During lockdown our teams, like everyone, have had to adapt to new ways of working and think creatively about how we continued to support our heritage community and maintain our statutory services. In Part 1 Neil and Dorothy shared some of the work done by the Archaeology team and Wiltshire Buildings Record. In Part 2 we turn the spotlight on our Archives and Local Studies team, the Conservation and Museums Advisory Service and the Heritage Education Service.
Archives and Local Studies
While lockdown forced the cancellation of our 2020 events programme, we were able to reinvent some of the activities in new formats. County Librarian Julie Davis had planned a talk on TheHome Front in Wiltshire, as part of the celebrations for the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May. Instead she turned her slides into an online film show with a recorded narration. Julie also recorded readings from her recent publication From Blackout to Bungalows which explores the effects of World War Two on Wiltshire. These are available on our VE Day page on the website.
Pre-lockdown we were delighted to host a display of artworks by students from Wiltshire College in the History Centre foyer. Community history advisor Joy Bloomfield, who worked with the college on this project, redisplayed the pieces in our search room and created a more widely-accessible online exhibition available via our Facebook page.
Julie's Memory Box sessions also went online. Before lockdown the group would use written sources as a springboard for discussion and reminiscence. Unable to meet physically Julie recorded several readings themed on local fairs and industries which are now online to be enjoyed at home. Similarly, Ian Hicks has replicated his popular Introduction to Ancestry.com sessions as online videos. All videos can be found on our youtube channel including four short Welcome Back films featuring members of our team. Creating video content is new for most of us at the History Centre and, we’re not afraid to say, it was a bit daunting to begin with, but we have learnt new skills, gained confidence and seen the benefits of developing online content for the History Centre. Watch this space for more online material over the coming months.
We have also used lockdown to add more content to the Know Your Place website. Scanned copies of our tithe awards have been added to this already brimming resource. The tithe awards give details of landowners and occupiers plus land use for parishes across the county. In addition, more content has been added to pages of the Wiltshire Community History website, most notably on the subject of Wiltshire schools. Julie has also continued her engagement work with the team of Wiltshire Libraries Local Studies’ Champions to create digital material for the library service's YouTube channel.
Lockdown resulted in the disruption to many arts, heritage and cultural projects but as restrictions eased organisations looked to restart their programmes. The History Centre is delighted to be working with our new partners at Celebrating Age Wiltshire on their lottery-funded project to improve health and wellbeing of older people living in isolation. We are also feeding into the Swindon Heritage Action Zone, which is part of a wider Historic England heritage project and the project officer is working with local people in and around Swindon’s Railway Village to post old photographs onto the community layer of Know Your Place website.
Visitors to the History Centre usually come to consult documents, but the Local Studies Library is also an important research tool. It contains over 50,000 volumes and is the largest collection in the world of books about Wiltshire. We are always on the lookout for new titles and actively collect any published work that is about Wiltshire or is written by someone with a strong Wiltshire connection.
The last few months have been an opportunity to catch up with the backlog of cataloguing, making over 100 new books available to users of the service. They include biographies; newly published research on the two world wars and a beautifully illustrated book of the plants found in the gardens of Salisbury Cathedral Close. Perhaps these books may inspire you to write something and be part of Wiltshire’s written history. New lists of our latest catalogued books can be found in our Local Studies newsletters.
We have also used this time to update our staff toolkit which contains key guides on various collection themes in the hope we have the answers to all your questions at our fingertips. Quite an undertaking, we’re sure you’ll agree. Colleagues have also conducted research on topics such as militia records, the architecture of Salisbury and the Kennet and Avon Canal, plus we have been putting the finishing touches to a major new catalogue for the archive of Westinghouse Rail. This has involved formatting data collected by our volunteer Mike and uploading onto our electronic catalogue.
