Telling Milton Keynes’ story

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The shelter was cramped and dark and smelt of damp earth, but it was the eery whine of the siren, and not knowing what was going on outside that made it feel so claustrophobic.

The old tram must have been equally cramped, as the people of Deanshanger, Old Stratford and Stony piled on board for the ride to Wolverton Railway Works. Sitting in the double-decker carriage it’s easy to imagine the hubbub of flat-capped neighbours and workmates, shouting to be heard over the judder of wheels on the track of Britain’s last tram run by steam.

For those of us who grew up in an era of libraries where you weren’t allowed to talk, and museums where you weren’t allowed to touch, Milton Keynes Museum is a revelation. Not only are visitors positively encouraged to touch and try for size a whole host of fascinating exhibits, many of them have been brought together in vivid reconstructions so it’s possible to immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of another age.

In the Victorian farmhouse kitchen the smells of polish and burning coal in the range mix with the aroma of freshly baked scones.

Nearby, in the Victorian schoolroom, it is the sound of chalk and nails on slate, metal nibs scratching on inkwells, and the cane in the corner, that bring back a host of not entirely comfortable memories – even though today’s schoolchildren adore the novelty of sitting at wooden benches with lids that bang, and taking a turn to be teacher ringing the handbell for break.

Museum Director Bill Griffiths is proud of what at least two generations of dedicated and skilled volunteers have done since 1973 to bring the city’s past vividly to life. “I don’t think we are like many other museums. We have tried to take what others are doing and achieve something different, as Milton Keynes likes to do,” he explains.

“This is not a keep-off-the-grass museum. We like to surround people with artefacts so they have a sense of really being in them; being there. There’s so much that can be gained from picking something up, using it, making it work, and I think that’s helped us be successful in building a real relationship between generations: between the children who come with their grandparents and parents and can find out how life was for them, and between those who lived and worked here for centuries and those who’ve arrived to be a part of the city’s future!”

Of course it can also be a little unnerving to see some of the things you grew up with in a museum. I’m not sure I want to admit to being able to recall a time when shoppers queued to have everything weighed into paper bags and high streets still ressembled the brilliant Museum Street with its village Post Office, chemist’s, cobblers, cinema, general store and much, much more.

But Bill thinks it’s important we do see the story of our lives preserved for future generations, which is why the same attention is given to the humble tools of farming and gardening and daily life as to those displays – the Works board room and print shop – which tell us of this area’s historical importance.

“Firstly these things show us that we do have a past and give us a sense of a shared history and shared part in the place we’ve made home. More than that, we can see that if the things that were a part of others’ lives are valued, their contribution is noticed and preserved, then we know our own lives and contribution will be valued too.”

Alongside Milton Keynes’ industrial and agricultural past there’s growing recognition for this area’s key role in the history of communications – from the code breakers and Alan Turing’s pioneering work in computing, to the OU’s groundbreaking work in taking learning out of the classroom and into the home via TV screens and now phones and tablets.

It’s a claim to fame that is about to put Milton Keynes even more firmly on the map with the opening, this summer, of a whole new wing of the Museum dedicated to Our Connected Earth.

> Full details of opening times and this year’s events programme at http://www.mkmuseum.org.uk/