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FeaturesPast, Present & Future: David Tucker

Past, Present & Future: David Tucker

A combination of a great mentor in his first job, Bruce Springsteen on his record player, and writing essays deep into the night helped David Tucker move from a ‘soul-destroying’ job chasing debts for Barclaycard to a degree in history after passing his A-Levels by correspondence course. He has recently stepped down as Director of the Lyme Regis Museum, and talked to Seth Dellow about his life before and during his tenure.
A good communicator and as he put it ‘good at synthesizing cleverer people’s ideas’ David initially toyed with the idea of being a university lecturer, but in those days as a mature student rules were different, and he believes his age may have gone against him. ‘Completely illegal nowadays of course’ he says.
So after a Museum Studies course at Leicester, he began a career in curation and museum management working in Manchester before moving down to Wiltshire then over to Norfolk, and eventually coming back to the West Country for two and a half years in the Tank Museum in Dorset.
He describes the Tank Museum as a great job remembering that he ‘got to zip round in a tank now and then.’ He then became County Museums Officer until 2012 when he decided to apply for the job as Director of Lyme Regis Museum. It was a museum he knew well in his role as County Museums Officer and in fact, it was at an event at the Lyme Regis Museum that he met Sir David Attenborough and convinced him to open a launch event at Dorset County Museum. He remembers making what could have been a rash promise when he first went for the Lyme Regis job. ‘So I was lucky enough to get an interview’ he tells Seth, ‘and I did one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done. I said if you give me the job, I’ll build the museum wing I know that you need!’ He had a few things to sort out first in the institution and began working on the bid at the end of 2012 to early 2013. ‘I looked at this blank sheet of paper and nearly wept thinking my God, what have I done?’ It obviously worked because ‘in July 2017 we opened the new building after we’d manage to raise a bit under £1.4 million.’
David now speaks with great pride on the museum. ‘As most people will know now, we are probably the most important site on the Jurassic Coast. I mean the museum is built on the site of Mary Anning’s house. The Princess of Palaeontology—the first great practical fossil hunter and geologist. Mary, working-class girl who lived where we are sitting now. Her house stood on the site of the museum now and the museum was actually paid for by the Philpot family and one of the Philpot’s, Elizabeth, was also a very significant fossil hunter. So it’s a great sort of historical tie to have. But the important thing, of course, is the beach between here and Charmouth and of course, our beach here on the other side because it rapidly erodes and because much of it is limestone, it’s basically packed full of fossilised lives. So we’ve got an accessible beach, an accessible fossil hunting site where the coast constantly erodes, and in a place that is accessible. You can’t become a great fossil site if you’re in a place where people can’t get to. But of course, we’re in the right place, the right time, the growth of science, the scientists beginning to question the age of the earth, and then this great practical scientist in Mary Anning on the site, finding these marvellous fossils in the early Nineteenth Century. So essentially we like to call ourselves the birthplace of Palaeontology.’
Despite all its advantages, the Lyme Regis Museum was in as precarious a position as all other businesses closed down by the pandemic. However, David believes that a combination of great staff and trustees helped him stay a step ahead. ‘I decided pretty early on that the last thing I was going to do was listen to anything that Johnson said on the radio’ says David. ‘What I did was I completely disregarded any of the media in March 2020. We set up a Cobra group at the museum in advance of the government activating Cobra. I’ve got two or three really well-informed ex-nurses on my team and they told me all about what we needed to do for hygiene. And then when the lockdown came, I got in touch with a fantastic patron of the museum, Professor Richard Lane, who spent a lifetime as an epidemiologist fighting diseases.’
With sound advice, an understanding that things were going to get rough, and no idea whether any support was going to come from government, David and his board looked to their reserves with a view to surviving for a long time without customers. ‘So we’d striven and successfully built up strong reserves over 10 years for the rainy day, but we never thought it would be quite as rainy as this one. In fact, our risk assessment spotted a tidal wave, which you get one every 300 years here, but we didn’t spot a pandemic, and you get one every 100 years! As I am a modern historian surrounded by scientists, I regard that as my fault that I didn’t think of Spanish Flu when we were putting together this strategic overview of risk.’ Thankfully government support did come and as David puts it ‘We actually got through Covid financially pretty well and other charities did too.’
Seth also asked David to talk a bit about how digital technology will affect places like museums. ‘Well, I would be very cautious about the word digital in the sense that one thing that people in museums know is that digital doesn’t pay.’ He explains how a project a colleague in Oxford undertook during lockdown proved much more expensive than expected. ‘There are always things you can do with digital’ he says ‘but museums are about real things. Museums are about locations. People will always want to visit these museums. Museums are about the magic of real things.’ As examples, he mentions fossils discovered by Mary Anning or fossils discovered by Elizabeth Philpot or even William Butland’s concrete poos which are on loan to the museum at the moment. ‘It sounds like nothing but actually, that’s science in action.’
But, says David, it’s not all about geology. ‘We’ve also got great writers in Lyme Regis. Lyme has played its part in inspiring the arts. John Fowles worked here. I’ve got his old seat. Beatrix Potter based one of her stories here. Of course, Tracy Chevalier, our great current patron, basically wonderful supporter of the museum. Tracy wrote Remarkable Creatures about Mary Anning, really good novel and that’s set here. Even Tolkien came here on holiday and was influenced by Lyme and did drawings of the cob. And I believe that in Elvish, his invented language, Elvish for Harbour is Cobas.’ David also mentions Jane Austin’s inspiration from her visits to Lyme Regis.
But no conversation about Lyme’s historical figures could be had without mention of George Somers. ‘Of course, now we’re in the age of de-colonialisation in museums and heritage and culture, the fact that George Somers, the founder of Bermuda is from Lyme. George Somers obviously discovered an island that had no population on it, Bermuda. He wasn’t involved in slaving but he was part of that general move towards colonialisation and he was on his way to Virginia to take food to settlers. So he is part of that wider debate that we have at the moment.’
There is little doubt about David’s knowledge and pride in the Lyme Regis Museum and as he says it’s got lots of little stories ‘that are really great and sort of give us a connection with the world.’

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