Currently, Cornwall’s largest museum, the Royal Cornwall Museum at Truro, is temporarily closed to the public. This is the result of ‘continued reduction in grants and consistently low visitor numbers’. The museum’s origins date back more than 200 years. On the 5th February 1818 a number of gentlemen met together at Truro Library. From that meeting came the Cornwall Philosophical Institution, which soon added ‘literary’ to its title. It later became the Royal Institution of Cornwall (RIC). The RIC remains the managing body for the museum.
Literary societies in the 1800s provided lectures and in the days before mass education were often associated with libraries and museums. The RIC was one of a triumvirate of literary societies that were established in the 1810s in Cornwall. The first had been the Cornwall Geological Society at Penzance in 1814 and the third was the Cornwall Physical Institution at Falmouth. This latter body folded but in 1833 the Cornwall Polytechnic Society took up the baton in the same town.
Falmouth, Penzance and Truro were the three Cornish towns with the largest and most confident professional and middle classes, who comprised the bulk of the membership of these societies. They were also situated on the edge of the mining districts of west Cornwall. Those districts had from the 1730s onwards created the wealth from which the urban middle classes benefited.
Three lit and phils in such a relatively confined district reflected Cornwall’s dispersed population structure but could prove a drawback in terms of collaboration and ability to take advantage of economies of scale. Some sporadic efforts in the 1840s to combine the societies came to nothing, foundering on the rocks of small town patriotism.
Unfortunately, a museum explicitly devoted to the pan-Cornish story with widespread popular support never emerged. The recent failure of the RCM to discover a viable ‘business model’ for the museum, in a Cornwall with twice the population as in 1818 and many times wealthier, presumably tells us something about the nature of modern Cornwall and its prevailing priorities.