Like most archives and museums, we have launched a new collection that will record the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives. The History Centre’s Living in Lockdown project aims to collect personal reflections from people in Wiltshire and Swindon on their experiences of Covid-19 and how it has affected daily lives. We are also looking for printed material such as posters and leaflets, or newsletters from local groups, plus photographs recording lockdown, such as public displays of art and craft, and how local shops, services and events have been affected. Read more about the collecting project (including how to get in touch) on our archives pages.
Conservation and Museums Advisory Service
The Conservation and Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) aims to promote excellence in the care and use of collections by providing conservation advice and practical treatments to heritage organisations and the public. We also support museums in Wiltshire to meet professional standards and become sustainable, resilient organisations.
Based at the History Centre, we can normally be found working in our two conservation laboratories, or out and about giving advice to museums, archives and historic houses. Lockdown meant that, like many others, we were confined to working at home and had to find a whole new way of doing things.
Without access to the specialist equipment and chemicals in the laboratory, we had to stop carrying out practical conservation treatments such as x-raying archaeological finds, cleaning coins, reconstructing ceramics and repairing documents. Instead the conservators have taken the time to carry out a number of other tasks.
We have been developing new training and support packages for both staff at the History Centre, and other museums and archives looking to gain Accreditation or better care for their collections. This includes topics like pest management, environmental monitoring and control, collection care planning, and preventative conservation of archives and historical collections. We’ve been looking at services aimed at those involved with archaeology, such as archaeological contractors and metal detectorists. There has also been the opportunity to develop our environmental sustainability plans, becoming greener to help the Council meet its pledge to become carbon neutral by 2030.
Even though the building has been closed, the archives have still required some care and attention, so we’ve been carrying out regular environmental monitoring checks to make sure the temperature and humidity levels in the strong rooms is suitable for their long-term preservation.
We have been exploring the digital world and finding alternative ways of working. A redesign of the CMAS web pages has begun including a simplified web address - www.wshc.eu/cmas - and we took part in a twitter conference organised by the Institute of Conservation (#IconArchTC) talking about our treatment of a Roman coin hoard owned by Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury. You can also watch our new video about the conservation treatment of a pair of Pele’s football boots.
Meetings have gone online, and we have been getting to grips with the technicalities and etiquette of virtual meetings, including Wiltshire Museum Group get-togethers. The team has also been available by telephone and email to answer questions and give advice to organisations and the public about all things conservation and museums.
Wiltshire’s museums have been hit hard by the lockdown, with the cancellation of events, loss of income, and other challenges that come from having to close their doors overnight. Working with South West Museum Development, we have supported them throughout the last few months, answering enquiries to help them look after staff, volunteers and collections, providing information about the latest government guidance, and encouraging applications for the grant funding available. This has continued as museums have started to re-open. Museums in the county have been working hard to address the issues and several have now welcomed back visitors, with special measures put in place to keep everyone safe: Wiltshire Museum, Chippenham Museum, Boscombe Down Aviation Collection, REME Museum, Salisbury Museum, The Rifles Museum, Crofton Beam Engines www.croftonbeamengines.org. More will follow in the not too distant future.
Although the CMAS team is now back in the building and the laboratories, we’re not quite back to normal! It’s likely to be a little while before we’re able to make visits to organisations or carry out face to face training. So, in the meantime, we’ll carry on developing our digital delivery and because we love showing off the work we do we’re planning to add more case studies, videos and a virtual tour of the laboratories to our web pages soon.
Heritage Education Service
As heritage education officer I work with schools and community groups providing facilitated sessions in schools, community settings and at the History Centre. All those face-to-face sessions ended with lockdown. The other aspect of my work involves creating classroom and online resources – and this has very much continued.
In anticipation of the lockdown the History Centre could see that digital resources – our website, blog and social media platforms – would be our way of keeping some of our services operational and allow us to stay in touch with our community of users and volunteers. With that in my mind my role morphed into coordinating the History Centre’s digital services and joining with colleagues in Libraries and Leisure to develop and deliver online services to replace, as best we could, the wide range of physical services provided by our teams. This resulted in the Active Communities webpages and a host of downloadable resources on the Wiltshire Council website.
