Behind the Scenes, 25 October 2017: Merchant’s House Decant

by Val Grant, Museum Assistant

The role of Collections Assistant for Plymouth Museums Galleries and Archives was created in 2017. At present the team consists of Jackie, Claire and myself (Val). Our role is a busy one which we absolutely love involving numerous projects for the new galleries for The Box. Recently we have also been decanting the Merchant’s House.

Front view of the Merchant's House in Plymouth

The Collections Team worked on the major decant of the Museum and Art Gallery building last year. When we were asked to assist with the Merchant’s House decant, a Grade II listed Museum satellite site we were excited to be involved, especially as we have previously worked at the House as part of the Museum Assistants (front of house) team.

The Merchant’s House which was probably built in the early 16th century has seven rooms, three landings and one attic floor where Museum objects were displayed. In August this year the Collections Team started the major task of removing all these objects prior to a conservation project which is set to take place on the site.

The House has been closed for a while as it is in need of some essential restoration. An options appraisal for its future use is in the pipeline. Once a preferred option has been chosen the renovation works are likely to start quite quickly. We have huge commitments coming our way next year with the preparations for moving everything into The Box, so having the time to decant the Merchant’s House now has worked out well.

Decanting the Merchant's House Autumn 2017

The objects in the House come from right across the museum’s collections. These include social history, ceramics, silver, maritime and civic, natural history, archaeology, art prints, posters photographs, and furniture. This was clearly going to be going to be a large project so we decided to enlist the help of a group of volunteers. These volunteers Vicky, June, Michael and Joe, our British Museum apprentice, were really enthusiastic and worked very hard to assist us.

Decanting the Merchant's House Autumn 2017

Every object had to be identified, numbered, condition checked and entered onto a paper inventory. Some objects required remedial cleaning before being wrapped in acid free tissue, sometimes tied with unbleached cotton tape, and then placed in acid free conservation grade boxes. The boxes then had to be double layer poly wrapped. These boxes were then created as packages on the museum database and given a current location which would be updated when they are moved to our offsite store. The boxes and smaller soft wrapped items were transported in the Museum vans by our Team Leader Ian with help from a Museum Assistant, Collections Assistant and Joe, our British Museum Apprentice.

Being a timber framed building there is always the likelihood of pest infestation at a site like the Merchant’s House. While we were decanting we had to be very vigilant, inspecting items carefully for evidence of woodworm and Death Watch Beetle. Woodworm is the most prevalent so we were on the lookout for the tell-tale holes and examples of frass (the fine powdery refuse left behind) after they have bored their way out of the wood.

Decanting the Merchant's House Autumn 2017

Our Decant Officer Steve and Conservation Officer Tonya gave us advice and information on what to look for and these items were double poly wrapped for the freezer with a freezing time of two weeks. The Museum has an ongoing freezer programme to deal with pests. Another issue was dirt and mould so most objects were given a remedial conservation clean with a smoke sponge. This is a unique dry sponge made of vulcanised natural rubber used mainly for cleaning soot and fire damaged items.

Decanting the Merchant's House Autumn 2017

Larger items proved quite a challenge to wrap so we sought the help of Shirley a long time museum volunteer who wrapped most of the animals in the Natural History gallery during the Museum decant. Larger items that proved fun were the Penny Farthing (see the picture above!), a Bavarian bear hat and umbrella stand, a Doll’s House and a very large fragile barrel which, along with large items such as the Ducking Stool, were going to be transported by a specialist heavy removal company.

The whole project was a good example of planning, organisation, hard work and co-operation. It was also a great opportunity to learn from and test the process that will help with the future decants of the collections at the South West Film and Television Archive and South West Image Bank, two of the principal partners for The Box.

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Behind the Scenes, 11 October 2017: Creating a video legacy for The Box

by Lizzy Allen, Soundview Media

Soundview is a Plymouth-based video production company. We love our city and have been excited to watch its regeneration and growth in recent years. So we were really pleased, when in 2015,  we were asked to create a video legacy for one of the symbols of that regeneration: The Box. Our task was to help record the transformation of Plymouth’s Museum and Art Gallery, former Central Library and St Luke’s Church into a multi-million pound cultural and heritage centre. The result would be a series of videos capturing the project’s vision: building a museum for the 21st century, where Plymouth’s rich history could be celebrated under one roof alongside a really ambitious visual arts offer.

