Contrasts of life in the days of the empire

12th May 2006 at 01:00
The Victorians: The Empire Builders. Tankerness House Museum, Kirkwall, Orkney. until late September. tel 01856 873535

People living in the countryside tend not to be as wasteful as those in the cities. Even so, it is a surprise to learn that one of the Victorian objects on display in the summer exhibition at Tankerness House Museum was in regular use on Orkney until the 1980s.

The object in question is an Oliver typewriter, donated to the museum by the owner of a commercial garage where the late Victorian machine was used to type bills and letters.

It is on display along with other items produced during the manufacturing heyday of the 19th century and used on Orkney. A favourite of the curator, Tom Muir, is a beautifully made wooden suction cleaner with leather bellows that had to be pumped by hand.

"The 19th century was a time of enormous change in the UK," he says, "and the effects were felt on Orkney. This exhibition looks at a broad range of aspects of the Victorian era and compares what was happening on Orkney, as a rural area, to what was happening in the industrial cities of the north of England."

Using archive material lent by Leeds Industrial Museum, which is housed in a former Victorian cotton mill, the exhibition lets visitors decide who had the better lifestyle, especially where children were concerned.

"On the one hand," says Mr Muir, "you had children living in slums and working in cotton mills and other factories where they got lung diseases and suffered deafness from the noise of the machinery. But things weren't so good on Orkney, especially after the bottom fell out of the kelp processing industry and young children were hired out as cattle herders to help their families survive."

The exhibition highlights the true story of one 10-year-old girl from the Kirkwall area who was sent away to herd cattle on the island of Rousay in 1856. Often kept short of food by her employers, she dug up and ate the roots of heather and, when thick fog covered the island, she fantasised about walking on top of it back to her home. Despite her hard life, she survived into old age.

The Victorian era was a heyday not only of manufacturing but of the British empire, when wars, exploration, missionary work and the colonial service allowed plenty of opportunities for travel to exotic destinations. All of these aspects are touched on in the exhibition, illustrated with objects, photographs and documents.

The age also sparked a fashion for collecting and categorising objects and founding museums, including Stromness Museum on Orkney, which was set up in 1837.

Children's activities complementing the exhibition include calligraphy, phrenology (the would-be science of linking personality to bumps on your head), toy theatre and a guessing game matching Victorian technology to modern equivalents.

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