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What’s on the Ancient House? : Fusion of local museum and conserved old building

Old English houses really appear as if time stop has stopped; they are squeaking and slightly leaning ―this is one of my favorite impressions after we visited Norfolk and Cambridge. They are treated with love by local people and sometimes become museums serving a center of regional activities. I was fascinated that after various alteration and reutilization, these old buildings ended up in becoming museums telling not only their own history, but also the whole local history, and are still updating the history as a center of regional activities.

Ancient House, Museum of Thetford Life, is a local museum in an early Tudor town house in East Anglia. Although there is no document at present available to tell who built the house and when, architectural details point to a date of erection soon after 1500, and it seems to have been the home of a merchant of some wealth. Until being given to the town in 1921, the house had been altered several times becoming distinctively characterized resulting in an interesting mixture of styles. Since the Ancient House Museum opened in 1924, it has kept in step with the times as a local museum.

The Museum collections are wide-ranging; not only from the house itself but also receiving objects from local antiquarians, natural historians and ordinary residents, including materials (artefacts, specimens, maps, photos, etc.) of social and industrial history, archaeology, natural history, fine art, photographs and ephemera. There are over 7000 items in total, mainly of local significance. We can reconstruct the history of each collection and their collectors through every object in the exhibition held by the museum. It is exciting to discover rooms which have different displays one by one in the dim and old house as if I was exploring its treasures and secrets of the house. You can have the same feeling at the Museum of Cambridge, held in a building constructed in 1600 AD which used to be an inn.

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In this museum, you can also experience special temporary exhibitions apart from permanent ones throughout the year: for example, Thetford and the First World War (until 31st October 2015) and Flint Rocks! (21st November 2015 - 29th October 2016), which is a collaborative exhibition with Nagawa Town, Nagano Pref. Japan including Japanese obsidian. The museum has a professional curator and educator, but some of the exhibitions are designed not only by them, but also university students. Events, both occasional and regular ones, such as unique trails, discovery days, and circle activities are also actively organized for audiences of adults to little children. We joined a spinning activity by local wool spinners when we visited the museum. Three times a month, they gather in the hall of the museum bringing their own spinning wheels and have fun chatting to each other while turning the wheel swiftly. They taught us how to spin and explained that their spinning technique and wheels are not traditional ones, since spinning which used to be an important industry in the area stopped a long time ago. They spin as a hobby and enjoy it as a social activitiy. The museum is the suitable place for these gatherings and activities. In this way, the Ancient House is a center of regional activities.

In contrast, museums in Japan tend to be established in brand-new buildings even though there are many old buildings which are well-preserved and waiting to be reutilized. It could be a concern that museums established in old buildings could cause some confusion to visitors; they would not necessarily understand whether the exhibitions show the history of the buildings or something not related to the buildings. Even so, old buildings have great potential to be museums and can serve as a center of regional activities, thus local museum could be a more attractive facility for local people to gather.

(S.K.)

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