Decant Day, 9 November 2016: Packing up the Cottonian Collection

By Susan Leedham, Cottonian Collection Researcher

As we near the halfway point of Decant (ready for building work to start in the New Year) it was time to move one of our most important pieces – our nationally designated Cottonian Collection.

aha210211-4474The Cottonian Collection was gifted to the people of Plymouth in 1853 for our ‘amusement and instruction’ and we are incredibly lucky to be able to call this unique and fascinating collection our own! The collection contains over 10,000 objects including prints, drawings and oil paintings (including many by Plympton-born painter Sir Joshua Reynolds), along with 2,000 books, ceramics, sculpture, and some large pieces of unique eighteenth-century furniture. Because of its contents, the collection was awarded Designation Status by Arts Council England. This means that it has been identified as one of the most important collections in the country.

Although the Cottonian Collection was gifted to us by William Cotton III in the mid-nineteenth century, it is much older and started life 350 years ago. In mid-seventeenth-century London, a middle-class man called Robert Townson began buying books and a few prints. The collection then passed through the hands of two further gentlemen (William Townson and Charles Rogers) who each purchased numerous drawings, prints, paintings and books. By 1799 the Cottonian Collection was two-thirds larger than its current size – just imagine how impressive it would have looked! Sadly two sales in 1799 and 1801 reduced the collection to the size it is today, however the remainder was brought to Plymouth by William Cotton III in the 1830s and on his death was donated to the people of Plymouth.

As you can well imagine, moving a collection of this size and importance was no easy feat. With only one week to accomplish this task, we worked with a company of specialist movers who helped us to pack and transport our precious Cottonian Collection. The first objects to be moved were the three large bookcases. As you can see from our time-lapse footage this was a big job!

Carefully removing the books from the shelves (some are very large and heavy) the books were packed into boxes lined with acid-free bubble wrap and tissue for their journey to the offsite store.

It was essential that each box is marked with a shelf number so that we could make sure that all the books went back on the shelves in the right order! The large bookcases were then dismantled for the journey and placed in crates to keep them safe. Once at the other end, they were carefully re-built and the books were placed back on the shelves. This was a job that needed a lot of care as the eighteenth-century wood is sensitive to movement and changes in temperature.

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Reinstalling the furniture in its new location

In the time-lapse and the images below, you can also see some of the oils, bronzes and other works being taken packaged ready to be taken off-site. This gives a sense of the scale of work undertaken!

It was a busy week and in total nine pieces of large furniture, 2,000 books, 9,000 prints, twenty-two oil paintings and 54 pieces of sculpture made the journey.

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