Since I started at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in November 2015, the main project I have been working on has been Wiltshire at War: Community Stories. I would like to let you know what the project has achieved so far, what we would still like to do, and how you can get involved.
What is Wiltshire at War: Community Stories? Wiltshire at War: Community Stories aims to bring people together from across Wiltshire to discover, explore and share stories about Wiltshire’s response to the First World War. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
What has been achieved so far? During 2014, enthusiastic people from museums and heritage organisations were trained to carry out oral history interviews and community engagement sessions relating to gathering stories about the First World War. Throughout 2014 and 2015 (and now into 2016) research has been carried out by museums, history societies, and individuals from all over Wiltshire who have donated the stories to the Wiltshire at War project. In January 2015 the Wiltshire at War website went live. Do visit the website and explore this growing archive of stories.
The Call to Arms, the first of the five exhibitions, launched in February 2015 and is currently on display in the Springfield Campus Library, Corsham, until 3 March 2016. The theme focuses on the soldiers called up to fight, and the preparations for war in Wiltshire. The second exhibition, Wiltshire Does Its Bit, launched in September 2015, and is currently on display at Chippenham Museum, until 27 February 2016. The theme focuses on the contributions of ordinary people to the war effort at home in Wiltshire. Both these exhibitions are currently touring Wiltshire, and are available to hire, free of charge.
There are four identical schools’ exhibitions that have launched, are touring, and can be booked free of charge. They come with a handling kit to bring the exhibition to life, and complimentary teaching resources for key stages 1-3 are available on the website. There were library talks in 2015 from the likes of Stewart Binns and Elizabeth Speller, in Corsham, Salisbury, Warminster, and Mere, and they have been accompanied by a comprehensive book display.
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.
Last year we posted a blog about work we did to conserve Malmesbury’s historic fire pump for display. The pump is one of the largest items the museum owns and arranging a space suitable for it to be displayed in was not straight forward for the museum. For this reason the fire pump had to go back into storage whilst a display area was arranged for it. But recently I have been able to go back and help with putting the item on display.
The pump belongs to the Athelstan museum in Malmesbury but is too large to fit in their own store so it has been kept in a commercial storage facility in an old aircraft hangar. I met the curator at the storage site along with two members of the modern fire brigade who had volunteered to help move the object. It was interesting to hear their opinion on this piece of historic fire fighting equipment. In particular I learnt that that although I had been calling it a fire engine it should in fact be called a fire appliance or pump. Apparently the modern fire service does not use the term fire engine at all. In the case of the appliance I had worked on it should not be called an engine as it does not have any sort of engine or motor. Its pump was powered by people pushing its handles up and down.
Don’t forget to visit this wonderful touring exhibition inspired by the British Museum and telling the story of Wiltshire in 100 objects. Supported by the Arts Council England and managed by Wiltshire Museum, Devizes, the project showcases the varied nature of objects held throughout Wiltshire by its museums. These museums range from military collections, industrial sites, art galleries, heritage centres and small village museums as well as national collections.
The 100 objects are diverse and each gives an insight into the rich history of Wiltshire. They have been classified amongst ten major themes...