The Whitaker Museum and Art Gallery in Rossendale is somewhere that I’d visited once or twice when my girls were little, but it’s been well over a decade since my last trip. Adam and I found ourselves stuck inside one rainy Saturday a few months ago so decided to visit the newly-refurbished museum and cafe for a coffee and look around.
The museum is set on gorgeous grounds with an abundance of nature and greenery to enjoy, including a park and edible garden area. The building itself dates back to the 1840s, a former family home built from the once-lucrative textile trade wealth, and overlooking the stunning Rossendale Valley. It’s even home to ‘Rossendale Fairies’ if photographs taken by Professor John Hyatt are to be believed (Google it).
Collections include natural history, social history, art, and archives, all showcasing rich local heritage. Each piece has its own legacy, and the famous Victorian ‘Tiger and Python’ and ‘Nellie the Elephant’ taxidermy made for particularly interesting viewing. One collection which was unexpected yet utterly astounding was the new ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’ which is tucked away unassumingly on the ground floor.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve since spent hours in this bizarre little room – it made such an impression on me that I went back again a week later with my dad in tow; he’s a man who also appreciates all things strange and macabre. By definition, a cabinet of curiosity, or ‘Wonder Room’ as they were once known, is simply a collection of extraordinary objects which tell stories about the oddities and wonders of the world.
Literally crammed to the rafters, I can barely articulate just how fascinating this place is. From taxidermied pufferfish and toads to puppets, masks, textiles, dolls, shrines, literature, portraits, and so many other items that I don’t think I’ve even absorbed much more than maybe half of what’s on offer. Imagine an antique shop had a baby with an episode of American Horror Story and you’re almost there.
The short animated film and soundtrack on display, ‘Requiem for Stuffed Animals’, made the whole immersive experience slightly more unsettling yet I could not tear myself away. When I went back with my dad, we got chatting to a wonderful museum guide, Anne, who explained that some of the piece’s origins, and subsequent stories still remain a mystery, even to the museum, which made it all the more interesting to me.
On the first floor, the various displays link together Rossendale’s past, present, and future. This includes pieces from Rossendale’s industrial revolution, community projects, and traditional oil paintings alongside items such as local author Stacey Halls ‘The Familiars’ book about the Pendle witch trials set in the surrounding areas, and displays of work by modern artists.
I also learned all about a horrific piece of history called a Scold’s Bridle, which was a ghastly contraption designed to humiliate and torture predominantly women who had been accused of witchcraft, or those deemed too opinionated, independent or unruly, into submission.
If you’re ever in the area, The Whitaker is definitely worth a look. It’s only a twenty-minute drive from Manchester, or a five-minute walk from the East Lancashire Railway if you fancy making a full day of it. Make sure you stop by Mr. Fizpatricks temperance bar, the last one in Britain, for a dandelion and burdock too!