Obituary: Norman Cook

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The Independent Online
Norman Charles Cook, museum curator: born Maidstone 24 January 1906; staff, Maidstone Museum 1924-37, Morven Institute of Archaeological Research, Avebury 1937-39; Curator, Southampton Museum 1947-50; Director, Guildhall Museum 1950-71; Director, Museum of London 1970- 72; Honorary Secretary 1964-59, Museums Association, President 1964-65; Vice-President, Society of Antiquaries 1967-72; Honorary Curator, Wells Museum 1972-82; married 1934 Dorothy Waters (one son, one daughter); died Wells 27 May 1994.

THE CAREER of Norman Cook was in museums, his particular success being the creation, with the help of others, of the Museum of London.

'Bill' Cook considered himself a 'man of Kent'. He was educated at Maidstone Grammar School and his first curatorial job, from 1924, was in Maidstone Museum. In 1937 he moved to the Morven Institute of Archaeological Research at Avebury, under the patronage of Alexander Keiller. Here he developed the analytical skills which stood him in good stead during the Second World war when he assessed post-operational aircraft damage. One of his tasks was to map the location of damage to aircraft returning from operations, on the basis that the damaged areas were not those of maximum vulnerability.

After the war he was curator of Southampton Museum for three years and then became Keeper of the Guildhall Museum in the City of London in 1950. This local museum had an impressive collection of prehistoric, Roman and later antiquities, but these treasures were homeless and the Corporation of London even considered closing the museum down. It was considered part of Guildhall Library and the Librarian had little interest in it. Cook had no access to the Library Committee and was unable to press the case for a permanent home and more funds. At best his task was a holding operation until something better occurred.

Cook strongly believed that the Guildhall Museum should become a separate department within the Corporation of London. With the help of the Librarian, independence was achieved in 1966. This move towards autonomy was important in realising a more ambitious objective, which was developed with Donald Harden, Director of the London Museum - the merging of the Guildhall and London museums to create a 'Super-Museum' for London. It was a proud day for Cook when he attended the opening by the Queen of the Museum of London, on London Wall, in 1976.

Having joined Cook's staff as an archaeologist in 1959, I remember the many ups and downs as negotiations towards the creation of the Museum of London progressed unsteadily, and the great joy when the Museum of London Act was eventually passed in 1965. In addition to lobbying behind the scenes Cook was not averse to employing subterfuge in order to highlight the plight of his museum, whose display cases and ill-ventilated offices were then wedged between the pillars of the Royal Exchange.

One ploy was to make public the illegal office accommodation that the Corporation of London had provided for its museum staff. A journalist, purporting to be visiting the museum by chance, published an article in the Daily Sketch in 1966 entitled 'A delicate question - but one that had to be asked'. His curiosity had been aroused by 'members of the museum staff slipping mysteriously out clutching bits of paper and vanishing into the Bank Underground Station nearby'. He followed one such 'fugitive' and discovered that the only toilet for the museum staff was a free pass to the facilities in the station (I still have my pass). Naturally this could not be ignored and was immediately officially investigated, the result being that not long afterwards the museum was moved to better premises in Basinghall Street.

Bill Cook was a small, rotund, almost Pickwickian, character, rather shaky when handling precious objects - to the anxiety of his staff. He had a large fund of stories and was at his best with an audience. He was a regular panel member of the popular BBC television game of the Fifties, Animal, Vegetable and Mineral, where eminent academics and scientists, including Mortimer Wheeler and Glyn Daniel, were asked to identify archaeological artefacts and museum pieces. A BBC radio interview on the smells of London was also typical, when the listener was enthralled as Cook ranged from the early-morning fish smells of Billingsgate Market to the aroma of beers and wines that for generations had suffused the brick walls and timber floors of the Cooper's Row warehouse.

Cook was unhappy with the Guildhall Museum's developing role in the archaeological discovery of London's past during much of the 1960s, partly because there was nobody else to tackle it. It was hard for me as the museum's field archaeologist to stand back and see the evidence for one of the greatest historic sites in Europe being destroyed. The discovery by Professor William Grimes of the famous Roman temple of Mithras, in 1954, had highlighted the great opportunity - and the last chance that existed in many areas - to discover London's past, on its many bombsites and building sites.

But Cook's interest was in objects, and on several occasions I was reprimanded for spending too much time on building sites recording ancient structures when I could have been digging out rubbish pits to recover displayable objects. As a consequence his relations with his staff were sometimes strained, and it was against this background that his deputy, Ralph Merrifield, wrote Roman London (1965), the first synthesis since 1929 of what was known of the Roman city Londinium, a work which has not been superseded and has long given London's archaeology a sense of direction.

It became a challenge to find ways around Cook's attitude and so make archaeological projects possible, which included finding money by such nefarious ways as selling scrap lead recovered from the drains of a bombed printing works by Cannon Street Station. Many projects - such as saving the superb Roman bath and house at Billingsgate - were undertaken on the basis of informing him after the event.

Bill Cook served the museum world, too, as Honorary Secretary of the Museums Association and subsequently its President. He was also Vice-President of the Society of Antiquaries. After his retirement to the peace of Wells he continued his museum interests as honorary curator of Wells Museum until 1982.

(Photograph omitted)

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