The Soundview Media staff team 2017
The Soundview Team – From L to R: Chris, Lizzy, Katie, Issy and Gareth

The videos would help inform current and future generations. Where pen and quill once recorded the events of Plymouth’s past, contemporary video technology would record the changes happening in the heart of the city.

Being involved with such an important project has been rewarding and occasionally surprising. So far we’ve filmed aerial acrobats, dancers and poets, part of the sensational contemporary performance to launch The Box brand in Drake Circus and more. Of course, as film makers, another highlight was our shoot at the South West Film and Television Archive (SWFTA). The SWFTA team gave us access to their wealth of film and video, a moving reminder of Plymouth’s past. This resource will be moved to the Media Lab, one of main galleries inside The Box. It’s a privilege to think that one day our videos might also become part of that archive.

The launch of The Box brand took place in Drake Circus in July 2017
The launch of The Box brand took place in Drake Circus in July 2017

Our most surprising encounters have involved the Museum’s collections. We came face to face with a Lamprey (admittedly a `pickled’ or preserved one) when filming the spirit collection. Over 4,000 jars of creatures, some of them the stuff of nightmares, and many of them over 150 years old, were moved to a temporary site. We also never imagined we would be present at the wrapping of an ancient Egyptian mummy coffin from Thebes. Now carefully packaged and in storage, this coffin will take pride of place, alongside other iconic objects, when The Box opens in 2020.

A specimen from the Museum and Art Gallery's spirit collection
A specimen from the Museum and Art Gallery’s spirit collection

Other highlights to date have included filming different aspects of the Museum On Tour programme, particularly this summer’s Ropewalks performances, where we met some interesting characters who were able to tell us what life was like on the Barbican hundreds of years ago. Filming last year’s Illuminate parade at night was breath-taking.

Colourful characters from Ropewalks, Plymouth - Summer 2017
Colourful characters from Ropewalks which we really enjoyed filming

In addition to key events, we have captured pivotal stages relating to the building and construction work. From the initial ground-breaking ceremony, to the demolition of modern extensions and outbuildings.

Chris filming the groundbreaking ceremony for The Box
Chris filming the groundbreaking ceremony for The Box

We will continue to film each important moment as this flagship project continues on its journey towards its completion in time for the 2020 Mayflower commemorations. See the Soundview blog for our favourite moments as well as some of our other projects.

To take a look at all the videos we’ve produced so far for The Box visit the YouTube channel.

Behind the Scenes, 27 September 2017: Engaging communities with creativity

by Fiona Evans, Vital Sparks Producer

It was in September four years ago when Vital Sparks was launched to help communities run their own creative projects.

The scheme is a partnership between Plymouth Culture and Plymouth City Council and is funded by Arts Council England. The idea was to use art to grow confidence and vigour in neighbourhoods that were tired of being told what they wanted. Bringing folk together to get murals painted, community gardens planted and yarn bombs knitted. Creating opportunities for people to get together and be creative.

Photograph of a Vital Sparks funded creative session

The project has always had a bursary scheme at its centre and the average grant is about £2,600. The funding is complemented by the offering of support to new fledgling projects as and when they need it, so some of my time is spent visiting projects, or calling them to see how they’re getting on. Sometimes projects don’t need any help. At other times I have been kept busy writing funding bids, press releases, risk assessments……the list goes on. I’ve also found signposting new community groups to other more established Vital Sparks funded projects to be significant as they can share their learning. This has enabled us to create a network which I think is a great idea.

Photograph of the Barne Barton Rangers Vital Sparks supported project

You’d think that giving money away would be easy but it’s surprising how much work is attached to handing out grants. I’m lucky because being based in the same building as the Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives staff means I have the benefit of working with a Business Support Team who make sure all our grants get paid. Things can get a bit complicated when groups don’t have a bank account! There are instances in the past when I’ve driven my Vital Sparks bursary recipients to the local Credit Union to set one up or had to find other ways to ensure they receive their funding.  

