Williton, Somerset: The Bakelite Museum

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This is one of those cases where I took one for the team, so to speak.  Do I care about Bakelite enough to spend £5 visiting a Bakelite Museum?  No, absolutely not, but it seemed like an unusual museum you guys would enjoy hearing about (though I could well be wrong about that).  If I wasn’t particularly excited about Bakelite in the first place, I was even less excited when we pulled into a parking lot full of abandoned-looking vehicles (I think they’re actually part of museum-guy’s collection), one with a poor dog left inside of it (at least the windows were open), and awkwardly milled around the front of what looked like someone’s house, waiting for a sign of life. After not too long, an elaborately mustachioed man emerged and collected our money.  He informed us there was a power outage, so we’d have to look around the museum in the dark (to be fair, he told us about the power outage before he took our money, but you’d think he could have reduced the price a little bit since it was difficult to see anything).

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Things didn’t improve when my allergies started flaring up immediately after setting foot in the place. It was a health hazard on so many levels – I suspect that would have been the case even if the lights had been on.  Everything (as far as I could see) was coated in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, and the creaky wooden floors felt like they might collapse under me, especially on the top level of what used to be a watermill; plus stumbling over rusty farm equipment in a blackened room was probably a recipe for tetanus (I’m very glad I’m up to date on all my vaccinations).  I say all this not because I’m particularly concerned about health and safety (on the contrary, I rather enjoy jumbled-up, rickety old places), more because there was absolutely no degree of upkeep evident in the museum, so I’m not exactly sure what our admission fee was paying for, besides possibly so the owner could pay rent and expand his collection (by contrast, the Museum of Everyday Life and the Bread and Puppet Theatre Museum in Vermont are two of my favourite places, and they also have an air of benign neglect – the difference is that they are free to visit, and have cool stuff inside them).

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So I’m sure you all know that Bakelite is an early plastic that they used to make into pretty much anything in the early-to-mid 20th century, so there was a varied array of crap on show, but sad to say, crap is what most of it was.  More than anything else, it was reminiscent of my grandpa’s basement, barn and garage.  My grandpa was a bit of a pack rat (I wouldn’t say hoarder, because he was capable of throwing some things out, and his living space was kept clear and tidy (though much of that may have been my grandma’s influence)), and in over half a century of living in the same home, he’d acquired quite an impressive collection of junk (though surprisingly well-organised junk, he was a great one for neatly labelling boxes), so I used to love wandering through his basement as a kid, as it was kind of a treasure trove of vintage toys, both leftover from my mother and aunts, and acquired from garage sales for my and my brother’s enjoyment.  After seeing the Bakelite Museum, I’m thinking we shouldn’t have cleaned out his house after he died, but left everything as it was, and charged people to look around like moustache man is doing.

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Some of it was vaguely sorted by type, and I suppose there is some satisfaction to be had in looking at a wide range of similar items arranged by colour, but I would have been a lot more satisfied if someone had taken a dust rag to the place at some point in the last decade.

DSC01693 DSC01702 These were all tools to hack various parts off animals

The first two floors were given over to Bakelite, but the top floor was meant to be some sort of Rural Life Museum, and contained the aforementioned collection of mouldering farm implements, including what I like to refer to as the “wall of animal mutilation devices,” with various castrating and branding appliances.  I suppose I was lucky that I could see any of it at all, because even with all the doors and windows open, most of the light didn’t penetrate the interior, so I was reliant on the small flashlight I keep in my purse for emergencies, to prevent me from tripping over something and killing myself.  Because of the flash on the camera, it may appear lighter in some of the pictures than it actually was.

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The only area I really liked in the museum was the last room (before exiting down a rickety staircase), which featured delightfully morbid articles like a Bakelite coffin, and some Edwardian mourning jewellery; as far as the rest of it was concerned, labelling was sparse at best (and nearly impossible to read anyway, between the hand-lettering and of course, the lack of artificial lighting), and I really didn’t need to pay to see a bunch of vintage radios or telephones shoved in a corner.  There’s apparently some sort of cafe, but we were the only people there, besides some friends of the owner who appeared near the end of our visit, so I would have felt really weird sitting there (I had to use the bathroom, which was located behind the guy’s house, and walking down a long dank alley by myself past more rusting machinery freaked me out enough).

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While in theory, this should have been exactly the sort of place I like – quirky, independently run, unusual subject matter – in practice, it fell totally flat for me.  I know the power outage was outside their control, but the owner should have at least offered a discount or a flashlight that was more powerful than the little one I just happened to have on me, as it was nearly impossible to even make out half of the collection (I’m assuming he was the owner because there was a large portrait of him hanging inside the museum, which I only noticed later when looking through the photographs, as it was too dark to see it at the time).  Even if the lights had been on, I still would have thought the place was kind of a rip-off, considering not much of an attempt had been made to curate anything.  My expectations were not high going into the museum, but it failed to meet even that low bar.  1.5/5.

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8 comments

  1. How disappointing. When I saw your title, I was excited as I love bakelite and am a bit of a collector.
    (visiting here at Anabel’s suggestion)

  2. I like your British travel posts. Regarding the Bakelite Museum, the owner is probably a hoarder/collector/classis English eccentric legitimising his obsession. I like that you keep a flashlight in your bag: I think that I shall add one to mine – i’ve got clippers, a ziplock bag and disposable gloves – much less practical & rather suspicious-looking if searched.

    1. Thank you! I’m quite sure he is an eccentric, but he could have put more effort in, like the lady who runs the Gnome Reserve has. The flashlight does come in handy. I also keep an emergency spoon, because one time I bought an ice cream cup and it was missing the wooden paddle…ever since then, I’ve wanted to be prepared for a similar situation.

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