Never let the truth get in the way of a good story!

Lyme Regis Museum (photo by Matt Austin)

A FEW years ago a popular survey identified that museums and universities were regarded by the public as the nation’s two most trusted bodies.

If memory serves, journalists came bottom. Sorry, Miss Evans.

At Lyme Regis Museum, we take great pride in getting things right: in telling the truth. Well, we hope we do…

Until a few years ago, the museum displayed a peculiar wooden mallet with a metal casing that was described as ‘Mary Anning’s Hammer’.

Most geologists that saw it were dubious; it wasn’t hardy enough for the tough task of cracking open blue lias nodules.

And then, in 2012, a visitor from another museum identified it as the handle-end of a British Army entrenching tool from the 1880s – produced over 30 years after Mary had died. It’s still on display – but with the correct identification.

In our ground floor gallery the museum displays the Jefferies bed board. This is supposedly part of the bed in which Baron Jeffries, the Lord Chief Justice, slept when carrying out his ‘Bloody Assizes’ which resulted in the grisly execution of 12 Lyme men found guilty of supporting the Duke of Monmouth in his attempt to take the throne of England.

But what’s the evidence for this? The identification of the bed board was made in the 19th century – and by who knows? Might this too be poetic licence?

A few years back, local legend, the late Diana Shervington, presented the museum with a red feather cockade, which she and her family were sure belonged to their famous ancestor ‘Aunt Jane’, author Jane Austen.

The egret-feather cockade is said to have been worn by the 22-year-old Jane Austen in 1798 to celebrate victory over Napoleonic France’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile.

It would be churlish indeed to doubt the authenticity of the generous gift. Jane Austen had two brothers in the Navy and Diana was a respected expert on the writings of her great, great aunt. But we don’t have any actual evidence to prove this.

It would be possible to have both the feather and the type of dye used on it identified, which would give us evidence of its rough age, but even this wouldn’t prove that it specifically belonged to Jane.

But of course, our museum, like other accredited museums is packed full of true stories.

For example, one of our most important fossils that of a small dinosaur called scelidosaurus. Ours is the second ever discovered (in Charmouth) and is displayed next identical drawings in a book by Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum. It is very obvious that it is exactly what it says it is!

One has to expect that any 100 year old institution has developed a few myths. But as it says in the old Western “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

David Tucker Director,
Lyme Regis Museum

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