Time Travel at the Armagh Museum

A good friend recently put me in touch with Sean Barden, at the Armagh County Museum when I expressed an interest in writing some short stories set in the past and based on actual events in history. We discussed how objects from the past had their own stories, and I was invited to come down to the museum to see the temporary exhibit they have at the moment entitled Telling People’s Stories for 80 Years.

“You might remember Humpy the camel from Lenox’s,” he said.

“Oh my God, you have Humpy the camel!” I clapped my hands with delight.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who had reacted like that.

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

Every Armagh child who ever went into Lennox’s Department Store knew Humpy. He was one of those coin-operated rides that made children beg their parents for the money to take a ride that lasted a fraction of the time it took to procure the funding – a lesson for life indeed!

I loved how Humpy looked – he wasn’t humpy by nature – his face molded and painted in a friendly smile, his legs in a perpetual gallop. And he hadn’t changed one bit when I spotted him in The Armagh County Museum. In fact, it was all I could do to stop myself from patting his nose, now worn bare of paint from years of people doing the same. Since I had my museum manners on, I quashed the urge to throw my arms around his neck and whisper, “Take me away!”

The museum has 3 temporary exhibit areas and at the moment all three are being used. We took a walk through the exhibit, Eye in the Sky – a display of aerial photographs from a time long before we could send a drone up for such snaps. It’s fascinating to see familiar landscapes from that angle and era. I could happily spend more time browsing these – oh, but when would we have another rainy afternoon here in Armagh to do such things?

Humpy is one of forty objects as the signage at the museum explains…

“Armagh County Museum – Telling people’s stories for 80 years.

Armagh Natural History & Philosophical Society moved their museum into this building in 1856. However it would be another 60 years before the county museum was born.

When Armagh County Council took over the premises in 1930 and Council Secretary T.E. Reid was influential in getting local historian T.G.F. Paterson appointed as Honorary Curator. Paterson spent the next seven years building up a collection relevant to the history of the area and disposing of many of the Philosophical Society’s more unusual ‘curiosities’.

Armagh County Museum officially opened on 28 April 1937 and was the first dedicated county museum in Ireland.

To mark its 80th year we have chosen a selection of objects from the collection that tell the stories of people who have lived, worked and been associated with the Orchard County over the past 9,000 years.”

A helpful booklet is provided that tells a little about what is known about each object (numbered for easy referencing) and I invite you to fill in the rest with your imagination.

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

Take item number 6, for example. A human skull and reconstructed head. Who was that man?

We can see the hole in his skull, so no medals for guessing how he died.We are told that it was between 1000 and 1300AD and that he was aged between 25 and 35. The skull was found without a body during a dig in Market Street, which would suggest that he was decapitated.

Did his head roll into a ditch? Was a loved one left to wonder where that person (or even worse just the head) was until the end of their days? Was he a bad person? Had he deserved this end? Or is this the heartbreaking story of a man viciously wronged? Does his ghost still walk Market Street?

Beside the skull is a reconstructed model of what that man might have looked like. He was handsome and young.

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

The little patch box (number 17), though tiny, spoke of much bigger issues. This little box was used to hold the beauty spots that women wore on their faces. If you read the pamphlet that accompanies the exhibit you’ll learn from the clues on the container that this may have been quite the radical item to receive or gift to a secret lover perhaps! Find out more yourself at the museum.

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

Object numbered 8 is a stick pin found in a garden in Callan street. Linger a moment here. Focus in on the head of the pin and examine the fine detail.

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

Who took the time to make this and why spend so much time on tiny details that many might overlook?

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

I like the idea that this workmanship did pay off, that somehow the craftsman in the afterlife knows that we are still admiring his work.

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

These are but four objects in the exhibition – each if the others gave pause for thought in a similar way. It was so wonderful to get time away from the desk, from the screen (phone, tv, computer) and just have a look at real things. The museum is free in and a great change of pace. Often we don’t appreciate the treasures on our own doorstep and the Armagh County Museum really is one.

For me, the biggest revelation was learning the true purpose of a museum. While viewing bronze axes for the story I was researching, I commented on how good it would be to have a bigger museum to display more of the objects in storage. I was surprised when told that although a larger museum would be great, the ultimate aim was not to put every item in the collection on display. Actually, when objects are in storage it is easier to control their environment and thus preserve them better.

The job of a museum is not in fact to display everything it has collected but to keep that collection safe. Storerooms are not just some “dusty oul’ sheds” somewhere. Museum storage is working storage, accessible storage where each object is easy to find. Even when in storage each object is there for anyone who wants to look at it. A museum is essentially a collections resource centre, a library of objects. The Armagh County Museum has been collecting objects for 80 years and some of these objects date back as far as 9000 years ago.

It is not about restoring an object either – this implies that you are changing the object. It’s about making the object stable – taking a snapshot of time then trying to preserve the past – making time stand still. I joked with Sean telling him he was, in fact, a time lord – Armagh’s very own Doctor Who!

A tour of the stores had me fascinated. It was so tidy and clean and – joy of joys – labelled! A clutterphobes heaven in an oxymoronic way. The museum has an ongoing project to photograph everything it holds – like the stick pin. If you were doing a project, the museum will let you use their photos – all the photos on this post have been supplied by the museum. They are much better than anything I could take.

I learned something eye-opening on that visit – the museum is for more than browsing on a rainy day (though that’s cool too.) But if you wanted to research anything that has its roots in the past the museum is the place to go. Sean made me laugh out loud with his next truism – “It’s about getting past the posh frocks and the stuffed fox…”

Photograph courtesy of the Armagh County Museum

So do yourself a favour, tear yourself away from your screens and get down there – in person – to have a poke through moments in time.

On Saturday 31st March 2018 they are having a Family Fun Day and there will be owls – live owls! For more information click this link –

Maybe see you down there on Saturday.

Byddi Lee