It’s relatively rare to have photographic evidence of a museum item in its original setting, especially when that item wasn’t owned or used by a high profile person.
But here’s a lovely blue-and-white striped towelling beach robe along with a black-and-white snapshot of the donor’s father, the late Charles Stanley Field of Hunmanby, wearing it on his honeymoon on the Isle of Wight in 1934.
Relaxed beachwear like this is a relatively recent innovation – the seaside holiday, in Scarborough at least, was originally the preserve of the fairly wealthy seeking the health-giving properties of the coast: in our case, the Spa waters discovered by Mrs Thomasin Farrer in the 17th century.
For the first couple of hundred years, the upper classes who flocked here to cure their dyspepsia and other ailments liked to maintain their privacy with all-enveloping bathing suits and wheeled bathing machines from which they could emerge straight into the sea.
It wasn’t until the mid-Victorian period that the coming of the railways to Scarborough opened the town up to the masses, but even then, modesty was de rigeur on the beaches.
By the early 20th century, however, things were changing – it was more acceptable to bare some flesh, and as a result, items of clothing like our beach robe, allowing for a quick cover up when demanded by changes in weather or company, became more popular.
‘Important’ objects, such as paintings, jewellery or furniture tend to be cared for and preserved carefully for future generations in a way that more disposable things aren’t. And yet it’s everyday items like our beach robe, which become part of a museum’s social history collection, which can shine a light on the day-to-day lives of our forbears in a way that grander items can’t: it’s only a very privileged few who can look at the Crown Jewels and think: “My great granddad probably had one just like that.”
Perhaps one of the most famous collections of purely social history is that of ‘consumer historian and supermarket archaeologist’ Robert Opie, who for over 50 years has been collecting and preserving product packaging, that most disposable of all disposable items.
And Scarborough Museums Trust has recently taken steps to help the preservation of items from another extremely throwaway arena – the seaside.
Spearheaded by the Trust, but open to any interested organisation or individual, the Seaside Heritage Network aims to promote the value of seaside heritage and culture, further understand and research the British seaside and seaside-related collections, locate custodians of seaside heritage, and share vital knowledge and expertise.
The Network is part of a wider Seaside Heritage project being run by Scarborough Museums Trust, which has a small collection of seaside ephemera which it’s hoping to expand.
At the Network’s launch, Project manager Esther Graham said: “From the introduction of bathing machines to ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hats, the seaside resort culture of the UK is absolutely unique.
“But because a lot of the items relating to the days out at the seaside that we all remember are seen as throwaway, more often than not they’re not preserved: we’re in danger of losing a remarkable part of our collective culture.
“Our new Network is open to everyone interested in preserving our seaside heritage, whether they’re members of the public, museums, or heritage organisations. And, of course, we’re always interested in receiving donations of objects which will boost the seaside element of our collections.”
As well as Scarborough Museums Trust, the Seaside Heritage Network already includes Filey Museum, Southend Museums Service, Hastings Museum and Art Gallery, Manx National Heritage, Blackpool Museum project and the National Piers Society, as well as independent, individual members.
For further information on the Network, please visit: www.seasideheritage.org
The beach robe is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org or 01723 384510.