Arcane Surrealist Dislocation at Whitby Museum

Whitby MuseumI’ve been known to have “moments” in museums. That time I saw the Sutton Hoo Hoard, the Lewis Chess Set and the Rosetta Stone in the space of an hour at the British Museum? That was a moment.

But that was London. Of course the museums of London are filled with the sort of things that adorn the covers of history textbooks. But private and small-scale collections can offer so much more. You might call it surrealist dislocation. When gathered in one place, accumulations of found objects and forgotten obsessions can evoke a strange reaction in the visitor’s mind, like LautrĂ©amont’s chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.

The collections in smaller museums often have no discernible theme or focus. They’re like benevolent beacons of the British inability to let things go. I have no idea how such places curate their collections. The criteria seems to be that, so long as an item existed before today, and so long as that item meant something to someone, then it’s ripe for inclusion.

Whitby MuseumI recently took a trip to Whitby, and found their museum to be one of the best I’ve ever been to.

Whitby is a strange place with a strange history. It was the setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so the place has always been something of a gothic haven. The gloomy ruins of the abbey, visible from anywhere in town, give the place a foreboding air. The local industry was once jet, so everywhere you look is the black, the black, the black.

Fossils can be found on the nearby beaches. Captain Cook has ties to the area, as does the old whaling trade. The town is full of spiritualists, clairvoyants, pagans, hippies and fishermen.

Their museum was always going to be wonderful.

The museum isn’t very big. Most of the collection is crammed into a single room. There is some order to the exhibits. One corner is full of fossils, another full of taxidermy:

Captain Cook gets his own room, full of tribal artefacts from his three voyages:

Whitby Captain CookThere’s another room full of model ships:

Whitby Model ShipsBut apart from that, there’s no real order to anything. Cabinets and cases are themed, of course, but they’re grouped seemingly at random. Three footsteps is all it takes to let your thoughts flow from butterflies to puppets:

Everything is everywhere all at once, and there’s so much of everything.

Cabinets full of terrifying dolls. Elaborate Victorian toys and mechanisms. Old photography equipment and, of course, gothic black Whitby jet.

Whitby museum has a sort of haunted attic feel. The staff are friendly, and the place is clean and very well lit, but still. It often feels like you’ve snuck away from a Victorian ball to explore the mothballed rooms of an eccentric’s mansion.

I could have spent hours there. Everything definitely comes alive when they turn the lights out at night.

But I was there with a purpose. In the introduction to his excellent Haunted Book, Jeremy Dyson writes about visiting Whitby as a child. Specifically, he mentions having really wanted to see The Hand of Glory on display at the museum.

Jeremy didn’t get to see The Hand of Glory, but I would succeed where he failed:

Whitby Hand of GloryThe Hand of Glory is a mummified, severed hand, reputably that of a hung felon. This is the only known surviving specimen, and it was found hidden in the walls of a Castleton cottage in the early 20th century.

This was an arcane tool beloved of burglars. Having broken into a house, they’d set fire to the fingers. The occupants of the house would not wake until the flames of the hand were extinguished, and only blood would do the trick.

You might remember the good people of Summerisle using a Hand of Glory to neutralise Sgt. Howie in The Wicker Man. My whole trip to Whitby might as well have been a pilgrimage to see this thing.

One thing I like to do in museums is imagine that, upon leaving, I’ll be allowed to take an item of my choice from the collection home with me. Surprisingly, when visiting the Whitby Museum, it wasn’t The Hand of Glory that found itself added to my own psychic collection.

Even more interesting was the Tempest Prognosticator:

Tempest PrognosticatorThere were quite a few bits of strange scientific equipment in the Whitby Museum, but this was the strangest of the lot. Invented by onetime museum curator Dr. George Merryweather, this “Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph conducted by Animal Instinct” consists of 12 glass bottles, each containing a leech.

The idea was that the leeches would detect atmospheric changes hours in advance of a storm. They’d crawl to the top of the bottle, in doing so dislodging a piece of whalebone. This would release a hammer and ring the central bell, thus providing a life-saving advanced warning system.

But though undoubtedly beautiful and useful, the Tempest Prognosticator wasn’t quite wonderful enough to qualify as my souvenir of the mind.

Instead, the honours went to this little crocodile thing:

Crocodile ConciergeHe wasn’t even an exhibit. It was his job to supervise the donations box. And with his winning smile, his louche waistcoat and his little bowtie, all were powerless to resist his charms.

The British Museum might have an authentic Easter Island head, but they haven’t got a dashing little crocodile concierge.

My ambition now is to open a Museum of Progressive Rock, either in Canterbury or Totnes.

Find out more:

Whitby Museum Official Site.