Wednesday 18 May 2016

Clothes Maketh the Man

On this International Museum Day I want to reflect on someone in the museum service I had the pleasure of working with. I’ve worked in several historic buildings and museums over the past 28 years – Epworth Old Rectory, Gainsborough Old Hall and Nottingham Castle. I’ve worked with a lot of interesting people and have taken even more interesting visitors on guided tours (from 200 Methodists bishops to the Dandy Warhols).

My last museum job was in 2005 at the Museum of Costume and Textiles here in Nottingham (pictured below). Since then my connection to the world of heritage has concentrated on lgbt history.
My last “boss” was a man I wish I had talked with more often. He had the official title of Keeper of the Costume and Textiles Collection of Nottingham City Council. His name was Jeremy Farrell (1947-2008), and a more gently soul I have rarely met. When I worked with him he was based in the costume museum, his baby, so to speak, which opened its doors to the public 40 years ago this June. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived the museum had been closed for several years. More of that later.

Jeremy William Farrell was born in 1947 and studied modern history at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. In 1970 he was appointed to the Costume and Textiles position in Nottingham.

At one time Nottingham was world-renowned as a leading centre of textile manufacture. Many innovations originated here. The framework knitting machine was invented nearby in 1589. In the 1770s Sir Richard Arkwright built the world’s first cotton mill just a few hundred metres from where I now live (it was a gay bar in the 1990s and early 2000s called The Mill and its interior kept the original wooden floorings, brickwork in the walls, and massive iron support beams – it’s now luxury apartments). Then lace-making factories were built in the surrounding streets. These mills and the machines were the target of the Luddites, championed by Lord Byron. The machines have gone, the factories are now apartments, studios and multi-storey car parks, but the area is still called The Lace Market. Nottingham lace is still sought after, though not much is made here any more.

With this rich heritage it was natural that Nottingham should have its own museum dedicated to textiles. The politicians at Nottingham city hall preferred not to. When Jeremy Farrell took up his post as Keeper the collection was housed at Nottingham Castle. Very little of it was on display amongst the many decorative and fine art galleries. Jeremy decided that a new museum would showcase the collection better.

After a lot of persuasion Jeremy convinced the city council to create the museum of costume. The photo above is of the Georgian terraced houses just across the road from Nottingham Castle that was chosen for the new museum. The first galleries were open to the public in June 1976. The museum was completed in 1983.

The layout remained virtually the same when I began working there in 2005. There were three floors, and 6 of the rooms were recreated in period style, each displaying costumes from that period. They also exhibited items from the decorative and fine arts collections to make the rooms look more authentic. In some of the other rooms were cases and cabinets which displayed everything from parasols to plimsolls, and from lace collars to corsets. On the top 2 floors were the offices, workrooms and stores where Jeremy was based.

The museum was extremely successful, and through Jeremy’s hard work and eye for a significant addition the collection grew very quickly into one of the most important costume and textile collections in the country.

Jeremy was also a writer of definitive books on umbrellas and parasols, and socks and stockings. He wrote many articles for textile publications.

In 2003 the museum was forced to close because it couldn’t be adapted for complete wheelchair access. As a Grade II listed building a lift could not be built. This was a hard blow to Jeremy. However, the collection remained on display and the museum was only open by prior arrangement for schools and academic groups. It had become a ghost of its former self. Nottingham city council also decided to go back to the old days and have the costumes at the Castle Museum. At that time I was working at the Castle and it was generally felt, though not openly expressed, that the city’s Labour politicians weren’t interested in preserving heritage (they preferred to spend it on a massive new HQ for themselves, and the city’s 5th art gallery). This was the same Labour council who several years before wanted to ban Robin Hood because having a robber as a hero gave the city a bad image!

The council tried to convince people that they were going to rehouse the costume collection in a new purposely-designed building, but everyone knew they weren’t interested.

When I arrived at the Costume Museum there were only 3 people working there – Jeremy himself, his partner David working as a volunteer, and a university intern. It never had any other full-time staff was always staffed by employees borrowed part-time from other council sites.

My work with Jeremy was to re-catalogue the collection. Much of the work had already been done but it was also slow work. Thousands of index cards had to be put onto computer. Jeremy quickly recognised my skills in research and gave me the extra task of doing additional research into the owners and families of the items in the collection. I was able to re-attribute several items which led to them being re-dated by Jeremy.

Jeremy’s kindness at what was a difficult time for me can never be over-emphasised. He never had a bad word to say about anyone and never judged them. I spent many hours with Jeremy up in the top attic stores re-boxing and examining hundreds of items. With every box Jeremy had a story to tell about its contents. His partner David often expanded on these with his own extensive knowledge.

I left Nottingham City Council and its museum service in November 2005 (not from choice). I tried to keep in touch with my former colleagues and it was on a regular visit to the Castle in 2008 that I learnt that Jeremy had died suddenly from cancer.

Jeremy Farrell will be remembered by all of us who worked with him as the kind of person you don’t want to leave. There was always something you wanted to go back and talk to him about, and he never disappointed. He told me so much that I’ve forgotten most of it. But what he taught me about the history of costume and textiles, in Nottingham specifically, was priceless.

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