It's always the same with museums. I can take about an hour. After that the sheer inscrutability of the historical record begins to wear. These objects standing so inexplicably forlorn in glass cases with precisely printed labels - where has their meaning gone? They were once so tangibly embedded in the teeming conflux of men's lives. I will have to read a dozen books before they live for me. And so I turn to the friendly throng of my fellows, whose mere swarming presence outweighs the assorted detritus of a thousand civilizations.
A most unscholarly confession! It's not that I'm against history. Thomas Traherne said that ''Men do mightily wrong themselves when they refuse to be present in all ages.'' Fine; one takes the point. But in museums, only for an hour.
There is an exception. Somewhere in the English Cotswolds a road winds past one of those solid stone cottages, dug down into the earth until its windows peer at knee height onto the roadway. A wobbly sign propped against one corner reads ''Museum.'' Idle curiosity sent us across the muddy unkempt yard to a cavernous shed, where, as our eyes adjusted to the light, we gradually made out the contents of a disused village workshop-cum-smithy. The tools of a half dozen trades lay around us, slowly rusting in the gloom. Blacksmith, farrier, cooper, mechanic, thatcher, apiarist - they were all there.
''We're not yet properly open, y'know,'' came a voice, as a shabby figure in battered brogues and an open-necked shirt strolled into the yard.
''Just wondering what that was,'' I replied, pointing toward a bulky contraption.
''Oh that - that jig me old grandfather put together. For the big kegs. You put the slats in . . . so, and your copper bands . . . like that - and there you have the start of your barrel. See?''
The piercing blue eyes looked on us with solemnity.
''Now this, here . . . .'' And so it began. A guided tour through the farm technology of the last century. Sometimes we were lost in the dialect, sometimes in the terminology. Mostly we understood. Not, in fact, what he was saying, but why he was saying it.
Some while later, he turned to us. ''But surely you'll be wanting to see the museum.'' Unwilling to explain that we thought we'd already seen it, we dutifully followed him into his front parlor. There, set out around the walls, was his display: artifacts that had been in his family over many years. Victorian christening robes, a Tudor chest, oddments of porcelain, copper bedpans, shotguns, various dolls and stuffed toys, a full-dress tunic draped over a tailor's dummy. Very neat, very careful. She who was no longer there would have been proud of him.
''I haven't done the labels yet,'' he explained. We said that didn't matter. ''You think people'll want to see this sort of stuff?'' came the tentative query. We assured him they would.
''How much do we owe you?''
''Oh, I don't know, d'you think so. . . .? Well, put something in the sugar bowl at the door, if you like.''
This museum was no assemblage of relics from bygone days, but a man, strong and reverent, who looked on his visitants from the world of concrete and steel with clarity and affection. Technologies change, but that look will never change. Some men, it seems, are mightily present in all ages. Yes, indeed, Traherne.