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16 April 2020

Memento: A story behind every object

By Paul McGregor, Volunteer Community Curator

Memento: A story behind every object

Volunteer Community Curator, Paul, introduces our latest volunteer-led exhibition, Memento.

I am a volunteer Community Curator, working with a small number of like-minded people under the guidance of Sharing Cultures Project Officer, Louise Haselgrove. Recently, we have worked as a team to develop the Memento exhibition.

Memento encouraged local people to donate to the Museum, on a temporary basis, an object of personal significance. Our strapline was "…a story behind every object " and we were looking for items with interesting personal stories to tell irrespective of their age or worth.

My own loaned item was a humble washboard. I can remember my mother, and her mother, using the board to wash collars, cuffs and other items on wash day. This of course was before the family could afford a washing machine. My mother had to fill the sink with hot water from the Ascot boiler, stand the board in the water, and with vigorous scrubbing and a bar of Fairy soap hope that the dirt came out. It usually did, but the scrubbing sometimes damaged the cuffs. Seeing this regularly as a small boy, I came to realise that washing clothes was hard work.

There is also another history to this washboard. My father was a jazz band drummer. He played local gigs in the east end of London, and regularly on Union Castle Line boats from Southampton to Cape Town, in South Africa. I remember this board used to disappear on gig nights, only to return in time for the Monday scrub.  In the 1950's, it was not unusual for bands to have a musician strumming a washboard like this with their fingers covered in large rings. 

I last saw the board played in the 1990's in the Prince of Wales pub in Newcastle by a member of the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings.

During this project, I took my washboard out as part of a pop-up display to encourage people to take part in the exhibition.  I learnt that my board is a "posh" one, because the abrasive surface used for scrubbing is made of glass. Cheaper models, I am told, were made of metal and were prone to deteriorate and split. And so, the project has revealed its own facts.

For me, this simple washboard holds a lot of personal memories that extend far beyond its functional purpose, and it is this personal history that connects my object to the many others that have been loaned to the Memento exhibition.  From a World War One wallet that saved a loved-ones life, through to two-year old Oliver's holiday souvenir, the diverse collection of objects on display are united by their significance to their owners.

Memento is part of Wisbech & Fenland Museum's National Lottery Heritage Fund project, Sharing Cultures: Exploring our Collection.

If you would like to volunteer with us, please contact for more information.

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