As our services resume, with new policies and procedures in place, my work on the History Centre’s digital strategy will continue alongside creating classroom resources for teachers. I am also delighted that many of the projects we support are getting back on track, including the Salisbury Soroptimist’s Her Salisbury Story project (funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund) celebrating the women of Salisbury past and present. I will be providing support and training to the group and their volunteers as they work on this wonderful project.
After meticulous planning and much hard work we are delighted to have welcomed out first visitors back into the search rooms on 25th August. Making sure the History Centre is COVID-secure for staff and visitors does mean we have had to put in new procedures for accessing our services and these follow national guidelines and regulations. We are now operating an appointments-only system for accessing our services and face coverings are mandatory for all visitors. To book your archives and local studies visit go to our website. http://wshc.eu/visiting-the-centre.html For other teams please telephone ahead to make an appointment.
Back in 2014 we were fortunate in securing a National Heritage Lottery Fund award as part of their Collecting Cultures project. This gave us funding to connect and support museum collections throughout the county of Wiltshire in a variety of ways. We could add to collections, perhaps filling gaps where creativity was unrepresented, provide conservation, training and support for museum staff and volunteers and generally connect with our museum network in a way that would build strong links for the future. We hoped to create a legacy that would reflect the creative influence of our county.
The journey has taken five years to complete and we have recently submitted our final evaluation and report to mark the journey’s end. And what a journey it has been; we have learnt so much and connected with so many different people and organisations along the way, it has been an absolute pleasure to be part of it.
Our focus has been primarily on the creators who have associations with our county and the chart below will give an indication of the mediums represented and objects subsequently purchased.
It would have been easy to concentrate on fine artists alone, but we quickly realised that there were many different creative industries within the county, so we tried to represent as many as possible. Generally, the work purchased reflected the twentieth century and mid-century design in particular. It was a time of great change as WWII ended and new ideas about art and design began to emerge, some of our objects purchased certainly reflect those changes. The whole project has been supported by accredited Wiltshire museums and we need to especially thank Salisbury Museum, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, and Chippenham Museum, all supported by a range of organisations and individuals associated with the creative industries and museum service.
Many of our purchases were made direct from the makers and this has led to detailed background knowledge and provenance to accompany the objects, as well as developing strong ongoing relationships that will lead, in some instances, to the deposit of an artist’s archive at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. These archives will be available to all for further study. For some more expensive items, the purchase became a joint effort as partners applied for matched funding from larger organisations, making such additions to collections possible.
Inspired by and supporting this project a wide range of activities and events have been delivered increasing access to, knowledge of and participation in heritage. These have been enjoyed by over 47,000 participants. A mapping project was produced to help museums work together, supporting purchases and collecting policies so there is less overlap and more efficient working. 105 individuals have attended a series of training courses for museum staff and volunteers, covering a variety of topics that will help make their own museums and heritage organisations as sustainable as possible. Exhibitions have been held across the county highlighting newly acquired material and encouraging responses from the audiences and other artists and creators.
This wide-ranging project created the landscape for other activities to grow, raising the profile of creatives across the county and it has been wonderful to focus on this type of contemporary art and give it recognition. Many makers enjoyed the new-found connection with heritage and were inspired to create new works.
Please allow me an indulgence to choose my favourite object purchased during the project; this is a painting by Wilfred Gabriel de Glehn of the countryside surrounding Stratford Tony, where he lived. He was a painter previously unrepresented in a main collection in Wiltshire and his impressionistic work is an important addition. His association and friendship with John Singer Sargent resulted in many painting trips abroad, especially to France and Italy, where they were also accompanied by de Glehn’s wife, Jane Emmet. The painting is now part of the collection at Salisbury Museum and I hope that we can add more works in the future by this accomplished artist.
