Notes from a small museum – Can a terrible tragedy make you happy?

Well, of course not, not happy as such, but it can make you think, start you wondering and researching, introduce you to new ideas, new places and new people.

Does it make a difference if the tragedy was 500 years ago?  I find the Mary Rose endlessly fascinating.  Reading about it or visiting it certainly makes me happy.

What if the tragedy was just 100 years ago?  The heroic Chief Wireless Operator on the Titanic, Jack Phillips, came from Godalming and we have been lucky enough to have the support of Titanic and Jack Phillips expert, Mandy Le Boutillier, in creating an exhibition to mark the centenary.  Actually, Mandy doesn’t feel comfortable with the word ?expert’ ?she refers to herself as a ?Titanorak’.  She tells me she has made many good friends through her interest in the Titanic and visited places she would never otherwise have seen.  The process of her research makes her happy and working with her was a happy experience for me and the volunteer team at the museum ? but some of the text she wrote for the exhibition had us in tears as we proofread it.

It is not a ?happy’ topic in any straightforward way, but we have definitely been a Happy Museum since our Jack Phillips & the Titanic exhibition opened on 6th March.  We have had 3 times our usual number of visitors (5,742 so far, and a couple of weeks still to go) and they have stayed for ages, carefully reading all the exhibition panels, sometimes coming back another day to carry on where they left off, and leaving complimentary messages in the visitors’ book.  Over 1,000 people have voted in our gallery debate ? should the Titanic be respected as a grave or investigated as an archaeological site?  (it’s close, with, currently, a small majority for investigation).  Children have tried on replica life jackets and costume, found out about Polar the Titanic Bear and sent Morse code messages.  Some of our youngest visitors have asked some of the most penetrating questions ? why women and children first?  Why 3 separate classes?  Many visitors have shared their own Titanic stories.  One gentleman wrote in the visitor’s book ?my aunt was a survivor, thanks to Jack Phillips’.

All the excitement has made us slower getting off the ground with our Happy Museum project, but I think it has also given us a more courage to tackle difficult topics and a better understanding of what makes a happy museum.

Alison Pattison – Happy Museum Commission at Godalming Museum

Leave a Reply