‘It’s not just the items, it’s about interacting with the people…’Posted 31st July 2023
As the Milton Keynes Museum continues to mark its half-century, Pulse’s Sammy Jones takes another look back at how the history hub has evolved, by speaking with two of those volunteers whose input has been invaluable.
“I remember my first job at the Museum, which would probably put anyone off for life,” Neil Loudon says, laughing at the memory, “It was in the print shop, cleaning all the parkay tiles and then laying them!”
That was in 1980, and he has been a valued volunteer ever since.
“I started off fairly unskilled. I had just moved here and was looking for something to do, although I don’t think I really knew that at the time. I just sort of fell into it really.”
There isn’t one facet of the Museum that takes Neil’s attention – there are many.
“I am really interested in the objects and do a little bit of conservation and restoration, as well as manning the telephones, and now I’ve retired I do a little bit in the print room too,” he says, “But now it’s not just the items, it’s also about talking to people, interacting with the people and helping them to have an enjoyable time when they are here that appeals to me. Hopefully they will go away having learned something, and you can learn so much yourself as well, from the stories that people share.”
One such occasion presented itself only the day before our chat with Neil.
“The last people who came through the Communication Gallery said ‘I don’t suppose you remember someone living in the farmhouse?’ so I told them about the artists in residence who used to be here, and about Jack Trevor Story, the writer who was based at the farmhouse. It turned out the lady was the granddaughter of Jack’s brother!
“They had only met him once, and I was able to tell them about him. He was a real character. And that all came out of talking to them about some of the telephones!”
There have been some mega highs at the Museum, and watching the history hub grow in size and stature is right up there.
Not all memories are so positive though, and the arson attack in the early hours of New Years Day 1996 understandably casts a dark shadow in the memories of those who were there that dreadful day.
“After the director, Bill, I was the second one on site when the fire happened – it was a very cold, icy night and I got a call from Bill saying ‘The Museum is on fire.’ I had to de-ice the car and by the time I got to the end of my road – which is a mile or so away – I could see the flames in the sky.
“Then you turn up and it’s shock and horror, and there was nothing we could do except stand back and let the firemen do their job.
“In the aftermath sifting through the ashes, I was thinking, ‘I restored that item, that’s gone now…’” Bill said they would rebuild, and they certainly have – the Museum that visitors engage with today is the biggest and best it has ever been.
“Unique is a difficult word isn’t it, but we get people commenting and saying things like ‘I’ve never been to a Museum like this before,’ and ‘This is the best Museum I have ever been to,’ which is really gratifying…”
And what has kept you here through the decades? “They lock me in every night and won’t let me go!” he laughed. But if that were the case, we don’t think Neil would mind one bit!
Bryan Egan is 89 years young, and for half his life he has been entwined with the Museum. It’s in his blood.
“I was on the committee that first thought about having a Museum,” he says, “But though I didn’t join them, I would still lend a hand.”
The vast space that now houses the Museum hasn’t always been that way. In the early days it only occupied a small part of Stacey Hill Farm, the property it has now claimed as its own.
Back then, the main quarter was occupied by writers, artists and new town planners.
“…as they shrank, we grew and took over the spare bits,” Bryan recalled.
In those days, the new town of Milton Keynes was only a toddler itself, and with few of the features it is known for today.
John Dankworth and Cleo Laine were working hard in Wavendon, turning their vision of bringing music to the area into a reality, but their herculean efforts aside and the new town was largely quiet, with leisure activities limited.
Bryan’s wife, Pam, was whipping up interest working as a publicist for the Museum and she was clearly doing a great job – more than 1,000 people turned up one weekend!
In those formative years the Museum was gifted a great deal of items – one of the first was a significant Akroyd Stuart Diesel Engine from the 1800s.
Finding gifts left at the gate was a common occurrence: “As farms shut down, farmers would dump their stuff here,” Bryan recalls, “We’d take what we wanted and make good use of it.”
By the time local schools started visiting in the 1980s a great selection of historical wares had been assembled to aid the educational sessions exploring life in days gone by.
Neil mentioned the fire which lit up the Museum for all the wrong reasons as it swept through the threshing barn and cowshed, both of which had been on the site since the 1850s. But while the fire services spent time damping down the ruins post-blaze, the will and determination of the volunteers would never be dampened.
“It was bad,” Bryan acknowledges, “But everyone simply rolled up our sleeves and got going again.”
Today, Bryan can be found at the Museum every Saturday, welcoming visitors and sharing fascinating stories of its past; he remembers the Concrete Cows being constructed by artist Liz Leyh – they took shape in the area that now works as the Servants’ Room.
You won’t realise it, but Bryan’s handiwork is in evidence all over the Museum – he restores brasses, specialises in metals and is often found tinkering with something or other.
If an old oil lamp needs some TLC it’ll be Bryan to the rescue. He also stripped the parlour and created the Edwardian kitchen!
“I like the 1840s period, the country and engineering moved forward then – it was a time of real progression,” he explained.
Bryan is thrilled by the recent year additions to the Museum – the most significant being the impressive new gallery spaces, which in time will tell the ancient and the modern history of the new city.
“The expansion has made the Museum even more lively and hands-on,” he states, “We’ve got to look forward in order to look back and we certainly are doing that.”
In 2019, at the sprightly age of 85, Bryan was one of the recipients of the Queens Award for Voluntary Service, which recognises the outstanding work by volunteer groups to benefit their local communities. The honour put a bounce in everyone’s step and was richly deserved, as anyone who has ever spent time at the Museum will agree.
Bryan was one of three volunteers chosen to accept the official document, delivered by Vice Lord Lieutenant Alexander Boswell DL on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
“It was a recognition of what we have achieved as volunteers – everyone comes together and it’s a real community,” Bryan said, “The Museum keeps me skipping, and I will carry on giving my time until I have a tombstone put over me!”