Monday, 4 May 2015

Plastic Fantastic: the Bakelite Museum

The entrance to the Bakelite Museum, Willerton, Devon
A couple of years ago I went on a photoshoot in Devon with work (holding reflectors and lugging bags of camera kit, obviously, not modelling) and we passed a sign for the Bakelite Museum. A Bakelite Museum? I had never heard of such a thing. Needless to say, it went on my list of places I wanted to go. The weather was changeable during our holiday in Devon last week, so on one of the wetter days we finally made the trip to the disused grain mill in Willerton where it is housed.

The Bakelite Museum is the accumulated belongings of a passionate collector and, I think, all the better for it. It wasn't assembled with a view to giving the public an education in the history of plastics, so you won't find wall charts explaining how they are made, timelines of plastic production or anything like that. There certainly aren't any animatronics, dressing up areas or any of that sort of malarkey. No, it is a collection of things amassed by someone who simply loves vintage plastics and the uses they were put to. I like that. It makes the displays more quirky.
Displays inside the Bakelite museum
The mill is absolutely crammed - look at all those juicers
The collection all started off with a single radio, and there's a really good collection of those. We both loved the art deco lines of the cases. The domestic side of things is where the museum really excels: along with the radios, there's a splendid array of televisions and clocks, and even plenty of ancient vacuum cleaners. Mr Robot was impressed with the 'rocket ship' lines of some of those. While most of the items are plastic and date from the 1920s to 1950s, there are also some ancient cookers and refrigerators, even a wooden Victorian refrigerator, and enamel fire guards. The way non-plastic domestic items came to be made in the bright colours of plastics was interesting, and it makes you realise how colourful an art deco home must have been.
Art deco radios at the Bakelite museum
Just some of the vintage radios - they're mostly in a 'woodlike' brown shade
I was especially taken with the Bakelite Vitascope 'rocking ship' clocks. Yes, clocks. I said the fact that it was a private collection made things more quirky, and repetition is one of the quirks. There are five of the Vitascope clocks, all on a display stand above a trio of teasmaids.
Three vitascope rocking ship clocks
Just some of the Vitascope clocks
There are rows of eggcups, multiple toast racks, numerous cruet sets identical apart from colour, and a whole forest of darning mushrooms.
Plastic napkin rings
Just add napkins
I counted 15 different picnic hampers throughout the museum, each one in a different colour. In a regular museum you'd just get one or two, with a card telling you something about the item, and that would be that. At the Bakelite museum you're able to contrast and compare many ones, and see how the outsides and contents could differ widely, though you'll have to guess at the age in many cases.
A row of vintage picnic hampers
Anyone fancy a picnic?
 Among the stranger items there's a Bakelite coffin, and a display box of individual false teeth, presumably to help dentists order the right size and shape for any denture. We spent a little while speculating on a little cream box with a roll top; when you roll back the top half-a-dozen slender pieces pop out - it was a box for offering cigarettes to guests! A display of little powder scoops also got my attention, as I have never seen them mentioned in vintage magazines. How do you suppose they were used? My guess is to transfer the last little bit of powder from an old compact to a new one,  or from a tub to a pretty dressing table pot, preventing waste. There is also a display of rare Victorian plastics, though I admit to being most interested in the deco-era pieces.
A display of plastic face powder scoops
No more spilled powder, apparently!
One thing I was surprised at was the relatively small number of 'personal' plastic items on show. Buckles, buttons and jewellery are not especially well represented, which probably has a lot to do with the collection starting out with radios, but I would have expected a few more dressing table and shaving sets. That said, there's so much in the collection, I don't know where the owners would put them - perhaps they do have such things squirrelled away somewhere.
Plastic vintage tableware
Truly astonishing colours
We really loved the museum, and had a marvellous cup of tea off vintage china in the tea room. However, I really don't think it's suitable for people with any sort of mobility problem as you use the original mill stairs to get to different levels of the museum. For the same reason, I wouldn't take young children who need pushchairs. I also wouldn't advise taking any children who are liable to run around and pick things up. Things are tightly packed and much of the collection is completely open, so you can get up extremely close (the rarer pieces are all safely behind glass), which is wonderfully trusting of the owners, and it would be a crying shame if anything accidentally got broken. On which note, if the owners aren't inside the mill you have to pay your £5 entry money at the tea room, and I suspect several of the people going round while we were there hadn't paid, which is really not on. It's a lovely place, and deserves to be visited and kept open.
Don't forget to stop off at the tea room!

19 comments :

  1. Looks like a fantastic museum! Might have to visit next time I'm in Devon.

    Www.pearlsandpurlsvintage.blogspot.com

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    1. It's worth a poke round - so nice to see a place run with passion.

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  2. Golly, I want to snaffle one of the old wirelesses, a picnic set and half the tea room ; )

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    1. I know! I was amazed so much was open to touch, I'd have been paranoid about lightfingered visitors.

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  3. With so much bakelite in one small space-did it have the distinctive smell? I love small, personal collection museums also-you really get a glimpse into someone's mind.

    I don't have the storyline, but here's a scene from a movie that needs to be made:

    Drug-fueled orgy at a home of a vintage collector, lots of Bettie look-alikes, etc. Hostess enters with a tray of those itty-bitty bakelite scoops and...?

    I don't know what happens, but those scoops need to be in a movie. Anyone know how to get hold of John Waters?

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    1. To be honest, it mostly smelled dusty! I think the mill could do with a spring clean, though I guess being run entirely by the owners it depends on how much free time they have.

      I like your scenario. I think we need a Small Person with a tray of Substance, as in the old rumours about Queen's (the rock band, not Her Madge) after-show parties. The scoops could be useful there.

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  4. This looks interesting, I grew up in Devon and have never heard of it! Will have to check it out when I next go home.

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    1. It's just over the border into Somerset. Very cute place.

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  5. I follow them on Facebook. I think I hunted them down after I think it might have been Flog It or the Antiques road Trip featured them on a TV show.
    I used to collect Bakelite when I was a teenager and it was pence at jumbles. My parental home still has the original Bakelite switches and plug sockets fitted. I love the smell. xxx

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    1. I bet you wish you still had your collection now! They did say they had a FB page.

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  6. Oh wow, it looks amazing! I love those rocking ship clocks, they're so cute. I bet you wanted to take so much of it home. I know I would! Will definitely have to add this to my list of places to visit.

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    1. I looked up the clocks online but they are waaaaaay out of my price league. About £1000 now. Ow. I'd have loved one, though, and a proper Teasmade.

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  7. I've seen that museum before on TV and blogs, it looks fantastic! Can't beat a bit of authentic Bakelite. xxx

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    1. It's amateur in the best possible way - you can really feel the love, and the collector's personality, in it.

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  8. What a very cool Bakelite museum. Thanks for bringing it up and sharing--kind of amazing to think a collection of Bakelite could get that extensive, when all I have are a few buttons and buckles.

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    1. The coffin was the biggest thing, I think. There was a load of stuffed haberdashery drawers in one room, so I could see they had buckles and buttons, but they weren't on show.

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  9. Mim,
    That sounds like a place I'd love to go to. I like to odd, the curious.. but not macabre.. and plastic-museum is just one such thing.. sadly, the best we've done with plastic is making cookie moulds and flower pots. Not that those are not needed.. but not much inspiring. :)

    Marija

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    1. It's a brilliant little place. Makes me wonder what all the vintage bloggers I know could do if they kept collecting!

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  10. This sounds like a great place to visit. I like the idea of seeing the collection of one person. How trusting for it to be on open display and how nice to be able to get up close to things.

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