Words by Chris Horton. Photos: Charlotte Griffiths Photography
With its colourful history it’s not surprising that Portsmouth has a good number of museums, at least six according to my calculations, not counting the historic ships or attractions on the outskirts of the city. Although much attention has been given to the wonderful refurbishment of The D-Day Story and The Mary Rose Museum – recently nominated for European Museum of the year, the ‘city spirit’ is perhaps most keenly felt at Portsmouth Museum.
On a recent visit I was extremely lucky to be shown around by the museum’s Curator of Art Susan Ward. We start in the new Royal Academy exhibition, Susan explaining how the room has been transformed to create space to display 100 or so drawings and prints from the museum’s permanent collection in celebration of 250 years of the Royal Academy. Featured artists include: David Hockney, Edward Bawden and Elizabeth Frink to name but a few. There’s a real mix of the historic and contemporary, landscapes and portraits and artists using a variety of methods and materials. As Susan guides me through some of the collection’s highlights our conversation turns to how the museum amassed so many pieces. Not since the 1980s has the museum been in a position to actively purchase works of art and instead relies on donations and bequests from the public. This sense of community assistance reached its peak in the 1950s when the council advertised for donations to help build the collection, after the Blitz bombings in WWII had damaged the original museum in Old Portsmouth. “Now 80% of what you see inside the museum is effectively from the people of Portsmouth” states Susan “It’s very much a people’s collection.”
Still very much reliant on the public’s generosity it is fascinating to see the depth of artefacts on display as Susan takes me through rooms of furniture, glassware and ceramics. She must have a favourite piece I ask, embarrassed by the slightly childish nature of the question. She laughs but is quick to point out an amazing hand painted gramophone by Dora Carrington, one of the Bloomsbury artists. “I think it still works” she says excitedly. Before we can try and find some 78s to play, I’m being shown a pair of tile panels from the children’s wards at the city’s former Royal Hospital. Created by Doulton, they were mass produced, but as Susan tells me they are much loved by the public. “There may be thousands of pieces here in the building but it’s that sense of nostalgia which is a huge part of the museum experience. People are very proud of the collection and the connection it has to the city. There’s ultimately a lovely sense of warmth and appeal that comes with this place.”
Susan doesn’t end up revealing her number one favourite piece – expertly dodging such a tough ask no doubt – but I quickly realise that the most priceless object is of course the museum itself. Formerly army barracks built in the 1890s the museum acts as a fascinating conduit to Portsmouth’s history and cultural impact which itself is a huge part of its identity. All of this through its collection of artefacts, many donated by local residents. It is a place of community and memory, knowledge and learning and a real treasure for Portsmouth’s residents and tourists alike.
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