Hidden Gems

I love nothing better than objects that tell a story. A small but perfectly formed exhibition at the Priest’s House in Wimborne, Dorset, is full of the most delightful, exquisite objects that tell the story of 100 years of the WI. Actually, it tells the story of the WI in Britain but it starts with a plate from Stoney Creek in Ontario, where the WI began in 1897. The commemorative plate proclaims ‘Stoney Creek Women’s Institute The First in the World’. It is hard to believe from the perspective of 2015 that such a huge and impressive organisation as the Women’s Institute started with just one institute in rural Canada. The plate reminded me that mighty oaks grow from a single acorn.

The WI’s long and distinguished history is as varied as its membership. From campaigning to craftwork via food preservation and entertainment, there is so much to tell. Yet I cannot bear visiting an exhibition and having to read a book on the wall. Let the objects speak for themselves. This was my mantra when I was organising exhibitions in my previous career and I stand by it today as firmly as I did twenty years ago. The curators at the Priest’s House have succeeded here and I congratulate them warmly. I have great admiration for a small exhibition that can leave you with the impression that you have been to a much larger one. Every object justifies its inclusion by telling us something. The display of WI badges, for example, reminded me of the evolution of the county federations. The much larger reconstruction of a First World War kitchen underlined the fact that the first WIs were formed during that war when the country was short of food. Other objects spoke eloquently of the very high level of skill of Dorset feather-stitchery and Dorset buttons, while the beautifully designed panels tell the story of the WI succinctly. Scrap books, photographs and banners from many of the federation’s local WIs give a flavour of how each institute has its own characteristics.

This is a beautiful exhibition in a very lovely museum which boasts not only a fine permanent collection but a stunning garden and a very good coffee shop. The Priest’s House Museum is definitely a hidden gem, but like all the loveliest of gems, it is worth seeking out.

The exhibition ‘For Home and Country’ runs until December. Highly recommended.