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Interview

Christopher Wall's revealing and sometimes amusing interview with Peter Hague, the creator of the ‘Life in a Lens’ museum in Matlock Bath.


So why did you decide to create a museum and why in Matlock Bath?

I’m beginning to that wonder why myself now, on both counts. Originally, I decided I wanted to put my graphic design, art direction and academic experience to good use and to be honest I underestimated just how ‘difficult’ the public are when it comes to trying new things.

You smile when you say that. What do you mean?
We do get thousands of visitors, but I am always disappointed at the amount of people who dither at the doorway, then make an excuse to do something else. We keep an ‘excuses book’ for a laugh which is quite interesting.

What sort of comments do you hear?
Mostly they debate the entrance fee, small as it is, then shuffling off up the road. Kids often want to come in but their pleas are often met with silence. Many parents have no interest; they come to Matlock Bath to play and bring the kids along as a ‘play passport’. One of the best comments we’ve heard is a women saying to someone how much she wanted to come in and then the bloke saying “Well, let’s just go up here a bit first and dry your shoulders”.

Was it raining?
Only outside.

I suppose you benefit when it rains, don’t you?
Not at all. When it rains here the street empties like Dodge City when there’s a gun fight on. The last thing people think is “Ooo, its raining, lets go to that museum”. Rain is a killer and so is bright sunshine. Basically, as John Cleese once said “The English are the best people in the world at finding reasons not to do something”. I always say that 'people' are the best people in the world at leaving it up to someone else – this was particularly true when the museum had it's own entrance, before 'The Victorian Teashop' existed
.

But you must do better now you have added the teashop?
Well, the teashop does well when it rains, but just because people are sheltering it doesn’t mean they suddenly get an overwhelming urge to be curious.

So you suffer from apathy, then?
Well not personally! You don’t spent seven years of your life and a huge amount of money creating a museum because you suffer from apathy – it’s the public that do that...and the establishment.

What do you mean by the establishment?
We’ve been really shocked at the poor level of interested from colleges, schools and clubs – it’s pitiful – you might as well be running a leper colony. We contacted hundreds of places and advised them of what we offer but it often feels like throwing stones into a bottomless pit. Even the local Camera Club took years to come long. It felt like we were being snubbed, but that’s partly to do with the fact that locals are snobbish about Matlock Bath.

Snobbish?
They won’t come down here in case they get mugged by a slot machine or their neighbour see them cross them off the coffee morning list. They don’t realise that Matlock Bath could be fabulous if there were more support for people like us and the things we offer. Having said that, the teashop has taken off really well.

The teashop is very well presented. Just like the museum.
Yeah. Oddly enough it’s been a bit of a culture shock to some. One or two have even suggested it's too good for Matlock Bath. How ridiculous. It’s worrying just how many people – business people too – have simply failed to understand the market here. They look at the place through blinkers.

You sound a little miffed.
Not really. I just don’t like being snubbed by the people you did it for – that's all. As I said, the snob attitude is very strong here among locals. Matlock Bath will not change until they change.

It can be a bit fairground at times though, can’t it?
Only on the surface, which is dominated by a very small number of egos, but there’s a lot more going for Matlock Bath than that! There’s a great atmosphere here some days – not the busy ones with the ‘seaside’ crowd – I mean the quiet days when you can feel a sense of history. It is really quite charming.

It can be a bit overwhelming though, don’t you think?
I suppose everything has a tendency to get a bit cheap and nasty in Britain these days, but here it’s more like panic. Most new traders start pampering to the tacky side when they realise the pot of gold is not so plentiful, but that just strengthens the ‘Catch 22’ effect.

Does it work though, there’s a lot to be said for ‘muck and money’.
Considering they’ve now sacked all the miners, I think that’s an antiquated psuedophilosophical viewpoint. I know what you mean though – football is the new mining now – and the working man has to dig deep into his own pockets instead. It always makes me wonder why they want to pay players thousands of pounds a week – it just makes ordinary men look like fools.

I don’t suppose you get many football players in your museum.
Pass.

