What heritage means to me: Nick Merriman

What heritage means to me: Nick Merriman

This weekend sees the opening of the Horniman Museum's new World Gallery, made possible by a £3.3million grant from HLF. To celebrate, we spoke to the museum's Chief Executive, Nick Merriman.

How do you define heritage?

Heritage, to me, is a past that is meaningful to me or my community because of what it says about our own identity. 

Can you tell us about what's happening at the Horniman? 

We're opening a new World Gallery, a five-year project to redisplay our anthropology collections. What it's entailed is completely reassessing all of the collections – we’ve done a huge amount of community consultations, over 200 different individuals and groups. Anthropology is with people, not about people. I think that's the new way that museums and anthropologists approach it.

What's exciting is that our previous gallery was called African Worlds, and it just focussed on Africa and the African diaspora, which was great, but it didn't show the other 80% of our collection. So, what we now have is material from all five inhabited continents. We’ve actually got 10 times as many objects on display as before - nearly all of them shown for the first time in a generation - and that breadth and depth allows us to connect with so many more communities in London or internationally. 

What is your favourite artefact at the Horniman?

It's impossible to make a single choice of an object in the Horniman collection. What I really like is the fact that Horniman (Frederick Horniman, Victorian collector and founder of the museum) was interested in the every day, and the ordinary.

He collected from all over the world, to really try to demonstrate what binds us together as people rather than what divides us. As a Quaker, he was interested in common humanity, rather than the perhaps evolutionary systems of other Victorian collectors, which led from Primitivism to the triumph of the West. So this feels like a collection very much for today. 

[quote=Nick Merriman, Chief Executive of Horniman Museum and Gallery]"What inspired me to work in heritage was touring junk shops in Birmingham."[/quote]

What inspired you to work in heritage?

What inspired me to work in heritage was touring junk shops in Birmingham where I grew up with my father. He was interested in the past through objects, collecting antiques and old stuff. I started collecting bottles and then had a metal detector and I loved the excitement of finding things.

That led me to study archaeology, and I've always been interested in the way in which museums can link to real people in the past through the tangible effect of looking at or even holding and handling and object. So it was the family interest leading to a professional career, which has been fantastic for me. 

What's your favourite heritage within the UK?

My favourite heritage in the UK is almost a cliché actually, but, having trained as an archaeologist, I’ve become so excited by the new discoveries at Stonehenge. They’ve put Stonehenge in a much wider landscape context: the excavations at nearby Durrington Walls show a settlement that the builders of Stonhenge occupied, how they used the River Avon to transport the dead down to the stones, how the stones were for the ancestors, but wood was for the living.

What's really exciting about heritage is that it's changing all the time, as new discoveries are made. 

What was the last heritage that you visited?

The last heritage I visited and really enjoyed is on the Isle of Bute in Scotland, which my family and I have been visiting for a long time. We most recently went to a wonderful site called St Blane's Chapel, on the southern tip of the island which is a very early monastic site and it's extraordinary.

It's in a bowl in the landscape surrounded by cliffs and brooding trees, and brooks and so on. It's one of the most atmospheric and spiritual places I've been to in the British Isles. 

Why do you think heritage is important?

Heritage is important because it tells us something about ourselves and where we've come from - the influences that have shaped us as individuals and the society we live in.

It also reminds us that life changes: we die, there are generations before us, generations after us, so it also encourages us to think about our role in the world, what is a good life, how to live a good life, and to focus on the things that really matter. 

[quote]"It's one of the most atmospheric and spiritual places I've been to in the British Isles."[/quote]

Do you have a favourite historical figure?

I don't have a favourite historical figure: the thing that really interests me in history are the anonymous people. The people who built Stonehenge, or dug the canals, or made the pyramids, or made the artefacts that we find in museums or discover on archaeological sites. So it's the anonymous person who is my historical figure of interest. 

Do you have a favourite meal?

My favourite meal is lamb masala cooked at home with a masala sauce bought in India, with rice and chapattis. 

Do you have a favourite film?

The Third Man. Brilliant script by Graham Greene, brilliant filming brilliant acting, atmospheric, fantastic music, wonderful. 

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