Steve Minnitt and Peter Johnson

9th April 2013

Treasures of the

Museum of Somerset

Steve Minnitt is Somerset's Head of Museums and it was a privilege to hear his inside story on tie recent redevelopment of the Museum of Somerset in Taunton. In particular it was a treat to hear Steve's personal selection of favourite exhibits.

The recent refit was the latest episode in a project that has been ongoing for over 160 years. In 1849 SANHS (Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society) was formed in climate of developing interest in what we might today call "Heritage issues".

Membership was restricted to "the right sort" by a prohibitively high membership fee (for those days) of 10 shillings and the procedure of blackballing unwelcome applicants. A typical member might have been a clergyman or member of the minor nobility. Much of their activity as a society was focused on collecting and it was not long before they were running out of storage space but it was an ideal opportunity.

In the 1870s Taunton Castle was falling into disuse and facing ruin but it was an ideal opportunity for the society to acquire suitable premises to display its rapidly growing collection. In 1901 the Great Hall of Taunton Castle was opened as a Museum for the first time. Various improvements took place in the course of this century but by the end of the century it was beginning to be very outdated. Various plans for redevelopment were considered and, thanks to National Lottery funding, a 6.9 million pound scheme was embarked upon in 2008.

Steve's choice of treasures was dictated as much by the human stories they told as by the intrinsic value of the exhibits themselves. He started with the tales of three individuals with physical handicaps.

Sara Biffin

Sarah Biffin of Eastquantoxhead, William Kingston of Ditcheat and William Sewell, not a native of Somerset, were each in their own way quite extraordinary.

Sarah whose achievements are commemorated in the Museum by a delightful miniature portrait of a child, was born with no arms or legs. Despite this she taught herself to sew and then to paint using only her mouth. First making a living as a fairground attraction where people would pay to watch her at work, she subsequently became a society painter under the protection of The Earl of Morton. Sadly when he died she fell on hard times and in 1851 she died in poverty at the age of 66.

William Kingston, whose striking portrait hangs in the Museum, was born in 1763 with no arms but did not allow this to prevent him from being a successful farmer. He was perfectly capable of carrying out the normal tasks around the farm and was noted as a fearsome wrestler. A tale is told of his first wife, who apparently had a vivid dream that she would marry a man with no arms. One day William passed her house driving his cattle and despite never having seen him before, she rushed out to befriend him.

William Sewell is represented by an enormous pail of shoes, for he was a man of gigantic proportions. As an adult he weighed 37 stone and was 7 foot 4 inches tall. Born in Lincolnshire in 1805, William somehow found his way to the south west. Like Sarah in her early days he attempted to make a living by exhibiting himself in fairgrounds. Although he had no outstanding talents he was apparently a good-natured fellow and the people of Taunton took him to their hearts and raised money for a carriage and attendant. When he fell ill and died in South Wales his body was brought back to Taunton and buried at St Mary's, an end he had requested in his lifetime because the people of Taunton had treated him so well.

Steve then proceeded to describe a couple of the Museum's significant geological displays.

In 2003 a fossil hunter was scouring the rocky shore near Hinkley point when he came across'some very distinctive bones which had clearly been recently exposed. Suspecting that these were the fossil remains of a plesiosaur, an extremely rare specimen, and knowing that they needed to be removed quickly before they were damaged by the sea he contacted the Museum. An immediate response saved the fossil which was carefully cut from the bedrock before harm could come to it. Thanks to everybody's prompt reactions (and 21,000 worth of conservation work by the Natural History Museum) this 188 million year old fossil is now a star exhibit in the new Museum.

The story of the Banwell Bone Caves takes us back to a different era. In 1757 miners broke into a previously unknown cavern near Banwell. Dramatic formations of stalactites turned it into a tourist attraction for a while but interest waned and it became almost forgotten In 1824 efforts were made to find a new and easier entrance and a new cave was discovered which was found to contain large numbers of animal bones.

The Bishop of Bath and Wells, on whose land it was found, took this to be evidence of the Biblical Flood and developed the site with suitable texts and displays to further illustrate the lesson. the irony is that these very bones, the remains of animals which had fallen to their death in the cave, were evidence of the process of evolution - quite the opposite of the point the Bishop was trying to make. This collection is one of the Museum's most important and it still being studied for the evidence it contains of climate change.

Gold Torc

And so we turn to Archaeology with the unedifying tale of the Yeovil Bronze Age gold torc. This solid gold object was found by the gardener Henry Cole in the course of his work in 1909. Not knowing how best to dispose of it he hung,on to it for six weeks. Eventually he decided to declare the torc and it was deemed not to be Treasure Trove. He ended up selling it to SANHS for 40. However on further consideration he came to think that he had been hard done by and made weekly visits to the Museum in a bid to extract more money. He was finally bought off for another 5 but the eminent archaeologist Harold St George Gray apparently made some derogatory remarks and Cole brought a case for defamation which lingered on for some time.

Steve then-turned to the Frome Hoard recently discovered by a metal detectorist Dave Crisp, and reported in exemplary fashion so that it could be properly excavated. The coins were contained in a large pot. When the layers were removed there was found coins of several Emperors. Perhaps the most interesting was the collection relating to the breakaway Britannic Emperor Carausius (286-293). One of his coins bore an unusual inscription suggesting a renewal of Roman Rule in Britain after an interruption.

The final item,on Steve's list of favourites is an item which has become the centrepiece of the new display. The Low Ham Mosaic was discovered as a result of observation and persistence by a young amateur archaeologist. In 1945 he noticed a single-line reference in the SANHS Proceedings to a find in 1937 of an unusual tile which had been reported by a local farmer. The young man persuaded the farmer to allow him to dig in the field, when more remains and a section of mosaic floor were revealed. The following year a full-scale excavation was mounted and the full extent of the Mosaic became clear. It is unique in Roman Britain in telling a well-known classical tale - that of Dido and Aeneas. The story by Virgil is told, cartoon fashion in five separate panels.

One sensed that Steve's intimate knowledge of all these objects allowed him to tell their stories with an unusual depth of commitment. If you have not yet visited the Museum of Somerset you have a treat in store. Please see the link below.

Peter Johnson