Curator of the Month: Alistair Murphy, Cromer Museum

In this month's interview, Alistair Murphy discusses dinosaurs, music and the pull of the sea.

Name and job title:

Alistair Murphy - Curator of Cromer Museum

What inspired you to become a curator?

On the 7 February 1967 (it was a Tuesday), I was sitting in class at my infant school. I was six years, eight months and 13 days old. The teacher, whose name is long forgotten, began to talk about dinosaurs. Suffice it to say my young 'gast' had never been so 'flabbered'. I returned home and berated my mother, pointing out that since I had been on the planet for the best part of seven long years, surely it had been incumbent upon her or my father to have discussed dinosaurs with me at their earliest convenience. She bundled me out to the car and drove into town. We went to our local branch of WHSmith where she bought me ‘Dinosaurs of the Earth’ by John Raymond. When my father came home from work a little later he wrote my name and the date on the inside cover, sensing that this was an important day in my life.

That year, for my birthday, I was taken to the Natural History Museum to see the fossilised remains of Diplodocus and Tyrannosaurus Rex. A few months later, either in the Easter or Summer holidays, I went with my mother to see the film 'One Million Years B.C.' in a cinema in Bridport, Dorset. Still too young to appreciate Raquel Welch, I was captivated by Ray Harryhausen’s models. Many years after I got to hold (in a curatorial capacity) a resin cast of the star of the film; the Triceratops who rather stylishly sees off a Ceratosaurus in the set-piece battle.

Science Fiction caught my eye at the same time, so having just learnt all I would ever need to know about 'Now', as a confident six year old invariably does, I was ready to move on to the wonders that existed 'Upwhen' or 'Downwhen' of the 'Present' in my short life, the alternative worlds that have fascinated me ever since.

My mother tells the story that around this time, as I began to collect my own fossils – or rather the ones that my father found for me, because I didn’t have the patience for it – that around this time I carefully wrote out a label which I put it on my bedroom door that read, 'Curator'.

What was your first job in the museum world – and how did you get to where you are now?

Having grown up in a town in the south-east of England that didn’t agree with me, I came to Norwich towards the end of the 1970s. I soon discovered Cromer and fell in love with it. When I could, I moved there and later was fortunate to get a job at its museum. This year I celebrated 30 years of employment there.

What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?

In 2008 I received a phone call to say a large collection of the work of Olive Edis was up for sale and was Cromer Museum interested in it? Olive Edis was a pioneering photographer of the first half of the 20th century. I was familiar with her photographs of the local fishermen, portraits that cut through the natural reticence and no-nonsense exteriors of these tough North Norfolk men to reveal their gentler (and true) character. What I was completely unaware of was Olive’s other astounding achievements. For us to hold the largest collection in the world of this important photographer is a source of great pride for all those connected with Cromer Museum.

Over the last eight years it has been my privilege to archive the 2,000 or so images that the museum holds and to discover some hitherto unknown dimensions of Olive’s life and experiences. As with many people from the past that have entered my life in these 30 years I regret only that I can never meet them and be able to get answered the questions that I have for them. At that great imaginary dinner party I would host if I could, I would sit Olive beside David Bowie and, sitting nearby, try to eavesdrop their conversation.

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?

If you want to get into museums don’t follow my career path. When I first moved to Cromer I took up two temporary jobs, one as a relief attendant at the museum and the other as a relief chef at a local campsite. Fifteen years later I was managing the campsite and assistant curator at the museum. Little or no thought went into my career aspirations, other than wanting to live near the sea – fortunately I could not have been luckier how it all eventually unfolded.

What’s special about working at your museum?

Cromer Museum is small but perfectly formed. It has enough in it to fascinate but not so much as to overwhelm. It tells the story of the area from Cretaceous times through to its Victorian heyday and beyond.

What are your favourite objects in your collection and why?

Olive Edis was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to record women working in the armed services in Europe during the First World War. As Britain’s first official female war photographer she travelled through Northern France and Belgium in the spring of 1919. Although the trip had been planned for the previous year, many factors, of which hostility to her gender was almost certainly one, had delayed it until after the end of hostilities. The photographs that she took, as with her portraiture, focused on the humanity of her subjects and the roughly 200 photographs are a record of a world recovering from war as much as they are a record of the war itself. Among the glass plate negatives in the collection are a number of poorly exposed images that almost certainly were never successfully printed during her life. While far from her best work, they are significant to me because when I revealed the images I realised that I was probably the first person ever to view them.

Olive wrote in her diary, Thursday 6 March, 1919, the day that she probably took the picture:

'But it was Ypres that had drawn us all day long – and nothing more striking could be imagined. Not a house with a roof or a semblance of entirety – all shattered and wrecked – with a perfect paved road, to show that this was not some city of ancient history, running through it, as well it might otherwise be.'

Away from work, how do you spend your free time?

Most of my spare time is taken up with music. I am a musician, songwriter and producer; having written, performed on and produced albums for myself and two notable musicians from the late 60s and 70s: Terry Stamp of the influential band Third World War and Judy Dyble of Fairport Convention.

What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?

The Lee Miller exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. Miller represents an interesting contrast and comparison to Olive Edis. A skilled photographer, her life story, like Olive’s, fills out the space beyond the frames of the images she has left behind. The exhibition revealed Miller, her work and life in the way that museums, at their best, do better than any other medium.

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