Gallery: Share a few of my favourite things

In these gloomy times, what better than to seek refuge in the past for a while?

Steven Russell

In these gloomy times, what better than to seek refuge in the past for a while? A new museum service can help us do it without hijacking Dr Who's Tardis. Steven Russell bagsied first go

OOO-er. “Crime and punishment” teases the label on the plastic box. Can't resist asking for a peek at that one. “Ah, that hasn't got much in it,” says Catherine Newley, keeper of curios, lifting it down. “It's a work-in-progress.” It's an evocative work-in-progress, though. She unwraps tissue paper and hands over . . . a flintlock pistol. Very Dick Turpin - or Adam Ant in his Stand and Deliver days. “And we've got some leg-shackles, though without the chain,” adds Catherine. Wonder where they came from.

The gun and restraints are among hundreds of items in a new “pick and mix object library” at Colchester, stored in a building in the shadow of the castle. Members of the public can make an appointment to go along, root through the treasures, select six items for their own tailor-made “memory box”, take them home and have a good old chinwag about them with friends, family, grandchildren, people they're caring for . . . anyone who's interested, really.

The loan runs for two weeks, by the end of which the box needs to be returned. “Just like a book lending library,” says Catherine. It's free, too.

The collection has between 500 and 600 bits and bobs, donated over the years by local people. They're grouped in themes: leisure, pastimes and music, for instance; image-making, with old cameras and other optical equipment; cookery, featuring old scales, egg-whisks and mixers, for example; newspapers, including countless publications about the Queen's coronation; and a box of mystery items whose uses folk can have fun guessing.

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There are also old shirts, skirts, hats, bonnets, clogs - even a top hat in a box, straight out of Dickens, from Johnson & Co of Regent Street.

There's a piece of bone used for shining boots - who'd have guessed? - and an old stereoscope showing a three-dimensional scene of Jerusalem's Wailing Wall. One object that's particularly caught Catherine's eye looks like a tombola drum to shuffle draw-tickets; it's actually a hand-powered mini-washing machine. “Apparently you could get a double sheet in here. You turn the handle and it washes.”

The pastimes collection includes those pesky metal puzzles that should be unlocked by skill rather than brute force - “the kind of things you'd get in your stocking and would spend all Christmas Day trying to do, and then by Boxing Day you're sick of them!” agrees Catherine - while other boxes contain a clumpy old bike lamp that's light years away (no pun intended) from today's slim and sleek variety, Ovaltine tins with heaps of character, and a hand-operated meat-mincer like the one my mother would bolt to the kitchen table on a Monday morning before feeding in the remainder of Sunday's sliced chicken.

While on the culinary theme, there's a 1930s book called Miss Tuxford's Cookery for the Middle Classes - 720 recipes for a shilling - that's worth a look. Equally quirky is an ear trumpet, a bit like a funnel on a cord far longer than an arm's length, which came from the Hearing Advisory Service in Chelmsford.

Many of the items date from the 1930s and '40s, but there are older objects - including lots used in Essex County Hospital's pharmacy department in the 1970s. “This is one of my favourite boxes: pestles and mortars, and an ear syringe in its original box.” There's also a sliderule-style ready-reckoner to convert imperial measures and weights into metric, and vice-versa. There's an alarm clock for deaf people, with a vibrating device that lies under the pillow. “We've had this out at mystery guessing games to ask people if they know what it is, and they usually don't.”

Catherine, assistant curator of community history with Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, says the object library is “a really random collection of things. We're not trying to say we're covering all sorts of things in great detail, but exploring is half the fun. It's a kind of treasure trove”.

The items have been amassed over the years. “People often want to donate objects, but we can't always take them into our main collection because our collection policy says they have to have a link to Colchester. But they're still very interesting and people would enjoy looking at them. So we started establishing a handling collection of things that people can touch - which is always nice for museums, because often things are behind glass.

“We've used them for all sorts of things. If we have event days we'll get things out and people can handle them, but we thought it would be a good opportunity if, between those times, people could come in and see the objects, because otherwise they're just sitting here.”

