Beware scatological content
Do references to matters scatological make museums more appealing to children and young people? The Natural History Museum (NHM) is advertising a new family show for the summer that features ‘dinosaurs, time travel, and poo’. If you search online for ‘museums and poo’, the search algorithm will first try to persuade you that you really meant to search for ‘poop’, that coy American term for excrement. You will probably be surprised, though, just how often this theme turns up in museum sites aimed at children – indeed, not just children, for the NHM even offers a ‘surprisingly charming’ 12-page ‘lift-the-flap’ book for babies called What Is Poo?. You will also learn that ‘unicorn poo’ is a best-seller in museum shops, supplied by one of Scotland’s biggest toy manufacturers, the well-named H Grossman, which sold an astonishing half-a-million pots of the stuff last year.
Grossman’s spokesperson, Julie Pittilla, is reported as saying: ‘kids have always loved poo… it’s like walking into a room full of vicars and shouting something rude’. Sherds remains far from convinced, though – do children really like all this scatology, or are adults trying too hard to amuse them, like Roald Dahl’s strained jokes about royal flatulence in The Big Friendly Giant?
In the case of the National Poo Museum (NPM), located in Sandown, Isle of Wight, it is difficult to tell whether the whole thing is an attempt to win the Turner Prize for outraging the respectable middle classes (what the late 19th-century Decadent poets called épater les bourgeois), or pitching for the Museum of the Year Award (which this year found a very worthy winner in the shape of the excellent Horniman Museum).
The NPM was founded by ‘a collection of creative people who work together on many different kinds of projects’, and is ‘dedicated to the collection, conservation, and display of faeces’, which the museum displays in resin spheres, thus enabling them to be handled safely and hygienically, as well as viewed. Co-creator Daniel Roberts clearly has high ambitions for the museum, for he ‘hopes to receive donations of poo from celebrities’, and mentions David Attenborough, the Queen, and the Pope as ideal donors.
Super Silly Museums
Similarly striving hard to amuse is a book called Super Silly Museums being promoted by the organisation Kids in Museums, which again seems to be predicated on the assumption that children can only enjoy a museum if it lacks seriousness (by contrast with the Kids in Museums Manifesto, which is full of sound ideas, though none of it is specific to children and families – the advice in the Manifesto applies equally to all visitors).
On a recent Saturday afternoon visit to the Grant Museum, Sherds was not expecting to have to queue for what is surely one of London’s more obscure and old-fashioned museums. The building was packed to capacity with families, and children of all ages were not just wide-eyed with wonder, they were also well up to delivering lectures to their parents on the displays, and (to the embarrassment of the occasional mansplaining father) correcting their errors. And these were not just Hampstead families – they were a typical cross-section of London’s diverse society.
What they shared was a fascination not with poo, but with botanical specimens, taxidermy, the skeletons of birds, fish and beasts, pinned butterflies, fleas, and beetles – the sort of material that many curators across the UK are now embarrassed to display. Little in this museum has changed since it was established as a teaching collection in 1827 by Robert Edmond Grant (1793-1874), UCL’s first Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, and a great influence on Charles Darwin.
Another museum that was once very popular with the young has long gone: visitors to London’s Hayward Gallery would previously have encountered a menacing Dalek at the entrance to what was the British Film Institute’s Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI), a museum of the history of cinema technology and media sited below Waterloo Bridge in London. It was opened on 15 September 1988 by Prince Charles as part of a cultural complex, but closed permanently in 1999.
If you want to encounter a Dalek now, you can visit the scenic Northumberland village of Allendale, where one of these terrifying cyborgs, bent on universal domination and quick to exterminate anyone who defies their will, stands harmless and tamed outside the Georgian home of Neil Cole, whose Museum of Classic Sci-Fi occupies his cellar. Film buffs and comic readers from all over the globe come to see his collection of more than 200 costumes, props, and artworks from Doctor Who, Star Trek, Flash Gordon, and others, much of it donated or rescued from skips.
In the south of England, grown-ups wanting to relive memories of children’s TV can visit the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge in Canterbury, where Rupert Bear is celebrated in one room, while Noggin the Nog, Bagpuss, and the Clangers fill another. Rupert was the invention of the artist Mary Caldwell (1874-1948), who was born into a Canterbury family of stained-glass restorers and designers. She married Herbert Tourtel, News Editor on the Daily Express, at a time when the newspaper was looking for a comic strip to compete with successful ones running in the Mail and Mirror. Caldwell’s early drawings are on display in the museum, dating from the 1920s.
Noggin, Bagpuss, and the Clangers were created by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate, and were filmed in Firmin’s barn at Blean, just outside Canterbury. Many of the original storyboards and character ideas, as well as film props, are on display at the Beaney, including Noggin the Nog, whose appearance, along with that of his arch-enemy Nogbad the Bad, were inspired by the walrus-ivory Lewis Chessmen in the British Museum.
April Fool’s Day
You would have to travel a little further – to downtown San Diego in California, in fact – for another entertaining museum: the Museum of Hoaxes. The museum is also online and its gallery of The Top 100 April Fool’s Day Hoaxes includes many British examples. In the number one slot is the BBC Panorama show of 1 April 1957 in which it was reported that elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil had enabled farmers in Switzerland to enjoy a bumper spaghetti crop. It is difficult to believe today that people were taken in by the programme, but Sherds can remember when the Spaghetti House restaurant chain was regarded as the height of exotic dining, well before the era of now-ubiquitous Chinese and Indian restaurants, so perhaps there were people who really did believe that spaghetti grew on trees.
Two archaeological stories also make the Top 100: in 1962, newspapers around the world reported the discovery of an Easter Island statue on the beach near Zandvoort, along with reports to the effect that ocean currents must have carried it all the way from the South Pacific to the Netherlands – one has to remember that this was the time when Thor Heyerdahl was trying to demonstrate the possibility of contact between widely separated ancient peoples by recreating their oceanic voyages on rafts and papyrus boats. Eventually, the man who had ‘found’ the statue, a local artist named Edo van Tetterode, confessed he had made it. Tetterode subsequently created a National April First Society, which (until its founder’s death in 1999) awarded small bronze replicas of the Easter Island statue to the best April Fool’s joke of the year.
The earliest example of a documented 1 April joke was the rumour that spread around London in 1698 that the lions from the Royal Menagerie in the Tower of London would be washed in the moat that day. Those who turned up to witness the event found they had been hoaxed, but several examples survive of official-looking printed tickets from the mid-19th century that pranksters could hand out to friends promising admittance to the (non-existent) annual lion-washing ceremony.
Finally, the ultimate 1 April joke was the story about the origin of April Fool’s Day itself. Joseph Boskin, a Boston University professor, claimed that the Roman Emperor Constantine had established the tradition when he appointed a court jester named Kugel as ruler for a day. Newspapers in the US took his assertion seriously until Boskin confessed and admitted that kugel is a Jewish potato and noodle dish.