Some museums store and display objects of historical significance and expect people to be interested.
The very best ones fascinate, educate, and intrigue, making the past relevant to the present.
Swaledale Museum in Reeth manages to do all this within its tiny hidden space. It's one of the best museums I know. I've worked with countless museums in the UK, from small private collections to big names like the Natural History Museum and V&A. After a while they all merge into one confused memory. Very few truly stand out.
Swaledale Museum is remarkable for its simplicity, beauty, and the accessible way it tells the story of this beautiful part of the Yorkshire Dales.
It reminds me of the mini museums I used to design when I was little. I'd create collections of items with simple labels on window-sills, often bringing together quite eclectic objects for the pleasure of the display. From this it might sound like Swaledale Museum is amateurish but that's at all the case. The slightly home-spun feel makes it feel more welcoming and relevant, but displays are carefully created and curated by a true professional who fully understands the value of each object.
Curator and owner, Helen Clifford took over the museum from its previous owner a few years ago and has given it a fresh feel. Forget any ideas of museums as musty old places with bad lighting and row upon row of glass cases. The building is old, but has white walls, and light streaming in through the windows. Unlike the soporific atmosphere of many huge museums, this one feels uplifting and intriguing.
Some museums invest in touch screens and gizmos to try to bring collections alive. At this one they have two very simple techniques to help visitors get closer to the objects and understand them: friendly staff encourage visitors to pick up items that interest them, and then they explain some of the stories behind the objects or point out other related items.
The story of lead mining, farming, and local crafts is told through the many different objects. There's a domestic feel through out - this is a museum where you genuinely get a sense of how people used to live.
A team of volunteers help to keep the museum alive, taking care of the objects, helping with research and welcoming visitors.
The small shop sells a range of unusual souvenirs, festival and event posters.
For opening hours (closed in Winter) and more information please see Swaledale Museum's website.