The museum service has for some time offered loan boxes to schools, to bring history to life and foster thinking and questioning skills. They contain original artefacts, some dating from 500 BC, and cover topics such as Ancient Greece, the Roman period, the siege of Colchester, the Victorian era and the 1939-45 War. There are also reminiscence boxes that go out to places such as day centres. With these types, though, the contents are decided by museum staff. In contrast, the pick-and-mix approach, where folk can arrange to go to the resource centre and browse, makes the memory boxes a bit more novel.

“We really like the idea of people being able to choose exactly what it is they want to look at,” says Catherine. “They might find things they don't know much about, so we can sit here and discuss them before they take them away. It might be for them personally, or it might be someone they're caring for, or just for family. It's a brilliant social activity, looking at objects.” At the moment it's a Colchester-based service only; and it's not really aimed at schoolchildren, for whom there are already plenty of museum-led activities to enjoy.

By the way, what's that box at the top? “That's just our Christmas decorations for the office, bought from Poundland,” smiles Catherine. “I don't think anybody would be very interested in those!”

For more information about memory boxes, contact Catherine Newley on 01206 282935 or email catherine.newley@colchester.gov.uk

I COULDN'T leave without putting together my own memory box. Here's what I chose.

Morphy-Richards hair dryer: Noiseless? Ha! One just like this dried my childhood locks and sounded like a Harrier Jump Jet. The only time it was silent was when it overheated and automatically cut out. They also weighed a ton, yet had a teeny-tiny opening where the hot air came out. Things have moved on.

Slinky: The “famous walking spring - Nothing to wind up . . . nothing to wear out!” I coveted one as a lad, but they were too expensive. I had to wait until adulthood to get one . . . and realise how easy it was to accidentally twist the metal beyond redemption. This choice is for the spring's box as much as the Slinky itself. Old packaging always seems so evocative, nostalgic and uncynical.

Jennings Goes to School: The Harry Potter of the late 1940s - but without the magic. Still, sayings like “crystallised cheesecakes!” and pastimes such as stamp-collecting had an attraction of their own. I used to devour Jennings tales as a nine-year-old. His boarding-school world of Mr Wilkins's geometry classes and matron's cakes, along with innocent pranks, was nothing like mine but had an appealing cosiness.

Kodak Instamatic: Made in Britain! My mum had one exactly like this and it captured innumerable birthdays, holidays, christenings and snowy days during the 1960s and '70s. The best bit was the flash-cute that sat on top and created a minor explosion when the button was pressed. No wonder our pictures had red-eye. Digital photography is slicker, but it just doesn't have the same sense of character.

Jelly mould: It's beyond me why someone thought animal-shaped jellies were a good idea, but it didn't stop us spending many a school holiday churning out deformed wobbly rabbits that appeared to be suffering from myxomatosis.

Tiny shoes: Straight out of the Elves and the Shoemaker, and chosen because of the craftsmanship. Note the minute nails in the sole. Today, my children's shoes last about six weeks before losing their shape and fatally falling apart.

The Practical Householder: Love these magazines from the 1950s for the social history they capture. The covers invariably show a man taking care of the DIY job while his dutiful wife hovers nearby, offering smiles and passing hammers. Also, the thought of attempting to make my own three-piece suite has me running for the hills. DFS has nothing to fear.

Gramophone needles: Nipper is one of the iconic trademarks of the 20th Century. I also like the thought of 21st Century youngsters raised on MP3 players, YouTube and digital downloading looking at these in bemusement and failing to believe how (not so very long ago) we used to hear our music.

Ear syringe: I've never had my ears syringed but my dad did, and as a child I was terrified by the thought - mainly because of whispers that people's ear-drums were liable to burst. As a child, you can't tell what's true and what's playground myth. Mind you, I like the box - and the notion that a “vegetable ivory mount” is a unique selling point. This syringe might have come from Essex County Hospital - the first place I ever stayed as an inpatient 25 years ago. Roger “James Bond” Moore came one day to visit his ill mother - which temporarily took my mind off the fact that four people died on the ward during my two-week stay, including a guy in the next bed.