Not all museums are housed in grand custom built buildings. Sometimes it is the building itself that is the Museum, none more so than the birthplace of a famous person, like an artist, writer or musician.
Edward Elgar, a British composer, famed for his Pomp and Circumstance Marches and Enigma Variations, was born in a house called The Firs in 1857. He only lived there two years, but given he liked to move about (twenty-one residences), this house is where his life is dedicated. The museum was established by his daughter, Carice, in 1934 when he died. As you would expect, there are original music manuscripts, letters (11,000), programmes, his bicycle, photographs and mementoes. The addition of a visitor’s centre, the Elgar Centre, was added in 2000.
Elgar wouldn’t have remembered his early life at the Firs. His father, who owned a music shop in Worcester, would bring musical friends to visit, inspiring the young Edward. But even after they left the house, Elgar would return again and again to visit the village, the connection established, and paving the way for the birthplace museum.
Elgar isn’t the only composer to have his home turned into a museum. Holst has a birthplace museum in the Cotswolds, and there are the Beatles childhood homes in Liverpool. Charles Dicken’s is in Portsmouth and Samuel Johnson’s in the centre of Lichfield.
The need to associate places with people is strong, even when the location doesn’t feature heavily in a person’s life. Placing objects related to a person somewhere personal adds that touch of reality, an intimacy, and dedicating a museum to one person focuses the mind on the impact that the individual has had on their time. Surely, keeping a collection intact and somewhere special is preferable to depositing it in a big museum?
If you had a collection in your name, art, music, objects, books, would you prefer to see them in one massive museum, easily accessible, but among many others, perhaps only partially on display, or kept close to where your family cherish your memory, even if that place is in the middle of a rural village?
A difficult choice. Should museums bring to the public eye the legacy of one individual to celebrate their contribution to society, or squeeze their life’s achievements and personal items into a house and add the personal touch?