We are fortunate to have had such a unique opportunity to connect with each other in this way and are so pleased that we have been able to put new collecting practices in place to reflect the legacy of the project. The work does not stop here, it is the start of so much more and we look forward to showing you future collections and acquisitions that reflect the creativity of the county and its people.
Museum and archive collections are, in their very nature, eclectic. They often have roots in one person’s fascination with the past and they develop and grow much like a tree putting out roots. They are often dependent on donations, and collecting policies within museums are developed to provide some structure to this form of collecting, making sure that very valuable storage space is used to advantage and the best are represented. It is not that often that choices can be made by museum and archive staff about what to purchase, what gaps to fill and who to represent.
The Heritage Lottery Funded Creative Wiltshire project has aimed to facilitate just that. With a carefully prepared bid back in 2014 we were successful in achieving funding to add to some of our Wiltshire collections and with careful consideration we have purchased items that aim to fill gaps, often representing a new creator with a strong Wiltshire connection. We are now reaching the end of this project and our final exhibition at Salisbury Museum will show off some of our recent purchases.
This project is not just about the purchases, it is also about offering training and development to volunteers and staff associated with museums within the county, as well as education workshops, a tool kit for teachers and other events in the wider community. The exhibition at Salisbury Museum has provided a perfect opportunity to put an ‘Exhibitions Assistant Trainee’ in place, to plan, oversee and install the final exhibition with the support of the Salisbury Museum Director, Adrian Green and his team. Thank you to Emily Smith, our successful applicant, who has been able to gain great ‘hands on’ experience of all aspects of exhibition work within a museum context. We gave her a tough brief; expecting planning, curation, exhibition design, mounting of work, co-ordinating staff, borrowing and transferring of objects required from around the county and she has had a busy four months putting this in place. We thank you for your enthusiasm and we are thrilled with the results. The exhibition at Salisbury Museum has now been extended to 29th September 2019; why not pop in and see what you think? You will find work by Rex and Laurence Whistler, Howard Phipps, Nancy Nicholson, Nick Andrew, Jonathan Wylder and Wilfred Gabriel de Glehn, amongst others.
During the course of the project other exhibitions have been held at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery and Chippenham Museum and both have focused on recent acquisitions to their collections. Sophie Cummings of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery says the project has exceeded her expectations and allowed them to purchase pieces by Ken White, previously un-represented in their collection, as well as fine art by Joe Tilson, Harold Dearden, David Bent and Janet Boulton and ceramics by Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Patricia Volk and Sasha Wardell.
The current exhibitions at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery are well worth a visit.
An Art of the People – Ramsbury & Cricklade Potteries features work by Ivan and Kay Martin of Cricklade, and Peter Holdsworth of Ramsbury.
Out of the Box: An exhibition of paintings by David Bent
An exhibition of work by David Bent which includes geometric landscapes, intricate photographic collages and paintings as well as his aviation art and “Movement 2000” series. Stunning and inspiring work by this Swindon based artist.
Conservators from the Conservation and Museum Advisory Service at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre have been out and about visiting museums in Salisbury. Our time visiting local museums is used primarily to provide advice and guidance on specialist aspects of caring for a museum collection. Often this involves walking a fine line, balancing the need for conservation and long term preservation of a collection with the very important need for a museum to display and allow access to its collection. For the conservation of many objects the ideal storage location would be a cold, dark, sealed box. However this is obviously impractical, not only for any museum to achieve, but is contradictory to the reason for preserving collections: allowing people to see and access items for a long time to come. Collection care is therefore a balance of risks, between what is best for the collection item and how the item can best serve the needs of the museum.
Arundells, the former home of Sir Edward Heath KG MBE, Prime Minister and Statesman, houses a diverse collection. The museum maintains Sir Edward’s home as it was at the time of his death and so collection items such as a grand piano, fabulous art works and gifts from his state visits sit side by side with yachting photographs, satirical cartoons and even a very 70’s disco shirt!
