It was the waiter race that really won me over. Torquay, early 60s – a group of distinctly Mediterranean looking waiters beam at the camera in their sparkling white tuxedos before racing off past the Technicolor crowd with their trays of drinks. The voice-over waxes lyrical over the delights of the Devon Riviera, “which rivals Monte Carlo with it’s harbour full of luxury yachts and vessels that safely harbour here”.
We came across this glorious snippet of history, wedged between hand-painted prints of 19th century seaside spas and Super-8 beach movies, on a discreet video monitor as we entered gallery 1 of the newly refurbished RAMM Museum. The rest of the room was filled with an eclectic mix of Devonian life through the ages from Neolithic arrowheads and a gold Roman coin found in the Exeter mud to the reconstructed bomb shelter enlivened by a film of locals recalling their war experiences in the city.
RAMM has pulled off a complex stunt; they have managed to encapsulate the essence of the Renaissance ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’ and place it in a modern Museum environment that pleasures and peaks the interest of young and old alike. Walking through the galleries is like taking an intriguing trip through someone’s unique and obsessive mind, which is, of course how collecting and categorising began.
The early ‘cabinets’ were created to provide intellectual stimulation, solace or simply to show off but the fashion outgrew the cupboard to take over rooms, then entire buildings that became institutions of education, science and conservation. RAMM works on all those levels but its diminutive size (compared to it’s big city brothers) and playful choice of exhibits combine to create a treasure box of fresh ideas.
Our children raced around the gallery which was fitted out with several interactive games. Below an eighteenth century painting of local estate owner Thomas Brown, resplendent in heavily embroidered knee-length waist coat, the kids read instructions to match and assemble paper waistcoats from the best fabrics and trimmings. Others were trying their hand at mosaic building, recreating bronze age day daily life with a model of a long house or flipping wooden wool merchants to discover the path of the wool trade.
My favourite display contained the contents of a rubbish pit spanning 350 years, found in an Exeter back yard. We noticed it as the crowds caused one of the items, a blue stoneware jug made in Germany, to tremble on its wire as we walked by. Amongst the things found in the pit was a 13th century leather shoe, a tennis ball stuffed with moss, bone dice, 14th century Chinese porcelain, pet dog skulls and a smashed wine bottle bearing the seal of William Piers, Bishop of Bath 1650 which brought scenes of Black Adder–esque drinking games to mind. As I looked about me everyone was reading because all the items have been given context and story, whether about the sisters who made lace for Queen Victoria or the amount a lost coin was worth to a Roman legionnaire.
When we finally moved onto the next room ‘Step into History’ we were ready to sit and watch a short film, even if it was one about geology. As the globe spun in one corner showing the shifting shape of the continents, the film illustrated the changing landscape of Devon over the last 400 million years: mountains rose up from the seabed; volcanoes burst; the landscape stretched; dinosaurs walked past to be replaced by tropical hippos, icy wastes, then, finally man, trudging against a sparkling night sky of Dartmoor. Our destructive age a mere moment in such a timescale, beautifully illustrated in a nutshell.
Cases of flints, fossils and rocks surrounded us with informative labels linking geology with the tobacco pipe industry of the 1700s or the history of a famous fossil collector. The interactive ipad didn’t work but we didn’t need it.
The next section was aimed at small children who are encouraged to write and draw on postcards about their experience of the museum then stick them on the wall. Buttons at knee-height entice toddlers to light up darkened niches full of specimens and beyond that was a room dedicated to conservation which encyclopaedic panels that seemed to attract the teenage crowd.
As we left we passed a wall of glass from floor to ceiling. The wall was divided up into boxes filled with various objects including jars of smells by artist, Nicky Hirst, created to display how evocative aromas trigger memories and experiences. The jars were engraved with their contents like ‘My old dog’s bed, he had to go to the Blue Cross so that smell helps me remember him. He had to go because he chased sheep. I was very sad.’ S asked, “What’s the Blue Cross? When I explained, her eyes welled up with tears, but she recovered when she realised he would have been adopted. It was a visceral experience; unexpected and enriching.
Free Entry: RAMM, Queen Street Exeter EX4 3RX Open 10-5 every day except Monday
There is so much to see we are splitting our visits taking a floor each time. It took us 1 hour and a half (with 8 & 10 yr olds) on the ground floor. You could do it in an hour or spend three or four.