Written by Roy Starkey, Mineralogist and Author
Many, if not all, GCG members will be aware of the wonderful mineral collection housed at the Royal Cornwall Museum, River Street, Truro. TR1 2SJ.
It is perhaps the finest regional mineral collection in the British Isles and includes the world famous Philip Rashleigh collection (Rashleigh, 1797, 1802), which contains many exceptional Cornish mineral specimens, as well as minerals from classic localities elsewhere in Britain and abroad (Enys, 1903; Burchard and Bode, 1986; Embrey and Symes, 1987; Jones, 1995).
The Royal Institution of Cornwall was founded in 1818 as a Literary and Philosophical Society, and gained Royal patronage in 1821. It has been responsible for a museum in Truro almost since its inception. The present museum building was opened in 1919 and was later extended into the Baptist chapel next door in 1990 at which time it was re-named the Royal Cornwall Museum (Penhallurick, 1997).
The mineral gallery was reorganised, and the display arranged by Sir Arthur Russell in 1951, and later refurbished in 1992 and reopened in 1993 by Dr. Bob Symes, Curator of Minerals at the Natural History Museum, London (RUSSELL, A. (1952); Embrey and Symes, 1987). It was named the Rashleigh Gallery in honour of Philip Rashleigh, a large part of whose collection is currently on display.
I have visited the Museum on many occasions over the past fifty odd years both as a member of the public, and as a researcher working on the collection behind the scenes. Most recently I spent two days photographing specimens from the Rashleigh Collection as part of the research for a book Minerals of the English Midlands which features images of 14 specimens from the collection (Starkey, 2018). Other projects have included a biography of the famous mineral dealer Richard W. Barstow (Starkey, 2010) and a major article on the Herodsfoot Mine (Starkey, 2012).
I look back with fond memories to the days when the late Roger Penhallurick and latterly Sara Chambers were curators, both of whom had a tremendous affinity with and knowledge of the mineral collection. Sadly, circumstances are very different today. The RIC and the Museum are under enormous financial pressure and a statement was issued in December announcing a partial closure of the Museum.
The Museum website states that:
“On the 12th January 2020 the Royal Cornwall Museum will be partially closed to general visitors for eight months. This period of time will be used to reboot the public programme, modernize how the museum is run and allow for critical roof repairs.
Low visitor numbers and a challenging funding climate mean that the operation of the museum needs a new approach. The closure also offers the opportunity for a complete overhaul of the aging roof. Serious leaks are now threatening to bring down a wall and damage several exhibits. £100,000 worth of repairs is urgently required to safeguard the collections. A contractor will be appointed in the New Year. The RCM will take this opportunity to consult with communities across Cornwall on a new vision for the Museum and how it can better serve their needs.
Julie Seyler, the Chair of the Museum Board, said today: “RCM has served the people of Cornwall for over 200 years and played a leading role in protecting and safeguarding Cornish history, culture and achievement. This is a role it will continue to play in the future, but as with any organisation we need to invest in our building and reset our vision for the future. This is essential as we set a course for the next 100 years.
Alan Wallace, the Museum Director added: “While we must carry out our responsibilities to the building and our valuable collections, our main concern today is for the 8 people who, through no fault of their own will be made redundant. The museum that reopens its doors in September will be different, following a consultation to understand and meet the changing needs of visitors and to sustain the service for the future.
Whilst the roof is being repaired there will be a Cornwall wide consultation to shape the future of the museum. Also, during this time, areas that will not be affected by the repair works will stay open, by appointment. For example, the library will continue to be available for the large number of people who use it for research and for weekly school visits to give local children exclusive access to the historic treasures we house.
The website also states that “the partial closure means that 8 members of staff have unfortunately been made redundant” – worryingly this includes the collections personnel. “A core team of 5 staff have been retained to look after the museum and to begin the change process”.
The future looks uncertain and with no mineralogical expertise remaining at the Museum to ‘shout the corner’ for the mineral collection, I for one am very concerned as to what may happen. In this regard I am not alone.
The demise of the Museum of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall in Penzance and the fine museum at the Camborne School of Mines, which was open to the public until the main Camborne site was closed and the School relocated to the Penryn Campus of the University of Exeter in 2004, serve only too well to illustrate the potential risk to collections when times get hard.
The Rashleigh Gallery together with the collections held in the store behind the scenes is a National Treasure and a vital resource for Cornish mineralogy. It is too important to lose.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to Philip Rashleigh and others, as well as to the generosity of numerous benefactors, for the fine mineral collection cared for by the Royal Institution of Cornwall. It continues to serve as an inspiration to modern students of mineralogy and mining history. The collection could, and should, be much better promoted to the general public and tourists alike.
The collection is deserving of long-term protection as a National Heritage asset and it is encouraging to see that the Museum website FAQ section includes a note that “We hope to achieve Designation for our mineral collection and will be looking to work with local and national partners to help us achieve this.”
It is to be hoped that the Board of Trustees and the Museum’s management are able to secure adequate funding to protect the mineral collection and the Rashleigh Gallery going forwards. Most importantly there is a need to attract and retain a suitably knowledgeable curator of mineralogy to manage and develop this important resource. The profile of the collection on the world stage could not be higher and all eyes will be watching developments.
The Trustees and management of the Museum deserve our wholehearted support to secure a satisfactory outcome. Let’s make sure that GCG and its membership plays their part where we can, and that we actively encourage participation in the forthcoming consultation exercise, which surely should not be restricted only to Cornwall – this is a nationally and internationally important collection.
We must all work to avoid the potential catastrophe that could result from “rebooting the public programme, and modernising how the museum is run”. Any loss of gallery display space to retail or coffee shop activities and an influx of animatronic dinosaurs would be best avoided!
Please get involved. You can write to Julie Seyler, Chair of the Trustees and Alan Wallace, Interim Director and tell them that you are concerned and offer your support.
BURCHARD, U. and BODE, R. (1986) Mineral Museums of Europe. Walnut Publishing Co.
EMBREY, P.G. and SYMES, R.F. (1987) Minerals of Cornwall and Devon. British Museum (Natural History) and The Mineralogical Record.
ENYS, J.D. (1903) The Rashleigh collection of Minerals. Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall XV, 324–327.
JONES, R.W. (1995) “Philip Rashleigh and his Specimens of British Minerals (1797 and 1802) “. Mineralogical Record 26(4), 77–84.
PENHALLURICK, R.D. (1997) The mineral collection of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. UK Journal of Mines and Minerals, 18, 17–32.
RASHLEIGH, P. (1797 & 1802) Specimens of British Minerals selected from The Cabinet of Philip Rashleigh, etc. Two volumes, London.
RUSSELL, A. (1952) Philip Rashleigh of Menabilly, Cornwall, and his Mineral Collection. Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, New Series, I (2) 96–118.
STARKEY, R.E. (2010) Richard W. Barstow Mineral Dealer Extraordinaire. UK Journal of Mines and Minerals, 31, 7–57.
STARKEY, R.E. (2012) The Herodsfoot Mine, Lanreath, Cornwall, England. The Mineralogical Record, 43(4), 411–486.
STARKEY, R.E. (2018) Minerals of the English Midlands. British Mineralogy Publications.