East Grinstead, Sussex: East Grinstead Museum

I am, as I so often say, motivated mainly by food, and my visit to the East Grinstead Museum is a perfect example of this. We only stopped off because it was on the way to the Kent and Sussex Apple Juice and Cider Centre, which I need to visit every fall to procure cloudy apple juice in an attempt to satiate my autumnal appetites for American-style apple cider (if you get a good cloudy apple, it kind of fills the void, but is nowhere near as full-bodied and delicious as actual cider. Given the prevalence of hard cider here, I still can’t work out why no one seems to utilise all those apple presses to make the soft stuff, but I digress…). I get the impression that East Grinstead got HLF funding at some point in the relatively recent past to redo their museum, both because I had never noticed it before when searching for stuff to do, so it either didn’t exist or looked so unremarkable that I was disinclined to visit; and because the building itself looked relatively new, as did the displays.

  

East Grinstead is a free museum, and we found a car park that was free on Sundays just around the corner, though it appears that the museum itself has limited parking. The museum is all on one level, but the building clearly has an upstairs level (and was purpose built for the museum), so perhaps they only use it for storage or events. Therefore, the museum isn’t all that big, but it is split into two distinct galleries (three, if you count the small display area for art).

  

East Grinstead is remarkable mainly because of the Guinea Pig Club, which was founded here, at Queen Victoria Hospital. The Guinea Pig Club was described as “the most exclusive Club in the world, but the entrance fee is something most men would not care to pay and the conditions of membership are arduous in the extreme,” by their surgeon Archibald McIndoe. Basically, Queen Victoria Hospital was where airmen with severe burns were sent during WWII, and they were guinea pigs in the sense that they underwent radical and pioneering plastic surgery techniques to rebuild their faces. Despite all the pain and mental anguish that these men went through, they still maintained a sense of humour, and thus formed the Guinea Pig Club, primarily as a drinking club, for the men to socialise and talk about their shared experience.

  

Obviously this is an incredible story, and the museum devotes roughly half its space to telling it, including the experiences of some of the men in the club and the surgeons, nurses, and anaesthetists that treated them; and graphic descriptions (and depictions, in the form of wax figures, much to my delight) of the techniques used by McIndoe, including the rather old-fashioned (perfected by Harold Gillies during the First World War) but effective pedicle (see example above), where a strip of skin was cut loose along the bottom and sides, formed into a tube, and stretched and attached to another part of the body, for example, the nose, where a new blood supply would form. Once the new patch of skin had blood flow, the skin would be severed from the original area and reshaped to rebuild the patient’s facial features. While this worked very well, and helped to avoid infection in a pre-antibiotic age (since the inner layer of skin wasn’t exposed to air), it did mean that the patient would have to walk around with their arm attached to their face for a number of weeks (hopefully it was worth it in the end, but you can see why they needed a drinking club!). The residents of East Grinstead did their part to help these men transition back into society – it was known as “the town that didn’t stare,” because the people who lived here made a point to try and treat these men as normally as possible to help their mental recovery, and many of the men said that it was their acceptance by the people of East Grinstead that gave them the courage to resume normal life when they returned home. This was by far the best and most interesting section of the museum, and I really enjoyed hearing the stories of the men, and of course seeing all the wax figure tableaux.

  

The other main gallery of the museum was devoted to the history of East Grinstead, and this was more typical of every local history museum – some local memorabilia, a handful of prehistoric stuff, and some random ye olde artefacts (sorry if I sound less than enthused, but the museum I work for is very much in this vein, so it’s become hard for me to get excited about seeing much the same thing somewhere else, especially if I’m slightly jealous of their much more modern displays). However, this too appeared to have been relatively recently redone, and I did like some of the slightly more interactive elements, like the children’s table full of board games (including Operation, appropriately enough) and the wall of mystery objects where you had to guess their use and then use a mirror to check your answers. I also liked the little Iguanodon figurine (named Iggy) that they used as a sort of mascot on some of the object labels to tell us various facts about the town, apparently chosen because Iguanodon footprints have been discovered in East Grinstead.

  

There was also a small gallery filled with some artwork, as I mentioned earlier, although it was right next to the toilet, so not the easiest place to look around (it actually looked like there might have been more art in an adjacent room, but when I tried the door, it was locked, so perhaps not). But I have to give them props for having a very clean toilet with cute little rhymes in it encouraging visitors to donate to the museum to keep it running (effective too, as I dropped a couple pounds in the donation box on my way out). I also liked all the Guinea Pig Club themed merchandise in the shop, including t-shirts printed with their adorable logo, and especially the stuffed guinea pigs, though I couldn’t really justify buying one. I loved the story of the Guinea Pig Club – I would say that portion of the collection would be the reason to visit, rather than the local history stuff, unless of course you are a resident of East Grinstead (not to be mean about their local history collections, which are perfectly nice, I just think that if you’ve got a story as unique as the Guinea Pig Club, you might as well flaunt it!). 2.5/5.

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10 comments

    1. Yes, I’m sure a sense of humour was a great help to them. And they were also lucky that their surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, did so much to try to keep up morale – he was the one who encouraged the local community to welcome the convalescent soldiers into their homes to help them re-integrate into society.

  1. I did wonder what you had found when I saw East Grinstead in the title! It’s not a name that jumps up and says “tourist destination” to me. However, the story of the hospital is fascinating, and moving as well, so now I get it.

    1. Apparently it’s famous for railroads in some capacity as well – they even had a bookstore which claimed to have the largest collection of railway books in the UK. I am not enough of a rail enthusiast to have ventured in, so I can’t tell you why East Grinstead is known for railways, but I can’t imagine it is anywhere near as interesting as the Guinea Pig Club.

  2. Good god, to think of what they went through. Thank goodness for McIndoe, their club and “The town that didn’t stare” – I love that. And the wax figures are wonderful! (For once I’m not creeped out in the least.) And I love that they included a tableau of the men at the bar.
    And hats! That one is stellar on you – it actually works really well with the outfit 🙂

    1. I think they’re making a movie about the Guinea Pig Club, but it’ll probably be crap. And yeah, I can’t even imagine how much pain they must have went through. I had my back tattooed a few days ago, which I plan on milking as an excuse to do absolutely nothing all week, but it is painful enough for me! I’m sure a walking pedicle would be like 1000 times worse!
      And thanks! I do think that sort of hat suits me.

      1. I know, I need to stop getting them! It’s Halloween stuff – bats, jack o’lanterns, a black cat, etc. I’m sure I’ll post a picture once it’s healed, but it looks pretty rough at the moment!

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