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Powell-Cotton Museum at Quex Park in Birchington's two-year project in light of the Black Lives Matter movement


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A Kent museum with world-beating collections will not open for the rest of this year as it undergoes a two-year project to 'decolonise' it in ight of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Over the next two years the Powell-Cotton Museum in Thanet is to go through a ‘Reimagining’ programme, after museum trustees decided it was time to take a fresh look at its collections.

The Powell-Cotton Museum has some of the world's biggest dioramas
The Powell-Cotton Museum has some of the world's biggest dioramas

The project will include redesigning and developing the museum's education and outreach programme; deliver a Colonial Critters project; create a programme of public engagement, as well as carrying out work to the museum building, Quex House and Quex Gardens.

While the project is carried out, the museum, house and gardens will not be open for public visits, other than organised events and programmes though Felicity’s Café will stay open and weddings and events at Quex will still be running.

Museum trustees said: "We understand that not visiting this summer will be disappointing for some of our visitors, however we believe that this is the right moment to begin our new journey of discovery as we reimagine the museum, house and gardens. We hope that our visitors will join us on our new path. We are excited about our Reimagining programme and we are committed to ensuring we deliver on the promise to make the museum welcoming and accessible to all."

Explorer Percy Powell-Cotton in the Sudan
Explorer Percy Powell-Cotton in the Sudan

Explorer Percy Powell-Cotton (1866-1940) was also a hunter and early conservationist, and created the Powell-Cotton Museum in the grounds of his home, Quex Park in Birchington-on-Sea.

It is home to the largest collection of dioramas in the world, showing displays of the animals in their natural habitats.

But in recent times, it has come under the spotlight as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the museum visitors will see when it does reopen will be a little different.

"The Powell-Cotton Museum stands as an ally for the Black Lives Matter movement," museum managers said in a statement before announcing the project.

"We recognise that our collection is steeped in racism and colonial oppression. We would like to apologise for those past actions but we know that an apology is not enough. In addition, we acknowledge that today we remain a predominantly white workforce that does not reflect our audiences or the communities represented in our collections.

The Powell-Cotton Museum is undergoing a two-year project
The Powell-Cotton Museum is undergoing a two-year project

"This statement is a public declaration that we recognise these failings and the need for real change. To this end, we have instituted a broad, and in-depth, programme of de-colonising our museum and re-representing it collections."

Details

The Powell-Cotton Museum at Quex Park in Birchington-on-Sea was, like all other museums, closed during lockdown but will not now reopen this year. However, there are regular updates on the Facebook page which will keep you up to date on the work going on. To find out more go to powell-cottonmuseum.org or visit the Facebook page here.

An inspiration

The museum fed the inspiration of local author Anstey Harris decades before she put pen to paper.

At three years old, with her dog pyjama case in tow, Anstey was transfixed by what she saw inside the museum.

Anstey, who lives in Deal, has a vivid memory of that day. “One of my earliest memories is having a pyjama case in the shape of a dog, and I had it on a lead and I wanted to take it around the museum. But the man on the door said ‘you can’t have dogs in the museum’ and I absolutely loved that he thought it was a real dog,” she said.

Deal author Anstey Harris
Deal author Anstey Harris

Her experience led to a lifelong love of the museum, not to mention a friendship with museum founder Percy Powell-Cotton’s great granddaughter, and also inspiration for her second novel.

“My children were there before the age of three too - my daughter first went there in a sling,” she said.

“It is amazing. It has really beautiful displays and statues and it has a huge collection of mounted animals which when I was a child I loved seeing. Often when you go to the zoo you can’t see the animals but you can see them there, close-up.

“It never occurred to me that a child might not like it until I took my god-daughter when she was 10, and she said ‘all the poor animals’. But the intentions of Percy Powell-Cotton as a conservationist was to take the species so that people could learn about them and see them and understand them.”

The former creative writing teacher at Canterbury Christ Church University, who now also has her own company, Writing Matters, took her fascination and channelled it into her new book, Where We Belong.

The feel-good story of Cate Morris and her son, Leo, who stay at Hatters Museum of the Wide Wide World one summer, is set in the museum she loves and has visited regularly throughout her life.

It meant drawing on a subject close to her heart - over the years she has also become friends with Powell-Cotton’s granddaughter, Susan Johnson, who moved from Australia to carry on the family’s link with the estate. Their friendship means she often visits the site to see her friend, though, of course, she has an annual membership.

Explorer Percy Powell-Cotton in the Sudan
Explorer Percy Powell-Cotton in the Sudan

And she hopes by using the museum as a backdrop for the story, it could also help with the struggle for survival which the museum, along with thousands of others across the country, face after months of enforced closure.

“It is amazing how many people who are local haven’t been there,” she said. “They have been to Quex Park but not the museum, so I was really pleased to be able to set it there.

“My books sell internationally so if more visitors come to the museum and learn about it because of the book it would be giving a little bit back to the museum by stimulating tourism. Museums are holding on by an absolute thread.”

Though the animal displays inside may have taken on an extra controversial side in recent times, she enthuses about them, and urges visitors to see them in context.

“They are the biggest dioramas in the world. It is really stunning as an art form. Obviously we don’t agree with everything from the past but that doesn’t negate that they are beautiful. There was no thought of trophy hunting and taking animals to extinction as today. He was interested in preservation. Now we know different things and you have to consider the context in which he was then.”

Anstey Harris' book Where We Belong
Anstey Harris' book Where We Belong

Anstey says of Percy Powell-Cotton: "Of course he was privileged but that isn't his fault.

"You cannot help being born privileged but he took that privilege and did something really remarkable with it. He was an explorer and conservationist. Yes he was a hunter at a time when hunting wasn't seen as a bad thing, but I think it is important not to make people into monsters. An explorer living in a totally different context."

She also pointed to a ledger kept during his explorations showing what was given to the people who parted with their items for the collection.

* Where We Belong by Anstey Harris costs £14.99 in hardback and is published by Simon and Schuster.

For more news on venues across the county click here.

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