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A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects

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Paul Sargeant Paul Sargeant | 11:58 UK time, Friday, 24 December 2010

What comes to mind when you think of Cornwall? Sandy beaches? Fishing? Rick Stein? That’s the popular image: sleepy fishing villages and crowded beaches. But how about soap? Did you know that Mr Pears of Pears soap came from Mevagissey in Cornwall?  Or astronomy? John Couch Adams, jointly credited with the discovery of the planet Neptune, came from around Launceston, near Dartmoor.  Or peace? I bet you didn’t know that Alfred Nobel, he of the Peace Prize fame, once owned an explosives factory at Perranporth.

Me neither. But now we do thanks to a fantastic project underway in Cornwall that is bringing these stories together from museums across the county. Mary Godwin from Cornwall Museums explains what they’re doing:

Cornwall in 100 Objects


Throughout 2011, Museums right across Cornwall, from the Atlantic coast to the Tamar, are telling ‘A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects’ - a project inspired by HOTW - and these objects are now being posted onto the History of the World website.

The project is being run by the Museum Development Officer team who are based at the Royal Cornwall Museum, in Truro.  The selection process has involved museums of all sizes – of which there are over 60 in the county - from tiny volunteer-run museums to major high-profile organisations.  The aim is to get local people and visitors alike to see these unique objects and learn more about Cornwall’s history. 

There has been some heated debate along the way and the final choice has not been without controversy, but it has certainly generated a lot of interest and brought to light some wonderful, unexpected and quintessentially Cornish objects.

One of those 100 objects is a surfboard from Perranzabuloe Museum at Perranporth.  Bellyboard surfing became popular at Perranporth soon after the end of World War I when George Tamlyn and William Saunders returned from the western front. There they had met South African surfers and decided to bring the sport to Cornwall. 

The local coffin maker and builder, Tom Tremewan knocked up surf boards at 2 shillings a time. The first boards were flat and made from two pieces of tongue-and-groove deal screwed to three wooden cross pieces.

Old floorboards and nails were used, to keep costs down and additional supplies were sometimes brought to Perranporth on the top of the local bus.  Hundreds of surf boards were made each year at Tremewans in Perranporth.   Better types of boards, with curved ends, evolved over time, at a higher price of course. 

Another very Cornish and very strange object is the Padstow Obby Oss which can be seen in the town’s volunteer-run museum.  Padstow is not only famous for Rick Stein’s cooking but also for one of Cornwall's most famous and enduring May Day folk customs. The Obby Oss looks very much like an African mask – it’s very similar to that of the Duck Dancers of New Guinea.

Over the coming year the 100 objects project will be used to generate media and community interest in museums and Cornwall’s unique heritage. 

It’s great to see the museums in Cornwall joining together to do this. Perhaps, I’ll make it down there next year to hunt down some of the objects – I particularly like the look of Elliot's shop. In the meantime, you can look through all 100 Cornwall objects here, including Trengrouse's Rocket, Gorsedd robes and  Alfred Nobel’s stool.



  • Comment number 1.

    Bath in 100 Objects

    The museums of Bath have nominated the most significant objects in their collections for “Bath in 100 Objects” now featured on a digital museum on objects. The objects tell the story of the people of Bath and their achievements and the evolution of the city from Roman times to the present day. Objects range from a Bath chair to a fizzy pop factory; a wig scratcher to a giant plug; a collection of corsets to the telescope used to discover Uranus. 99 objects have been selected and the people of Bath are being invited to name the final object at the end of 2011, The Year of the Museum in Bath.

    Inspired by the BBC project “History of the World in 100 objects”, Bath Tourism Plus invited the city’s museums to nominate objects and a “panel of experts” made the final selections. The aim is not simply to chronicle the history of Bath, but “to highlight some of the treasures on display at the museums on our doorstep,.” according to Robin Bischert, Chief Executive of Bath Tourism Plus.

    The fascinating stories behind each object are chosen to inspire both the local population and the four million annual visitors to the city and help them to piece together Bath’s role in the history of the UK. As well as bringing moments of history to life, Bath in 100 objects is a lasting digital legacy for future generations.

    Items that tell stories from unexpected chapters in the city’s history can be found in the seventeen museums in the city, like a bronze bust of William Harbutt the inventor of plasticine (the bust was originally modelled in plasticine before it was cast in bronze) or the telescope of William Herschel who discovered Uranus in 1781 the first planet to have been discovered since ancient times, doubling the size of the known universe. The entire workings of Mr J.B. Bowler’s engineering and mineral water factory at the Bath at Work Museum show how he bottled fizzy pop and ginger beer using his 19th Century carbonating plant. The choice of Bath Spa Station as an object pays tribute to its architect Islambard Kingdom Brunel who opened his Great Western Railway between Bath and Bristol in 1840.

    Discover relics of Georgian life at Number One Royal Crescent such as an ivory wig scratcher used to relieve the irritation caused by fleas that infested the elaborate wigs worn by fashionable 18th century women. The wigs were built on a wire structure padded out with false hair to reach a fantastic height but unfortunately the powder and pomatum used to dress them attracted vermin.

    Bath is renowned for its architecture and is one of the few cities to be designated as a World Heritage Site, the 100 Objects include the Royal Crescent itself, designed by John Wood, The Younger in 1767, one of the finest ever built. The Building of Bath Collection lifts the lid on the mystery of how these magnificent terraces were constructed. A working model demonstrates the mechanics of the ubiquitous sash window. Fine craftsmanship is celebrated in many ways in Bath. In the Assembly Rooms, once the social hub for fashionable society, the eight foot high chandeliers originally lit by candles are some of the finest to have survived from the 18th Century.

    The Assembly Rooms house The Fashion Museum with an exceptional collection of corsets among its treasures. Other unusual objects include a 4000 year old jade bi-disc at the Museum of East Asian Art and one of the most exquisite Baltimore Album quilts in the world at the American Museum in Britain. Exquisite objects and fine paintings include the Byam family by Thomas Gainsborough at the Holburne Museum re-opening in May 2011. The artist resided in Bath in the late 1750’s and captured many of its fashionable visitors.

    Travelling back to the Roman times, the Roman Baths has nominated some of their most treasured artefacts. Minerva’s Head is one of the most significant finds; the gilt bronze head from a statue of the goddess Sulis Minerva to whom the temple was dedicated. The Gorgon’s Head Pediment, is another remarkable discovery, part of only two classical style temples in Britain.

    The sacred hot spring that has played such a pivotal role in Bath’s story is one of the chosen objects. The Hot Bath Plug at the Thermae Spa Visitor Attraction Centre measures a 26 inches in circumference and is seven foot tall. Another item on show is the needle douche, a contraption used for spa treatment in the Victorian era to cover the patient in needle like sprays of hot spa water.

    Bath Tourism Plus has co-ordinated the Year of the Museum in 2011 which sees the re-opening of the Holburne Museum in May and the completion of major investment programmes at the American Museum in Britain and the Roman Baths. The three museums have invested more than £20 million in development between them.

    For a city of its size Bath has more museums than most, with 17 museums within a square mile. Many of them tell the story of the city’s history or of the extraordinary characters that made Bath their home; like William Beckford who built his folly, the Beckford Tower to house his treasures, and astronomer, William Herschel. The programme for the Year of the Museum in Bath includes special events and exhibitions and a new World Heritage Audio Trail.


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