I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon there yesterday. I experienced a frisson of excitement as I entered for a lady was in the throes of a “show and tell” episode with the man behind the counter. It seems she had discovered some artefact in her garden, and, eavesdropping as best I could, I overheard the gentleman declare that the item was officially “treasure”. How thrilling! The scene was so distracting that the lady at the admission desk ignored me and my entourage for a good five minutes before she acknowledged our presence. All was forgiven, though, as the circumstances were exceptional.
The ground floor of the museum houses artefacts connected to social and local history, with an element of the macabre throughout. Despite this common theme, the exhibitions feel disconnected and slightly random, but they are fascinating nonetheless. My favourites were firstly the lock of Mary Tudor’s (1496-1533) hair which was as luxuriant and golden as the ripened wheat in the Suffolk fields. (Her connection with the local area is that her second marriage was to Charles Brandon, First Duke of Suffolk, and she’s buried in St Mary’s Church in the town.)
I also loved the Anglo-Saxon pyramidal mount for a sword scabbard or sword belt, resplendent in gold, embellished with filigree and with a square garnet in the centre. It was tiny, but arresting, partly so because its shape reminded me of one of the sweets you get in Quality Street, but I can’t remember which one.
We turned the corner to the section on witchcraft and its morbidly fascinating exhibits—the dessicated cats found stuffed in walls to ward off witches, and the shoes (pronounced “shoowuz” in Suffolk) and witch bottles which served the same purpose. Interesting to learn, too, that the trials of 18 witches in Bury St Edmunds in 1662 influenced the Salem witch trials 30 years later.
Another ghoulish exhibition was that relating to the Red Barn Murder committed in Polstead, Suffolk, in 1827. William Corder shot dead his lover Maria Marten and secreted her body in the so-called Red Barn. Corder’s trial in Bury St Edmunds in August 1828 attracted a frenzy of interest. The man admitted his guilt and was hanged before a crowd of thousands (some say up to 20,000 spectators were present). The museum reveals that because it was unclear how Maria died, Corder was charged with every possible way of killing her, and that Maria’s decomposing head was used as evidence in the trial. If that’s not enough gore for you, you will be pleased to learn that Corder’s tanned scalp forms one of the exhibits, as does a book bound in his skin.
There is plenty more to see, most notably an exhibition relating to St Edmund, after whom the town is named. He was the king of East Anglia from approximately 855 to his death in 869. The poor old boy was slaughtered and beheaded by the Danes after refusing to renounce Christ. After death his head was reported to spontaneously reconnect to his body—weird.
I was also pleased to see that the man trap complete with partially-severed leg, which I remember from childhood visits to the museum, was still in situ.
I’m sorry to report that I found both the Olympics exhibition on the top floor and the Suffolk Regiment Gallery on the middle floor unimaginative, and I can’t think of anything more to say about either.
However, the museum’s flaws are far outweighed by the fascinating contents of the ground floor exhibitions, and all in all, I would definitely recommend a visit.
By some bizarre twist of fate, as we left a man, this time, was standing at the front desk showing the museum gentleman some coin he had found. My eavesdropping this time determined that the find wasn’t as thrilling as the earlier treasure…but nonetheless, I left with a feeling of satisfaction that our visit had been sandwiched between two new discoveries for history-lovers everywhere!