Riviera People – Basil Greenwood- Entering the Ice Age

Posted by: on Mar 31, 2020 | No Comments

Riviera People – Basil Greenwood- Entering the Ice Age

Torquay Museum’s Director, Basil Greenwood reveals his plans for a new Ice Age Gallery and explains that the museum’s collections offer a striking insight into human evolution and climate change. Anita Newcombe finds out more.

Having started his career in wildlife conservation, Basil Greenwood is fascinated by one of the most exciting pieces in Torquay Museum’s Ancestors’ Gallery. A large mammoth tooth dredged from the sea off Torbay; it clearly shows that the whole of our sparkling Bay was once good, green, grazing land.

He tells me, “We live in a place that is so evocative of what’s happened since humans first arrived in Devon 450,000 years ago – it’s really topical right now because of all the focus on climate change.”

Basil took a degree in Environmental Science at Bradford University then joined a wildlife trust as a conservation officer. Enjoying the work in the leafy outdoors and doing well, he was soon promoted to senior conservation officer. Subsequently moving on from the charity sector to a government agency, he worked for Scottish Natural Heritage then moved to Somerset to help English Nature protect its Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Here he liaised with farmers and landowners on conservation and wildlife protection matters, and advised local authorities on local planning applications where these could impact on wildlife. It was a great life, very rewarding and with plenty of really worthwhile project successes.

In 2001 he was promoted to Regional Policy Officer for English Nature. It was an excellent career move and offered the opportunity to get more involved in strategy but Basil missed the hands-on work. He explains, “I just didn’t get the immediacy I had enjoyed with real projects on the ground.”

In a bid to try and get back to hands-on work, Basil went freelance but found that there were fewer available projects than he had hoped. So when a job came up at Torquay Museum, he decided to give it a go. It was a completely different area but his skills were very transferable. He joined Torquay Museum in 2012 as Project Manager then became Museum Director two years later.

As Project Manager he successfully improved the museum’s processes, its governance, its costs and its partnership working with Torre Abbey and Brixham Heritage Museum. He saved around £100, 000 from Torquay Museum’s cost base and was instrumental in saving it from potential closure. Now as Director he continues to fine-tune the museum’s efficiency and build a close relationship with the local council.

He tells me, “Torquay Museum is such a great place to work – when I first arrived, the first thing I saw was someone dressed in a Viking outfit. As well as being fun it’s the oldest museum in Devon and very important to our community.”

William Pengelly and other eminent individuals founded Torquay Museum Society in 1844. The museum opened in 1845, albeit on a series of different sites; the current building was finally opened in 1876. A beautiful design and in an ideal position close to Torquay centre, the museum has been a Grade II listed building since 1976. Basil goes on to explain that some people think of their local museum as a place with dusty old collections that are unchanging and presented in a very dull and old-fashioned way. But nothing could be further than the truth.

He tells me, “We currently have a new temporary exhibition called Ipplepen, which is displaying finds from a dig that is happening right now in partnership with The British Museum and Exeter University. It’s an active, local archaeological site, and Roman coins and other fascinating items have been found quite recently showing us that our area had a higher degree of Roman influence than previously thought.”

Torquay Museum is accredited by the Arts Council and this is reviewed every five years. It has been awarded Designated status for its Quaternary Cave Collection and Archive, which consists of around 30,000 items many from local excavated cave sites including Kent’s Cavern along with an associated archive of historic research materials. Basil explains, “We have researchers from all over the world coming here to study our collections and better understand the Ice Age.”    

He has big plans for a new Ice Age Gallery to display finds from sites around Torquay with evidence of ancient humans and Neanderthals including the world-famous 43,000 year-old human jawbone discovered at Kents Cavern in 1927. It’s currently housed in the Ancestors Gallery and you can also see here the remains of scimitar cats, woolly mammoths, lions and cave bears. They have all been discovered in the beautiful local cave systems and digs are still going on at Kents Cavern. Overall Torquay Museum looks after a third of a million items including these nationally and internationally important cave items.

Torquay Museum works closely with London’s Natural History Museum and will be applying for funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to create the proposed new Ice Age Gallery.  But in the meantime, in addition to the Ancestors Gallery, you can view the hugely popular Agatha Christie collection, the only such permanent collection in the UK. The Bare Bones touring exhibition is also on show until 8 September and you can browse the Explorers and Ancient Egypt collection, the Time Ark, the Old Devon Farmhouse and lots more.

Basil tells me that he and his team are planning a Harry Potter Birthday Celebration on 3 August to capitalise on the huge interest in the young wizard and his magical friends. He explains, ”Once you get youngsters and their families into the museum they will visit the other galleries and realise what we have here. Our job is to create enthusiasm in the general public for the stories that we can tell.”  The shop is stocked according to the exhibitions running, so expect wands, chocolate frogs and possibly fizzing whizzbees for this one. Maybe Pengelly’s Café could offer its own version of butterbeer and some pumpkin juice.

Of course, success amongst the summer visitors is rather weather-dependent – museum attendance benefits from overcast and rainy days.  Next year is Torquay Museum’s 175th anniversary and the museum is planning a ‘community-curated’ exhibition where locals will be invited to pick 175 items from its collections to go into a special display. There are lots of old photos of Torbay and many of these will go into a series of 10 pop-up exhibitions around the area.

Basil says, “We need to get better at engaging with the local community, getting them more involved in our amazing history and inspiring them with the fascinating things they can see at Torquay Museum.”

Well it sounds like Basil and his team are well on track and now I’m interested to know whether he has time for anything outside the museum world. In fact he does. Basil and his wife Chellie live in the pretty village of Stoke Gabriel and they have a grown-up son and a grandson. In their spare time, they have taken up kayaking and enjoy paddling with friends on the stunning River Dart (no doubt spotting wildlife), heading to the Maltsters at Bow Creek as well as to Dittisham and Totnes, taking in pub visits and riverbank picnics. Sounds idyllic!   Basil used to be a keen rock climber but now he and Chellie spend time walking on Dartmoor and along the South West Coast Path including the Cornish section.

Being half Sicilian through his mother, Basil loves cooking Italian food even though he was born and brought up in England. He tells me that his uncle was in the army in wartime 1943 when he met a Sicilian lady and married her in 1944. Later the couple came back to England where the bride’s sister paid her a visit, meeting and subsequently marrying Basil’s father. Basil and Chellie love to eat out, favouring fish restaurants like Rockfish in Brixham and Torquay, and Number 7 Fish Bistro. Basil also loves curries and thinks East in the West is brilliant for genuine South Indian food.

Back at the museum, as well as encouraging residents to get more involved, Basil is keen to highlight the opportunities for corporate supporters to come aboard. Last year Torquay-based architects Kay Elliott sponsored the Brick Built Lego Models Exhibition. There are also many tax deductible Corporate Memberships offering businesses the chance to raise their profile by sharing in the interest generated by the exhibitions programme and the nationally and internationally important collections. Perhaps you could get involved with the new Ice Age Gallery. Why not get in touch for a chat about the options?