Digging for treasure in a dustbin: It may be the most boring museum in the world, full of the ephemeral bric-a-brac of recent history, but to his surprise, John Windsor has become a fan of The Grange in Neasden

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Grange, community history museum of the north London borough of Brent, is situated on a traffic island in Neasden and promoted from time to time by McDonald's. It has not, so far, been nominated as the world's most boring museum. But a recent benefaction by Murray Bumstead, a retired businessman, of wartime Penguin paperbacks by Ian Hay - indisputably the world's most boring novelist - will quicken the pulse of those capable of recognising history in the making.

The museum owns a collection of hairpins, found in the drawer of a treadle sewing-machine, clogged with an amber-coloured substance now identified as ear wax. There are gas meter reading cards which could date back 30 or 40 years. And, in the 'Asian case', Asian romance videotapes.

As for the battered wartime Ian Hay novels, The Grange's curator, Finbar Whooley, from Cork, has come across wartime library committee minutes recommending the purchase of such light reading for use in underground air raid shelters. It was hell down there.

Unlike The Grange, outmoded, unreconstructed museums are still displaying fine art which belonged to maybe only a handful of wealthy collectors. Nob culture rules. Nerd culture hardly gets a look in. 'Community museums', upholders of social relevance and multi-culturalism, welcome donations of ordinary objects by, well, ordinary people.

The Grange's most valuable possession, basking in its own irrelevance, is hung out of sight of the visitors above the door of Mr Whooley's office. It is a stylish 1827 oil painting of a horse and jockey by John Ferneley, thought to be worth up to pounds 40,000 at auction. Just as well it is hidden. Although the sale proceeds of a 'de-acquisition' would legally revert to the museum, the painting is tempting booty for councillors stung by accusations that Brent gives council tax payers the worst value for money.

Mr Whooley is regaling me with tales of the squirearchical Titus Barham (d1937) - collector of the Ferneley, wealthy former owner of The Grange, whose remaining paintings and furniture have been pushed into the museum's corridors and corners - when he is interrupted by a telephone call from the reception desk. Princess Thompson, the Jamaican museum attendant, is being overrun by a party of 50 schoolchildren and wants him to 'come and open the place where the T-shirts are'.

This time, there are no free McDonald's fizzy drinks for the children. That offer - answer a 10- question museum quiz in exchange for a voucher - ended in the summer. Next summer, every local McDonald's will have colourful displays about The Grange and perhaps offer its visitors the chance to win a mountain bike.

Undistracted by aesthetics, the chattering children absorb clogged hairpins, a Fifties washing-machine and an Edwardian moustache cup ('Is it to stop you swallowing the tea bag?'), before surging in to a maze-like gallery for an audio-

visual experience, 'Brent People', the museum's permanent exhibition about immigration to Brent since the Twenties. Brent has England's highest proportion of ethnic minorities: 45 per cent non-white and 9 per cent Irish.

There are blown-up photographs and pithy quotations, audio-CD units and listening posts echoing with snatches of oral history: 'I remember the first time I ever saw an Indian man was at the Empire Exhibition' (Wembley, 1924).

Most of the exhibits, including the wooden axle of a First World War aeroplane, used for years as an allotment beanpole and sawn in half to get it on the bus to the museum, are meticulously tagged with the donors' names. The name of one Dilwyn Chambers appears frequently. He has given postcards of local views, letterheads and bills of local firms, local commemorative china and local wedding photographs taken during the Seventies and Eighties.

When I sought him out in the Twenties suburban semi-detached house where he lives alone, I found a spry, teetotal, retired civil servant, train spotter and ballroom dancer aged 60. Not that there was room to cut a rug anywhere in his house. The floors are piled high with files and boxes full of local ephemera. From the hall, with its bicycle and set of raffia wall pouches marked 'Letters', 'Bills' and 'Misc', all stuffed with bus timetables, he led me into his front room with its Railway Magazine wall calendar, framed sylvan colour print, plastic fruit and pair of Fifties wire-and-blob hanging whatnots, each with three tinplate shelves for bric-a-brac, bought for 20p apiece in a jumble sale.

Parked among the boxes was the two-wheeled shopping trolley he tugs behind him on his tours of flea markets and church halls. He can cover up to half a dozen jumble sales a day.

I had inwardly digested the iniquity of allowing a museum to fill itself with the collection of a single individual. But I could not help thinking that if Mr Chambers's house were to take off like a Tardis, lock, stock and wire whatnots, and land on that roundabout in Neasden, it would not appear out of place. Why so many empty cardboard boxes, I asked. In reply, the lightning quip - 'In case I need to be photographed with them' - and a peal of laughter.

'This one is full of shoes,' I observed. 'Exhibits - or your own?'

'Mine,' he said. 'I do wear shoes from time to time.' With a grin, he laid out his latest finds, destined for The Grange: a Thirties brochure of Kelly & Co, Memorial Makers of Hendon Park, an old-style wide- necked milk bottle embossed with the name D J Davies of Wembley, and an up-to-date fly-sheet mailer from Harlesden Kebab, 'Free home delivery available'.

It was at this point that I felt emboldened to broach the topic of the nerd factor. Mr Chambers indicated with a nod that he was no stranger to it. Of course, he said, there would always be people who would consider his finds absurd, 'but I haven't encountered this attitude very much because I tend to move among fellow collectors. I suppose collecting postage stamps is as absurd as anything but it is now taken terribly seriously. Personally, I think there's a lot to be said for collecting things which are both cheap and historic.'

He showed me a parents' circular from the head teacher of Newfield Primary School, Willesden, containing an assortment of grammatical and typographical errors - 'Blame the secretary,' he said charitably - warning parents that he would report them to the Home Beat Officer if they continued the dangerous practice of driving on to the footpath and grass at the back gate when transporting children.

Trivia? Come to think of it, when I was at primary school in the Forties I always walked to and from school - safely. And my head teacher knew how to spell. Mr Chambers said: 'In 100 years' time, this circular will provide evidence of what the problems were.'

He defended his collection of discarded wedding photographs. 'Look at the dates - Seventies and Eighties. More and more people were getting divorced.'

He went on: 'The best collectors of local history are private people. How often do you see museum staff in a flea market? I collect these things because, if I don't, no one else will.'

Gingerly, he handed me his choicest piece of ephemera, a collection of membership cards potentially embarrassing to the Harlesden bus mechanic and trade union shop steward whose name was on them. There was his T&GWU membership card for 1980-81, his yellow entry card to the 1985 TUC delegate conference, and his Workers' Revolutionary Party membership card for 1984-85, complete with 10p weekly contributions.

'I thought this was worth sending on its way,' said Mr Chambers, 'but you won't mention his name, will you?'

I said: 'But I thought you said these had been found abandoned in a house.'

'They were - by his estranged wife. She still lives there. I asked her to give them to me.'

Comrade X, your secret is safe with me. Until, that is, it goes on public display in the community museum of the London Borough of Brent.

Grange Museum of Community History, Neasden Roundabout, Neasden Lane, London NW10 1QB (081-452 8311). Monday-Friday 11am-5pm, Saturday 10am-12pm and 1pm-5pm. Closed Sundays. Entry free.

(Photograph omitted)

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here