Tack must work here in Matlock Bath though, There’s a fair bit of it.
There has been a recent explosion. I see it as a supernova that will burn itself out.... it has a central necleus that might well implode. In reality it generally doesn’t work here, except on a few odd days of the year. One of the problems with Matlock Bath is that it is very difficult the run a solid business the whole year round. So everybody progressively clings onto those so-called special days, but of course any profit from them is thinly spread through the year and it can be very bleak. You could say that the tide is going out on Matlock Bath’s seaside aspect and probably needs to.

Have many camera clubs attended your museum?
Yeah, quite a few now, but nothing to write home about... or even open a museum of photography for about, for that matter.

You’re laughing again!
You have to...but those who have visited were highly impressed on the whole and I’m sure word will get around eventually. It just takes so much time to establish something like this today. That’s our ‘catch 22’: many people rave about it once they’ve been in, but getting them in is the catch – it’s a very lazy and confused country – with lots of minor distractions such as mobile phones and worrying around the clock. We have had many genuine comments though along the lines of it being actually better than the National museum at Bradford. I just hope they go out and tell the world.

Really...the museum in Bradford?
Yes, really. They love the way its been presented here. I always hesitate to relate those remarks but they really do happen – they’ve even written that in the visitors’ book from time to time.

It is very special, I must say.
Thank you. I put a lot of work into this. It is dedicated to my dead brother, you may have noticed.

Yes. He would be proud.
Thanks. As for the schools and clubs etc, we now take the view that it’s their loss.

Do you think there’s a market for Victorian history and ‘old times’?
Huge! We’ve proved it! I believe there is a real possibility of running a reasonably consistent business here. In fact, I would say our presentation, set as it is in the past, has more of the future about it than the 60’s 70’s and 80’s approach still currently laboured in Matlock Bath. Lets face it, the world has changed – every body’s got computer games at home now and god knows their fridges are stuffed with chocolate and sweets from the supermarket – you can probably get candy-floss at Tescos now, why come here for that.

Apparently Matlock Bath can be very quiet.
That’s because whole swathes of the place are aimed only at the ‘seasider’ market and it just isn’t always there. However the venues are permanent so the place just looks silly and partly shut down for a lot of the year. It’s dragging the whole ambience of the place in the wrong direction – who wants to visit a ghost town! Pretty soon they’ll be about thirty of what they’d call ‘good’ days – it’s getting pretty serious. It’s not always the months you’d expect either – I swear I saw some tumble-weed rolling down the road last June and July.

The future is bleak then?
No. Absolutely not. The future just happens – eventually it will drag everyone who wants to go with it in the right direction, the rest with fall by the wayside. History is full of lessons like that. I would say watch this space, there’s a whole new future for Matlock Bath just round the corner. It has still got everything going for it in terms of position and historical building etc. It can still be a great place. It needs to become a flagship of what’s best about tourism in Derbyshire.

I can almost hear the local cynics in their cottages and the Council Chambers laughing up their sleeves at that one.
So can I, but the change will come if they want it and if they help it along. I think the Council should definitely take a more serious look at the place. It needs outside money bringing in and a certain amount of control.

What do you mean by control?
I think the' Conservation Area' designation is being allowed to lapse here. The future will not thank them for it. One of the worst aspects of Matlock Bath so far as running a regular business is the ‘promenade mentality’. It's just so easy to walk up and down here and think you had a day out. The structure needs breaking up...the north and south Parades are a bit like a motorway with a hard shoulder where people walk. It can be very cold, impersonal and uncomfortable here.

Supposing the future was more dross?
In the short term it will be, given the general decline of Britain. I worry that the world has changed at lot recently – there’s more violence, drugs, even guns in the country now. More than ever before – by a mile – I think Matlock Bath has to choose it’s future market very wisely indeed.

Do you think the firework nights and the illuminations help?
In part. The illuminations work because they are on for sometime and people can come down a walk around and enjoy them for much of the Autumn. It probably helps visitor numbers, but they are looking a bit tired now and need updating.

What about the firework displays?
The fireworks are fabulous from a spectators point of view. I always enjoy them myself. However, they do surprisingly little for many of the businesses here. Basically, it’s great it you own a chip shop or one of the amusements – but ‘great’ for a short time. Matlock Bath burns itself our with the fireworks.

