Up on the third floor of the Novium Museum in Chichester, we merry band of Questers are busy Handling Objects.
Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides, Portia and Catherine,
have shown us what happens to rare objects which come into the Museum's care - how they are documented, treated if necessary for nasty bugs, and carefully preserved in appropriately acid-free bags, tissue paper and cardboard boxes. Other objects, which might
be classified as interesting but not rare, find themselves being handled and exclaimed over by groups such as ours.
Some of the objects we passed around our circle were exact replicas of the Real Thing - such
as a clever set of Roman tools, including a set of tweezers, an instrument for cleaning dirt out of Ancient Nails, and one for removing ear wax (from Ancient Ears.) The Ever Busy Joy (she who gave me the knitting pattern for my woolly Christmas puddings and
put me to shame by spending the whole train journey from Worthing to Chichester working on her latest crochet project) is laughing at me across the room and pretending to attack her ears. Her husband, who happens to be sitting next to me, confides that she
has a bit of Ear Trouble. Presumably so did the Romans which only makes them seem rather more like us and not so very distant.
Talking of Romans, there is also a piece of Roman crockery to handle. It's nothing
special, Catherine tells us - but decorating the rim are the thumb prints of the potter. There is something quite awe-inspiring about putting your own thumbs in the very prints made by a craftsman of days gone by.
We all laugh at a toy Pop-eye who looks a trifle deflated. "Give him some spinach!" one of our number implores. We all laugh and ask if there might be an Olive Oyl hidden in the depths of the museum's storage. Sadly, not.
We gasp over the delicacy of a lacy baby's Christening gown, shudder a little as we try to fit a Second World War gas mask over our faces, and screw up our noses at a bar of Lifebuoy soap, still in its box, still smelling somewhat obnoxious but, according
to the back of the packet, wonderfully effective for a fair complexion. None of us feel inclined to put its claims to the test.
One of the Handling Objects is an old Oxo tin, something I remember well from
my childhood. A typewritten note on the lid tells us that these tins made handy lunch boxes for the children of the Forties and Fifties. Feisty Jean, my friend from the Birdy group, has an even better story to tell. District Nurses, she informs the group,
used to ask patients to save these tins which could then be packed with dressings and bandages and put into a hot oven to sterilise the contents. This is news to our two guides. Catherine says it is one of the aspects of group visits which she enjoys most.
There is always someone with new information to share.
The Novium is a splendid museum indeed and, while apparently there are Chichester residents who bewail the passing of the old museum with its higgledy-piggledy
display of artefacts, I love the modern display cases, the light and the space. I particularly like the humorous touches in many of the captions - the very opposite to usual starchy captions you find in most museums. Who said you can't be old and funny too?
On the ground floor you can look over into the site of a Roman Baths - the caldarium or hot room in fact: pictures of Romans enjoying the baths are projected onto the surrounding walls, for all the world as if we are
watching ghosts at their leisure. How clever to incorporate an archaeological site into the very heart of a museum. Once covered by a car park, now revealed for all to see and marvel at those clever Romans.
a floor and there's a lead coffin lining, dated from about the fourth century AD. The occupant apparently was a very old man with bones affected by arthritis but surprisingly good teeth. Plus there's a Municipal Moon Lantern, dating back to the mid 17th century,
which used to be carried in Mayoral processions - bringing up the rear, while a Municipal Sun Lantern led the way. I wonder if any civic dignitary has ever thought to revive the custom, using the original as the pattern for two new lanterns to light the way
to the Guildhall?
I love delving into the past. I could stay here all day but I have to be home for Mr B who is still not at his best. He would have loved the museum too.
One day, like the gas mask and the Oxo tin, some of the everyday objects in our homes today will end up in a 22nd Century Museum and a future Portia and Catherine will be passing them round a circle of latter day Questers with inquisitive minds. I have
had a quick look around my house and, with half a mind on Popeye, I have settled on the Giant Penguin who sits on our door-step to welcome visiting grandchildren. He is a bit, well, flatter than he used to be, having been sat on, stood on, used as a bridge
between two strategically placed armchairs and generally mistreated by a succession of young'uns over the years. Nevertheless he would grace any collection, I reckon, though he'd have to come with a Health Warning:
Handle with care! You never know where he's been...