Archives are regarded, quite rightly, as vital sources of information about past lives and times, and are pored over for the fascinating details that they offer. However, in the quest for knowledge it is easy to overlook the format and appearance of the documents, which are also informative, but are worthy of consideration and appreciation for their style and artistic achievement. A good example of this is seals, which were used to validate or authenticate documents, much as we might provide a signature or enter a PIN. A soft material made of beeswax with tree resin and pigment that was pressed into a metal matrix onto which image and text was engraved, to make an impression. Usually the seal would have writing around its edge (known as the legend) which was often in Latin. They might identify the owner, or be relevant to the image. One of my favourites, in The National Archives, appears on the seal of a lady, ‘Love me and Lyve’.
Why are they important and so deserving of such attention? Because they are examples of the skill of the engravers who made the moulds or matrices, which produced exquisite miniature works of art. This small scale medieval sculpture complements the work of masons, carvers, painters and other craftsmen in buildings, statues, paintings and devotional and personal objects that survive from the Middle Ages.
The choice of motif was a matter of personal taste surviving from a time when people had few personal items. They are revealing about the owner: their social status, indicated by the use of heraldic symbols, emphasising his or her power and authority: their occupation, by an image of the tools of their trade: or their personality and mindset, by devotional motifs indicating their piety, or amusing images suggesting a sense of humour. Wit, sentimentality, and popular devotion, all appear in the designs the seals of individuals below the elites. Delight in the absurd and the burlesque, such a hare blowing a horn while riding on the back of a dog and humorous punning designs and pictograms were commonly displayed. Images of saints with their emblems, such as St Catherine and the wheel on which she was tortured, a pelican in its piety, pecking their breasts to feed their young, were also popular designs.
I will be giving an illustrated talk on this subject, entitled Good Impressions: Seals from the 13th-20th centuries, at the History Centre on Thursday 9 August at 10.30. Tickets £4.00.
No the History Centre is not trying to compete with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, also based in Chippenham, and taken on a wider brief in the preservation of the Natural World. This is about the seals, archival not mammalian; the lumps of beeswax impressed with intricate and elaborate designs that authenticated legal documents. Relevant in a time when only the few could read or write their names, the conservative nature of the law means that they continue in use today; if reduced to the ignominy of a self-adhesive red circle stuck alongside the signatures on deeds.
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.
During my ongoing survey of uncatalogued items from the collection I keep coming across unexpected and fascinating finds. This week was no exception. I opened up a paper document to find unusually dense lettering and was particularly interested as it had the signs of being iron gall ink.
Iron gall ink was extremely common from the Middle Ages through to 20th century. Unfortunately because of the chemical makeup of its ingredients it can be prone to deterioration known as ink corrosion. In its most extreme stages it can literally burn away the lettering leaving a text shape hole where it would originally have been. Because of this it is extremely important to keep an eye out for typical signs of early deterioration such as haloing around the text so that documents can be monitored for further deterioration.
However, in this case when I looked closely I found large crystals tightly packed on the surface of thicker areas of text.
Initially I thought this might have been a phenomenon of the ink itself which can reportedly create crystals on its surface, but with further investigation it became clear that these crystals are quite different in size and shape.
It turns out that these are most likely remnants of blotting sand. This was used until approx. the mid 1800s as an alternative to blotting paper. The writer would most likely have had a small shaker pot or box of sand or dust which they would sprinkle over the wet ink to speed up the drying process, the excess sand would then be shaken off. Although this is just a small detail, it offers an intriguing insight into the everyday life of a past age.
Various species of moth will eat materials around the home, such as wool, silk, fur and feathers including furnishings, carpets, clothes and natural history items.
Moth larvae hatch from eggs and eat any organic material around them to increase in strength and size. Once large enough they will form a cocoon and metamorphose into the adult moths. As an adult, a moth may stay put if there is enough food and potential mates – worsening an existing infestation. Alternatively they will fly to find a new location (typically during the warmer summer months) possibly starting a new infestation.
Moths like dark, undisturbed places to breed and eat; they are often to be found in wardrobes, drawers, cupboards and lofts. They can also prefer warm, damp environments.
How do you know if you have a moth problem… what are the tell-tale signs?
It is most likely that you will identify an infestation by the damage that has been caused rather than by seeing the pests themselves. It is therefore important to recognise the signs.
With most pests finding holes in items where the pests have been feeding are the most obvious clue. Frass - the name for insect poo and which looks like clumps of small grains – will often be found near the holes in an item or on the surface beneath where it is stored.
Additionally with moth infestations cocoons and webbing (silk woven over the area the lava is feeding) are sometimes left behind. The cocoons may be hard to see as they are often made from the material of the item which is infested.
Moths will often feed in the creases, folds and seams of clothing and curtains, preferring to hide away from light, remember to check items thoroughly!
In archives, as in everything else, some jobs take longer than others. The archivists at the History Centre can generally list small or medium sized deposits of documents within a few weeks or months of receiving them, but larger collections may take years, or even decades, to catalogue fully. A catalogue I recently completed was a case in point.
Forty years ago, archivists from the Record Office (then based in Trowbridge) collected a large number of clients’ papers from the offices of the Calne solicitors, Spackman, Dale and Hood. Once safely in the record office, they were placed in acid-free boxes (forty-eight in all) and allocated the collection number 1409. The boxes remained on the strongroom shelves, safe and secure but not listed. Eventually, in 2003, it was decided that I would devote my time (when not on public duty or attending to more urgent priorities) to sorting and listing the Spackman, Dale and Hood collection. My listing gradually proceeded, box by box, over several years. By 2007, when our office relocated from Trowbridge to Chippenham, about three-quarters of the work was done. Increasing public duties and other urgent matters in our new building meant that work on collection 1409 was again shelved for several years. Finally, two years ago, I completed listing the last couple of boxes, and then handed the collection over to my strongroom colleagues, who numbered and packaged each item. This took the greater part of another year. I then word-processed the lengthy catalogue and added it to our online catalogue.
So, what have we ended up with, after all that effort? A slimmed-down collection, reduced from 48 to 35 boxes, after weeding out the rubbish, rough copies, drafts and duplicate documents. But still a large collection – one thousand separate items, listed in detail in a 125 page catalogue (available in hard copy at the History Centre and on our online catalogue). As one might expect, a large proportion of the collection concerns Calne people and properties, and those of the neighbouring area. The two largest categories are sale particulars (the greater part dealing with Calne properties between the 1880s and the 1970s) and title deeds and associated conveyancing papers. Title deeds are useful to both family and local historians. To take one example, a bundle of deeds (1409/16/54) relating to a house in Calne Church Street, “commanding one of the best positions in the town”, prove that at various times between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, the building was occupied by a shoemaker, a baker, a seedsman, and C. & T. Harris, Ltd., as well as being used as the library of the Calne Literary Institution and, later, as an Oddfellows lodge. There is also a series of 44 eighteenth century leases of properties in Castle Combe; the tenant of an enclosed three-acre field at Thorn Grove was given “liberty to set up cribs for sheep on Castle Combe fair day”, in 1779 (1409/16/259/33).
Other contents of the collection are more unusual. For instance, there is some correspondence (1409/10/5) concerning applications for midwives’ certificates by Mrs Sarah Gaby of Sandy Lane and Mrs Elizabeth Ponting of Cherhill, 1904-1905.
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).