Explain?
The village gets really busy on the particular night for a few hours and some people take quite a lot of money, but the firework nights create a serious lull in the days before and afterwards and therefore also generate loss. Even on the day of the fireworks it can be very quite here up until 5.00 or 6.00pm and immediately afterwards the people exit on mass. This creates a pointless excess that can not really be made full use of and visitors don’t get to see the best of Matlock Bath. On the whole the fireworks do not make good business sense – they burn out in a short time along with the visitor reservoir from roundabout. Imagine if Matlock Bath were a one gallon bucket and you poured seven gallons into it at once – most of the water would be wasted. You could say that they are a damp squib so far as rebuilding serious business here goes. The illuminations work much better, they attract a more long term prospect and I hope they stay and continue to improve. Having said that. If you want to try to run a stable day-time business they aren’t much use either.

I notice there’s lots of food outlets here. Some say there are too many. What do you think?
For most the year there are far too many. It’s partly that which makes Matlock Bath a ghost town. There are too many fish shops for quite days so they are basically close for half the year.

You sound like it gets to you.
Trying to run a business in Matlock Bath probably gets to most people. Ask them, if they are honest 90% of the traders wonder why they are here and most are just cannon fodder anyway.

What to you mean?
I mean they are just decoration so a lot of people can shuffle up and down the pavement and have something to stare at now and again – the promenade mentality I mentioned earlier.

Do you find the traders’ association helpful?
Which one?

You say that with a smile.
You have to find humour doing something like this. The thing is traders come and go here so its difficult getting a united front going. Attempts have been made to form traders associations etc, but there are two camps – at least, so its difficult to get a general purpose direction going.

I hear Matlock Bath is a bit of a meeting venue for bikers?
Indeed. But the Bikers are only here on mass about twenty-five times a year, unfortunately, it does tend to be on what would be excellent business days when the place would benefit from real tourism.

There aren’t many biker-orientated businesses here I notice. Do you get many in your museum?
Businesses aimed directly at Bikers come are go, because I said, Bikers are not as common-place here as folk-lore suggests. It’s just those intense Sundays when the bikes are parked from end to end that give the impression that Matlock Bath is always a Biker place. For more than 300 days of the year you will barely see a bike on the street – try doing biker orientated business with that statistic – Although, strangely, quite a few have... and failed accordingly!

So do you get many bikers in the museum?
I can honestly say that in the three years or so we’ve been open we have had a grand total of around forty bikers in the museum – all loved it though and one guy even donated something to us. They come from all walks of life, just like the rest of this pigeon-holed population and we have always encouraged them to come in. We even look after their helmets at reception, but generally speaking they come here to meet and talk bikes. The teashop gets quite a few in and regulars too.

There must be some people who come to look at the bikes who become customers for traders though, surely?
I suppose some of them do, but the bikes are a massive distraction when they are lined up along the pavement and you just can’t compete with them – they turn everybody’s head from grandma to grandee and we mostly all lose out. It’s not very often, but as I said, it does tend to be key days of the year... we started to close the museum when it got ridiculous, before we had the teashop. It was just not worth staying open on some of those days – we tried it for a long time – still happens now, actually.

If you were asked to sum up in a few words, how would you describe your experience so far.
It is actually very difficult to sum this up in a few words, but in terms of getting visitors in off the street ‘blood from a stone’ springs to mind. However, that’s more a problem for them than us. It is amazing how often people come in and tell us they are glad they did – really, that happens so often. In fact, its easy for us to understand because the amount of will-we-won’t-we that goes on at the doorway is phenomenal. When they walk away though I often feel sorry for them rather us because it’s them that’s missing it.

What’s the most annoying visitor you’ve ever had?
Visitors are rarely annoying, it’s non-visitors I hate. There are the thousands of what we call ‘blind photographers’ who pass by the door every year without noticing... of course, it’s partly our fault for having a small entrance for so long – ridiculous when you consider its virtually a four story building, but unfortunately the cafe part was leased out to someone else for a long time and we couldn’t use it.