The collection item most memorable from our visit was the hand-painted silk wallpaper which lines the visitors’ route up the staircase to the first floor. The wallpaper, a gift to Sir Edward from his staff, was installed in the house in the 1980’s.
Keeping the location of the wallpaper at Arundells is crucial as it was purposefully created for the location chosen by Sir Heath himself. To remove the wallpaper and hide it away in dark, cold storage would irretrievably reduce its historical value. So the question is how best to preserve the wallpaper on permanent and open display in the museum?
Historic houses often have collection items (otherwise known as fixtures and fittings), such as wallpapers, curtains, carpets and furniture which are required to be maintained in their normal settings. Curtains can best be understood as curtains if they continue to frame a window and wallpaper is best understood if it remains lining a wall. Contrary to our conservation ‘dark box’ a controlled environment is particularly difficult to maintain for fixtures and fittings on permanent display in their original locations. Particular threats to these collections are high light levels from windows and internal lighting, warm conditions from internal heating and pests.
One of the main motivators for me wanting to work in museums was to satisfy my curiosity. What’s beyond that rope or behind that locked door? How are the collections looked after when they aren’t on display? What’s going on going on behind the scenes? Basically I’m just really nosy!
One of the best bits of my job is getting to visit museums across Wiltshire and find out about all the exciting developments that are going on.
Last week I managed to get a peek behind one of those locked doors at Chippenham Museum where they are creating a new exhibition space to hold a programme of changing temporary exhibitions. The project is funded by the Arts Council England through the South West Museum Development Programme and work is being carried out to upgrade the space to meet national security standards. Once this has been completed they will have a fabulous, flexible space that will be able to hold bigger and better exhibitions. Crucially it will enable the Museum to borrow objects from the Nationals, such as the British Museum and the V&A, for the first time, meaning that important collections that tell the story of town can be brought back to Chippenham.
The new gallery’s inaugural exhibition ‘Creative Chippenham’ will open on 20th November 2017 and continue into March 2018. This will be a ‘celebration of local creativity’, showcasing the talents of artists and craftspeople that have lived in and around Chippenham, including Howards Hodgkin and Robin Tanner. Many of items have been acquired for the Museum by the Heritage Lottery Funded‘Creative Wiltshire’ project.
Plans for 2018 also include an exploration of Chippenham’s Georgian history, with a ‘Little Bath’ exhibition featuring loans from other museums.
Chippenham Museum will be offering the opportunity to see behind the scenes to everyone. On Saturday 9th September, staff there are giving free tours around parts of the building that are not normally open to the public – this includes the collection stores to find out how the collections are cared for and to see items not normally on display. More information and booking can be found here.
The conservation team have been very busy over the last year as part of the collection consultant team, led by Tim Burge Museum Services (www.timburge.org), helping Bridport Museum with their big redevelopment. We saw the fruits of the Bridport staff, many volunteers, contractors and specialist’s labour at the grand opening on the 26th of May.
The project, mostly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, brought the collection consultant team on board at an early stage to help and provide advice at every part of the process. Our work at the museum started just under a year ago, when we were on-site to assist with the safe removal and return to storage of all the objects on-display, before the builders moved in to improve and develop the building.
In the background work continued in many areas, with the collection consultant team advising on environmental controls required within the museum, to the materials which are safe to use in the display cases and mounts, many of which were bespoke made to fit individual objects.
Some of the objects from the collection required conservation treatment to look their best before they were ready to take the lime light on display in the new museum. We provided training so the large and dedicated group of Bridport Museum volunteers could undertake the majority of the cleaning required.
Some objects, though, required a more practised hand or treatments such as stabilisation for which we undertook conservation treatment both at the lab in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre and on site at Bridport Museum. This included a wide variety of objects, from a taxidermy tiger, to prehistoric fossils and copper alloy buckles from a set of Lorica (Roman armour).