Today was a big day for Lyme Regis – after several years of blood, sweat, tears and fundraising, the staff and volunteers finally got to welcome the public into the newly extended and refurbished Lyme Regis Museum.
The original building is a fantastically self-indulgent Victorian mini-masterpiece. It seems like an odd comparison with such a vast cavernous space, but it always reminds me of a miniature Natural History Museum, as it, too, was purpose built as a museum, and has similar decorative flourishes and interesting features both inside and out.
The new wing is anything but Victorian – there was a lively debate on social media when people first got a glimpse, as it is a stark, black zinc and glass structure that couldn’t be more different to the original, but I think it really works. It has a definite maritime feel – from outside, reminiscent of a sail loft or lookout, and inside it is like being on the bridge of a ship, with huge picture windows giving stunning views across the sea and the seafront. This accommodates features that bring the Museum more into the modern age – a lift that improves accessibility, toilets and a lovely teaching space, and a shop with a priceless view.
The new wing is named the Mary Anning Wing – a name you can’t escape in Lyme Regis, as she is the town’s proudest boast. Born into a poor family, she collected fossils to sell to help support the family, and often risked her life in storms and land slips searching. She discovered the first icthyosaur skeleton correctly identified, plesiosaurs, a pterosaur and many fossil fish. Her finds changed the entire world of palaeontology and earth science, but as a woman, she was never allowed to become a member of the Geological Society of London.
There are many brilliant stories about her in the museum (find the one about the lightning!) and many more about her contemporary fossil hunters, many of whom were rather eccentric gentlemen. (You must find the story about William Buckland and King Louis XIV’s heart).
Indeed, the Museum is full of great stories: the interpretation boards and labels present the information in a really engaging way, with stories of shipwrecks, landslips, fossil hunters and lots of everyday life. There is a wealth of exhibits from the town’s history, including the town’s fire engine, lots of fishing and nautical items, stories of sea rescues and big local events such as the Bindon Landslip and the beginning of the Monmouth Rebellion. Some of the everyday items were charming – hand stitched Valentines cards, trademens tools and beautiful Regency lacework.
Lyme’s literary past is well represented – there is a section all about Jane Austen, and also John Fowles, who I hadn’t realised was a curator of the museum for ten years. Tracey Chevalier, author of the best-selling ‘Remarkable Creatures’ (a dramatisation of Mary Anning’s life) is a patron, as is Sir David Attenborough.
Obviously, being Lyme Regis, there is a large dinosaur presence – the new Geology Gallery is full of some very impressive skulls and skeletons, with reproductions of the living dinosaurs ‘swimming’ below the ceiling above your head. The exhibits are beautifully laid out, and very clearly described and labelled with interesting facts and explanations. I suffer badly from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), so one of the best things for me was the fact that you can open all the drawers and discover more for yourself – I always have a sneaking suspicion in museums that a lot of the good stuff is under lock and key, but not so here.
It’s not just about the past, either – there is a good film about coastal erosion and the challenges it poses, and the gallery space was hosting an exhibition of work from Vivienne Graham, an artist and long-time volunteer at the museum. Volunteers play a huge role in all aspects of the the day-to-day management of the museum, and as with the AONB’s Land of Bone & Stone Project, it literally wouldn’t be able to run without their energy and commitment.
The extension has added the features a public facility needs to run smoothly in this day and age, but has also rejuvenated the whole place, and given it a new and modern feel whilst retaining all of the charm and character of the old museum. I’ve been to a lot of museums, and I think the explanations and display in general is some of the best I’ve seen anywhere, really accessible to all ages and levels of interest but not patronising at all. The past is brought to life through the people, the stories and the carefully displayed art facts and specimens, and I think everyone will find something that fires their imagination.
The entrance fee, only £4.95, is valid for a whole year of visits, and I think this is just as well as there is so much to see you will definitely be back.
The changes have improved something that was already special and made it available to many more people. I urge anyone, local or visitor, to visit, as there are so many great stories about Lyme Regis and its people that you can’t fail to find out something new. This is a fantastic showcase for Lyme Regis’s unique and many-layered history, and all involved in bringing the museum into this next chapter should be very proud of what they’ve given us.