Celebrating Portsmouth's museums on their 125th anniversary

With a crowd of hundreds gathered round him, world-renowned actor Simon Callow read a poignant piece to mark 200 years since Charles Dickens’ birth.

Friday, 24th January 2020, 4:02 pm
Updated Friday, 31st January 2020, 10:43 am
Portsmouth's D-Day Story has been nominated for the European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA) 2019.

Where did Callow, a Dickens’ scholar, choose to mark the occasion in 2012? Not at Westminster Abbey, where the author of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations is buried.

No, he chose the tiny cobbled street where Dickens was born, one of the jewels in the crown of Portsmouth Museum Service.

It was bought by the council in September 1904.

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Charles Dickens birthday celebrations at his birthplace in Portsmouth. Pictured on stage is Simon Callow getting the crowd to do three cheers. Picture: Paul Jacobs (120449-10)

The terraced house has been perfectly preserved by the experts at Portsmouth City Council – and countless volunteers.

Dickens’ fans travel from all over the world to visit the narrow Regency house bearing a simple blue plaque outside.

Any town or city would be lucky to have such an important attraction, but Portsmouth boasts six major council-owned museums – and they are of international importance.

Joining Charles Dickens’ Birthplace, in Old Commercial Road, is Cumberland House Museum, Portsmouth City Museum, Southsea Castle, The D-Day Story and the Eastney Beam Engine House.

A Gentoo penguin egg found in the Falklands and now on display in Cumberland House Natural History Museum, Southsea.

And this year marks 125 years since the first museum in Portsmouth opened.

It was housed in the old town hall in High Street, Old Portsmouth, which stood next to what is now The Dolphin pub.

That was in 1895.

Andrew Whitmarsh is the curator of The D-Day Story, in Southsea, the newest museum in the collection.

The D-Day Museum opened in 1984 to tell the story of the epic D-Day landings and to house the stunning Overlord Embroidery.

The building was designed by the council's chief architect, Ken Norrish, and opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

It was shortlisted in the European Museum of the Year awards in 2019 following a £5m revamp between 2017-18.

He says: ‘Just being nominated is pretty amazing. We’re very proud of this museum, it is a feather in Portsmouth’s cap. It is not just renowned and respected locally, but around the world. It is a great asset.

‘The D-Day Story captures a time when Portsmouth was on the world stage, a really big moment in our history’.

What makes it important, says Andrew, is the number of artefacts that were gifts between civilians and allied forces.

One such item is a coat owned by a little girl from Gosport during the Second World War. As allied troops passed by she collected badges from them and nearly 100 are sewn into the the little blue coat. A real treasure.

Another asset to undergo redevelopment recently is Cumberland House Natural History Museum in Southsea.

It was purchased by the council in 1931 and turned into a natural history museum with an art gallery.

Many a schoolchild visited the old butterfly house with their classmates and in 2017 it had a much-needed £100,000 makeover.

Christine Taylor is the curator, the first in 10 years.

She says: ‘It is a very special place. The new butterfly house holds butterflies from South America.

‘We hatch them in the puparium and they fly around the butterfly house.

‘We also have an A-Z of really lovely objects of local and international natural history – from hedgehogs and moles, to kiwis and pangolins – a type of anteater.’

Our museums harbour some fascinating objects. One of Christine’s favourites is a group of three gentoo penguin eggs with drawings made on them by the crew of the Royal Research Ship Discovery II.

She says: ‘These gentoo penguin eggs are thought to have been collected from the Falkland Islands when the ship was working on biological and hydrological surveys in the area between 1931 and 1933.

‘One of the eggs is illustrated with a chinstrap penguin and possibly an adelie penguin in the background – there is some artistic licence with the markings.

‘Another egg depicts the Discovery II, and the third egg shows the boat's crew of Discovery II and Port Stanley'.

Coming up this month is a major exhibition called E is for Dodo. It looks at species both locally and internationally which are under threat or have already gone extinct.

The star of the show is a dodo skeleton.

Christine says: ‘What people don’t realise is there’s wildlife on our doorstep which is at risk – the hazel dormouse, the skylark and the hedgehog’.

The exhibition opens on February 15.

During the Second World War the museum building in Old Portsmouth was bombed and a large part of the collection was lost: Cumberland House became the main museum until new premises could be found.

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of growth for the museum service –Southsea Castle was purchased in 1960, and in 1972 a new city museum opened in Museum Road, part of the former Clarence Barracks. Eastney Beam Engine House was also opened to the public as an industrial museum in 1972.

As well as permanent collections there are exciting events happening all the time. And outreach community work is a major part of the museum service, which is constantly evolving.

But what has remained at its heart for the past 125 years is the preservation of our culture, art and heritage. Go to portsmouthmuseums.co.uk

VOLUNTEERS ARE A VITAL PART OF THE MUSEUM SERVICE

As well as the experts, Portsmouth Museum Service has an army of volunteers helping run our museums.

They greet visitors, listen to their stories, digitise objects and artefacts, and even keep the museums’ storehouse at Hilsea organised.

Eighty volunteers contribute 1,000 hours a month to Portsmouth Museums. Daniel Jessop, the participation officer at The D-Day Story, says: ‘They add value to the visitor experience, work directly with objects and are also ambassadors across the city for the stories our museums tell. The D-Day Story wouldn’t be what it is without them. They give up their time for free and undertake training. While our staff are concerned with the day-to-day running of the museums, they will be listening to visitors’ stories.’