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The National Leather Collection: creating a museum for the whole country to enjoy

Victoria Green talks about working to turn the National Leather Collection into a fully functioning visitor attraction…

I grew up visiting museums with my parents. I think that even from an early age they were cultivating my passion for history and culture, one which remains present to this day. Even now, I rarely visit another city without hunting down a good museum and spending an afternoon immersed in a time long passed.

I have been lucky enough to visit museums all over the world; big museums, small museums, independent museums, galleries and private collections. They all have one thing in common; the dedication and passion of those determined to enlighten the public.

Museums are institutions, well-established cornerstones of modern civilisation. They are simply something that is and, often we visit without wondering how the museum itself came to be. I am guilty of this, normally too interested in the content to step back and ask how? why?

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This problem, however, was posed to me back in 2015 when I joined forces with the National Leather Collection. It was a museum in the loosest sense of the word, no more than a storage room full of archival boxes with a seemingly insurmountable task ahead: to make it a ‘real’ museum.

The National Leather Collection started out as the ‘Museum of Leathercraft’. It was founded in London by John Waterer, in 1946. Waterer was, in all senses of the word, an antiquarian. A magpie for curiosities.

The collection was built upon artefacts that Waterer found interesting, and were acquired through various contacts and networks. In this way, he acquired an incredible hoard of items, including fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls (sent to him by post!), carbonised fragments from Tutankhamun’s tomb, a book belonging to the assassinated Tsarina of Russia, underpants from ancient Thebes, and one of Queen Victoria’s saddles.

He had intended for the Museum of Leathercraft to be the national repository for all things leather, the largest collection of items and information relating to leather in the world. For many years, his legacy remained in storage. It was time to continue his endeavours; to collect, to educate, and to inspire both present and future generations.

So, in 2016, the National Leather Collection moved out of the boxes and into its brand new home in Northampton, the heart of the UK’s shoe and leather industry. Thus ensued a year of hard work; lots of DIY and painting, IKEA flat-pack assembly, cups of tea and research. We could not have found a more fitting place to lay our hat, and during the last year, our space has been transformed entirely.

On September 9, 2017, the National Leather Collection opened its doors to the public for the first time as part of the Heritage Open Days weekend. Visitors were able to explore our exhibition, representing five millennia of leather-crafting and get hands on in workshops ran by industry professionals.

Store tours exposed the hidden ‘backstage’ areas, and explained the inner workings of our museum. Best of all, we got to talk leather and history all day. It was a tantalising preview of what we aspire to become; a free for entry community resource, doors permanently open to the curious and leather-minded. Today, the National Leather Collection is quiet.

Following the open day, everyone in the museum is working hard to deliver on that promise to return the collection to the public. The objects remain on display and the smell of leather is still very much in the air.

The National Leather Collection can be found on Floor 2 of the Grosvenor Centre, and is accessible by lift or stairs from the Market Square entrance to the shopping centre.
Currently the team are preparing for regular opening in November 2017. At present, the NLC is staffed Monday – Thursday, 10am – 4pm.

Please call 01604 745681 if you would like to visit.

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