I bet you were glad when it finally came back into your full ownership?
Yeah. The whole building gave a sigh of relief. It had been neglected and run down for a very long time under various tenants (and landlords). It badly needed a full renovation.


So, what about these ‘blind photographers’ then?
Oh yeah. They are bad, but the very worst ‘non-visitors’ are the photographers who see it but don’t bother to come in... or at least the guys with the gadget bags and a camera round their necks who see it and don’t bother. They read the signage and walk away... some even took photos of the mannequin that used to stand in the entrance... they can be such arseholes – it’s like there’s a museum of photography on every street. We always feel very sorry for them, missing it etc, but also hate them for not supporting what we have done here. There are so very few museums of photography in the whole world.

How many?
God knows? 38?

Can I ask you some stupid questions now?
They’ve all been stupid.

If you went on Room 101, what would you put in?
Old men in baseball caps, for sure.

Why?
Because they make old men look older... and cheap. I should qualify that by saying old British men. Leave it to the Americans and Formula One drivers.

What else would you put in?
You.

Seriously. What else?
Young men in baseball caps and dodgy sports-wear.

Mmmm... anything else?
People who buy fish and chips in the rain and then eat them with salt, vinegar and rain.

Anything else...?
People who eat fish and chips in their cars outside our teashop. Get a life, get some dignity, get some respect for yourself and others, get help, get an air-freshener.

What would you say to them given the chance?
"Do you want tea with that?".

What final thing would you put into Room 101?
The woman who came in to the museum and asked if it was all just photographs? “No explained the receptionist. Its all sorts of things. It’s cameras, Victoriana, packaging, lantern slides, postcards, mannequins in Victorian costumes, carte de-visits, all the rooms are themed, there’s a seaside room a history room...there’s computer slide shows...lots of things”. The woman replied: “Oh, if its all just photographs I’ll not bother.”

What single record would you choose to take with you on a desert island?
‘Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside’.

What’s the future for Life in a Lens?
Now we have incorporated the whole of the ground floor we will do a bit of a relaunch. which should help continue to increase the visitor numbers we’ve have had so far. It will also give us a bigger profile on the street and considering we own the building and have spent so much money and time in renovating it, we deserve a bigger ‘footprint’ so to speak. It’s been difficult trying to interest a typically “reluctant to do anything” British Public with the reletively small doorway we were working with before. Particularly with the new chip shop people next door being extremely unhelpful with the their signage and general presentation. Having said that, the success of our teashop has tended to smother the museum a little itself and the people who come in for a cup of tea etc., are usually not interested in anything else.

Why don’t you use the main entrance again too?
It’s partly to do with the expense of having more staff to run it. It would just not be viable at the moment and besides, we do like to run our business on a very personal level. I have to say though that the museum itself could well be closed in a year or two if things don’t really improve.

Really?
Yes, we’ve run it too long at our own expense. The teashop is extremely successful and if that does not translate into greater visitor numbers for the museum I will definitely close it down – museums take a lot of work and we don’t get funding.

How would you like to be remembered here?
I grew up on a council estate and left school when I was fifteen. I went to art college and university and became a successful graphic designer and conceptual thinker in the world of adverting and marketing. I have now created a museum and a great little teashop, both of which are aimed at people from my background who are looking for that little bit more out of life, so I would like to be remembered as some sort of working-class hero.

Wow... What is your best quality? – and stop laughing!
I don’t take myself too seriously.

Do you have a motto?
Well, I have often found Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase “Hell is other people” to be quite accurate, so if I need a motto I use that, or the line from the Steve McQueen film “I’m still here you bastards”. At the moment, though, for the betterment of Matlock Bath and all its business people and residents I like to paraphrase president John F. Kennedy and say: “Don't ask what Matlock Bath can do for you. Ask what you can do for Matlock Bath”.

 

This interview was conducted in 2005. See Peter's Matlock Bath Report, published in August 2006 at: www.matlockbathreport.co.uk

 
  On the rocks  
From up here you can make just about anything work – anywhere!
 
       
    The 'Life in a Lens' Museum of Photography & Old Times – above the 'The Victorian Teashop'
114-118, North Parade, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire DE4 3NS Tel: 01629 583325
 
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