of museums is also discussed in a panel that explains the contributions that museum collections can and have made to the production of useful knowledge.

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Of course, one can’t discuss museums and collecting in the time of “empire” and “exploration” without discussing the truly disgusting colonial practices that also often resulted in vast collections in the homes of rich men in Europe. The RAMM does try to acknowledge this realty but definitely sugarcoats it. British museums seem to play a critical role in the continued post-Empire identity crisis that the nation still faces to some degree today.

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Back downstairs next to the museum shop there is a small room that explains collection management, which is also another thing museums should be more transparent about. I don’t think museums purposely hide this aspect of their work, but by its very nature of often being behind closed doors or in basements, the responsibility of museums as collections manager, not just collections exhibitor, is something visitors rarely encounter. Here, at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum they had a few panels that talked about conservation and collections care. They even had a wall of sample condition reports and accessioning forms.

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Overall, I was impressed with the museum and would happily return. Even better, it’s free to visit! It is a wonderful resource for the community and I would be interested to learn more about their outreach programs and the diversity of their audiences. The color of the entrance hall (look at that pink!) should have given me a hint that this was a slightly different museum. In fact, every room of the museum had a fearless and bold use of color.

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By the end of my visit I was feeling much better and proceeded to go across the street and treat myself to a somewhat overpriced but delicious chicken satay “burger” with arugula and pickled onions (one of my favs).

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I walked around town a bit more and then went home for the rest of the afternoon where I started my two-day binge of The People v OJ Simpson on Netflix. Monday (yesterday) I walked up to campus and spent four hours working in the student union/library before heading downtown and treating myself to a trip to the Marks and Spencer Food Halls (Florida friends, think a fancier Publix), where I picked up some yummies (roasted peppers, marinated artichokes and bread) for dinner. I finished OJ on Netflix and moved straight into Poldark. Being alone does have one advantage: I’m catching up on my why-haven’t-I-watched-this-yet list for Netflix.

Today I worked mainly from my flat, sending a slew of emails and beginning some preliminary research into the National Archives that I’ll be visiting in London next week. And then, after an hour-long stroll around town, I came back and continued my Netflix binge. I’m heading down to Cornwall on Friday to visit a friend so it seemed only fitting to finish season 1 of Poldark before I go. I also now understand all the fuss about Aidan Turner, y’all. Sorry it took me so long. 🙂

 

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