There are excellent museums, like the Ashmolean in Oxford; pretentious ones, like the Museum of Scotland with its poor curation and self-congratulatory emphasis on entertaining the masses; and the downright weird, like the place in England where we were endlessly hassled by a mad guide who wanted to show us the museum's shrunken head.
But Aberdeen is not well served by museums (it's currently not well served by art galleries or concert halls either, now the city decision-makers have closed both for long-term 'refurbishment'). There's the maritime museum, and poor old Provost Skene's house, which recently emerged from the shadows of demolished 20th-century brutalist buildings – only to be lost again behind a new set of 21st-century ones. But Aberdeen can still occasionally appreciate its history.
I had been urged to visit an exhibition to mark 400 years of the Tolbooth, an inconspicuous building stuck on the end of the Sheriff Court, which was built as an adjunct to the burgh council premises to house a variety of miscreants. The exhibition is unlikely to set the museum world on fire – it has now been in situ for over a year and is relatively low key, covering the history of a group of people who spent time there as prisoners, their crimes ranging from Quaker membership to infanticide.
But what the Tolbooth does well, that the Museum of Scotland often doesn't, is to tell some fascinating stories in a professional and dignified way. Much of the information is in the form of text, so I guess its 'relevance' to some individuals might be disputed, but whoever wrote the material managed to achieve simplicity without 'dumbing down.' And some of the characters who spent time in the tolbooth were fascinating, such as 'Indian Peter' who was kidnapped as a boy by locals involved in what amounted to a slave trade for America. When he escaped and managed to return after many adventures, the city fathers promptly locked him up for libelling them, although Peter had the last laugh by counter suing – and winning. Unsurprisingly he shook the dust of Aberdeen off his feet and migrated to Edinburgh where he started the first postal service there.
Entrance to the museum is free – I was met inside by Mr Ally Leith, the security officer, who seemed genuinely pleased to see me, and who was entertaining and informative. The guide to the museum that he sold me was a bargain at £3 – it was stuffed with fascinating facts and photos. There is even a video presentation on offer for people who would find the very narrow spiral stairs difficult. I don't know how much the Tolbooth museum costs to run – I suspect not much compared with its grander museum relations – but this little gem shows that it is possible to showcase some fascinating historical facts without spending a fortune. Maybe Aberdeen can bear this in mind next time it seeks the title of 'City of Culture'?
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