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.
It’s been a year since I first started working in Wiltshire – how time flies! Working as part of the Conservation and Museum Advisory Service (CMAS), I work with museums across the county giving support to staff and volunteers on a whole range of topics such as Accreditation, collections, exhibitions, audience development and fundraising.
Over the last twelve months I’ve been getting to know Wiltshire and visiting as many museums and heritage centres as possible. Having moved from South Wales, a very different part of the world with a different story, it’s been great to explore the county and find out more about it. With over forty fascinating museums, amazing archaeology and heritage sites, I’ve been spoilt for choice and I’ve really enjoyed finding out about the history of the area.
Driving around I frequently come across sites such as Silbury Hill, Stonehenge, Avebury and West Kennet. It’s a little treat every time I see them but it’s been many years since I studied archaeology. I was struggling to remember what I’d learnt about these special places – but where better to find out more than at a museum?! Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Museum in Devizes both have internationally important archaeology collections from the area and are a great place to discover the story of Wiltshire going back over half a million years and see the evidence from the earliest humans living in the area, including beautiful gold jewellery, finely made pottery, coin hoards and everyday tools. What a great introduction to the history of the area and a way to help me understand the things I’d seen out and about!
When I came to Wiltshire I knew the archaeology would be amazing – it’s something the county is famous for around the world. However, there are many other stories that I hadn’t heard about and the ‘Wiltshire’s Story in 100 Objects’ project was a good starting point to help me find out more about them. One hundred objects from Wiltshire’s museums have been carefully chosen to interpret the history of the county from 10,000 BC to the present day. It gives a great overview of the diversity of collections that Wiltshire’s museums collect, care for and interpret.
Back in the summer of 2015 Louise Tunnard from Salisbury Museum interviewed Ella Egberts, a researcher from Bournemouth University:
One of the joys of Museum life is to welcome researchers to Salisbury Museum and allow them access to our collections. Recently Ella Egberts from Bournemouth University came to spend many hours studying our collection of handaxes. I decided to find out more.
1. Can you tell me a little bit about your studies and how you came to be looking at our collections at the Museum?
For my doctoral research I am studying the Palaeolithic record of the Hampshire Avon Valley. This area is of interest because during the Pleistocene it was a large river plain that formed a corridor through the landscape for animals and early humans (hominins). The presence of hominins in the Avon Valley is evidenced by its rich Palaeolithic record that includes some of the largest concentrations of Palaeolithic finds in southern England. These large concentrations of Palaeolithic artefacts are sometimes referred to as ‘super sites’. Two of 19 known ‘super sites’ in Britain are located in the Avon Valley, found at Woodgreen and Milford Hill. Opposite of Milford Hill is an additional site, Bemerton. Although smaller, its position on the other side of the valley from Milford Hill makes it an interesting case for comparison. With my research I hope to better understand the formation of such ‘super sites’ and through analysing the artefacts found at Woodgreen, Milford Hill and Bemerton, I hope to reconstruct hominin behaviour through answering questions such as what tools did they make? What raw material did they use? And why? Together with geomorphological research and the development of a dating framework for the Palaeolithic artefacts I will also be able to situate the three sites in time and relate the timing of hominin presence in the Avon Valley to evidence of hominin presence elsewhere in Britain.
The majority of the Palaeolithic artefacts from Woodgreen, Milford Hill and Bemerton are stored at Salisbury Museum, offering me the possibility to look at each individual artefact and discover clues about the lives of their makers.
2. What have you enjoyed about looking through our collections?
It was a great pleasure to study over 1000 Palaeolithic artefacts, to be able to handle them and take a very close look. Every single artefact is different. The flake scars show the decisions its maker made in producing the tool. But you also see recurring shapes and modes of production. Maybe because they just liked it or because that was how it was learnt. So with every tool you see new things. What made it particularly interesting are the notes left on the tools themselves by collectors like Blackmore when the tools were first discovered. Those notes sometimes provide clues to where the artefact was found, for example in ‘Miss Saunders garden’. The notes on the tools and in Blackmore’s notebook offer a glimpse into a different period of time: the end of the 19th century when the evolutionary theory was consolidating and antiquarians were collecting the evidence of human evolution in the form of stone tools made by early humans.
Just before Christmas I was invited to an afternoon at Chippenham Museum to celebrate the contribution volunteers have made to the Museum over the past year.
I listened with great interest and a growing sense of wonder as Curator Melissa Barnett thanked all those who had given their time for free, speaking about all the work that had gone on throughout the year and the projects and events volunteers had been involved in.
Working with a small team of paid staff, the efforts of the volunteers are vital in creating an active and bustling community based Museum. They have a group of around 75 people who give their time to help in all areas, both front of house and behind the scenes. Amongst other things volunteers welcome visitors on the reception desk, carry out educational activities and workshops, answer enquiries, research and document the collections and work on special events. They also provide an important link with the local community, ensuring that the Museum provides what people in the town want.
As I reflected on the afternoon, it struck me that Chippenham isn’t the only museum in Wiltshire with a vibrant and hard-working group of volunteers. Having recently started working as Museum Officer for Wiltshire Council, I’ve been busy visiting many of the museums across the county and meeting the people who run them. Time and time again I’ve been mightily impressed by the levels of dedication, enthusiasm and expertise shown by the volunteers I’ve come across, including those here at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
Now that summer fades away and crisp/wet autumn arrives, one would expect the museum staff in Wiltshire to take advantage of the impending winter months and retreat into their archives until spring. However, there is still much to see and visit throughout the county – indeed an intrepid traveller could embark on a grand circular tour this weekend, starting at Royal Wootton Bassett, then heading south west towards Trowbridge, due south to Mere and return via Market Lavington.
The museum at Royal Wootton Bassett is an iconic site in the town. Half-timbered, supported on fifteen pillars and dating from 1690, the former town hall was a gift from Lawrence Hyde, MP, (later the Earl of Rochester) to the citizens and incorporated a store room and a lock up or Blind House for drunks and other undesirables, used before local police stations contained their own cells. The building has seen many uses, including a school and a courtroom. After extensive restoration in 1889 the town library was based in the town hall and since 1971 it has housed the museum.
Currently, the museum is marking the closure of the Wootton Bassett railway station back in 1965 with an exhibition and marvellous scale model depicting the station in the 1960’s. Visit the slide show telling the story of the station and its various buildings and its early links with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Look at railway life through the eyes of a signalman and discover the impact of the Swindon rail works on Wootton Bassett.
Royal Wootton Bassett Museum is open every Wednesday and Saturday (10-12).
Travelling across the county we reach the administrative centre of Trowbridge and its wonderful museum which is situated in The Shires Shopping Centre. The museum collection covers Trowbridge and outlying villages and contains a multitude of artefacts relating to the history of the town including its past industries and notable townspeople, one of which was Sir Isaac Pitman, developer of phonetic shorthand. Trowbridge Museum is located on the second floor of Salters Mill, the town’s last working woollen mill which closed in 1982. The cloth industry was a huge factor in the town’s development and in 1820 the place was nicknamed the ‘Manchester of the West’ with over twenty cloth-producing factories - the museum possesses one of only five Spinning Jennies left in the world.