Every day is different with Vital Sparks. At the moment, for example, I’m lending support to a variety of projects including a growing piece of work called Lesbian Voices. Through ‘Pride In Plymouth’ Jo Lewis has recently secured a grant of £46,200 from the Heritage Lottery Fund. I first came across Jo when she was a writer on a previous project of ours called ‘In Other Words’. She is seeking out and recording lesbian voices and histories of Plymouth and will be starting to recruit volunteers in November. Vital Sparks has provided some match funding for this exciting project and I can’t wait to see what is created.

Photograph from an Art, Craft and Laughter Vital Sparks funded workshop

The Plymouth Art Weekender has just taken place and some of our projects ran events during it. On one of the days I popped in on Art, Craft and Laughter to see how they were getting on. Set up by Debbie and Charlie Seldon they use art and craft to help tackle mental health issues…..hence the laughter. They provide a safe, non-judgmental space for people to experiment and learn. They were taking part in the Art Weekender for the first time. Their feedback will be very useful when we think about encouraging more people to take part next year. 

Photograph from a Fijian craft workshop supported by Vital Sparks

I also went to the School of Creative Arts where a free Fijian workshop funded by Vital Sparks was taking place as part of a bigger cultural festival called ‘Bula’ which culminates with Fiji Day in October. It was the first time this community have run a workshop for the wider public and it was great to see so many people there.

Whilst our current projects keep me more than busy, I am also focusing on a new and exciting phase of work for 2018. The biggest news in the world of Vital Sparks is the new Mayflower Community Fund that we will be managing next year. We are finalising the details at the moment and the scheme is set to launch in January. If you’re interested in doing something in your community to mark Mayflower 400 watch this space! 

Behind The Scenes, 30 August 2017: A trip to the offsite store

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

I went to our offsite store for the first time recently and was given a tour by our Registrar Nicki Thomas. I took a few snaps while she was showing me around which I thought I would share with you in this week’s post.

Our works are stored over two floors. On one floor we have our Cottonian Collection, objects from our world cultures collection and, as shown in the photo below, crated works of art and some items that have recently returned to us from Buckland Abbey where they have been on loan.

We also have some enormous rolled canvases. This one is called ‘The Release of St Peter’. The frame, which as you can imagine is also huge, is stored separately. Storing large-scale items in this way is a much more practical solution.

When we were decanting the Museum last year our curators talked a lot about how the process was enabling them to learn more about the collections, verify and update our documentation and highlight areas that need to be prioritised for research. Nicki echoed this while she was showing me around.

This part of the store also contains some pieces of sculpture………

……….and our costume collection, all of which would have been frozen to minimise the likelihood of any bugs or pests in the fabrics, and then gone through a period of defrosting before being placed into storage.

On the other floor we have more art, some archaeology and more world cultures. We also have other resources and equipment. This floor is warmer and staff monitor the environment at all times to ensure everything is being stored in the most appropriate conditions. There are also workstation areas for staff and prep areas where works of art can be unwrapped or wrapped if needs be.

This wonderful artwork shown in one of the prep areas is ‘Kilchurn Castle’ by JMW Turner. It’s due to go on loan to the Scottish Portrait Gallery soon. They will be touring it and a number of other works by Turner to Japan. It’s likely that we’ll have a small number of additional loans going out to international venues in the near future. We’ll fill you in on these in a future post!

Behind The Scenes, 3 August 2017: Working together to create a splash

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

By now hopefully those of you who follow us will know that we have launched a new name and brand for what was previously known as the Plymouth History Centre (working title). As a marketeer I can’t tell you how great it is to now be working with a definitive title and visual identity for this exciting project and to finally be able to ditch those brackets!

The Box logo - July 2017

Our launch took the form of a teaser campaign and ‘top secret’ volunteer call out in the local press and social media, followed by a reveal on our promotional leaflets, construction site hoardings and website on 22 July. This was backed up with some great press coverage and two fantastic performances in the Drake Circus shopping mall. The performances were commissioned from the Barbican Theatre and featured a number of local performers, choreographers, artists and musicians.

Our new name has generated a great deal of debate which we really welcome. There are a number of reasons why we chose it. These are outlined in our official press release which I’d encourage anyone who would like to understand more about the development process we’ve been through and the rationale behind the brand to read.

Photograph of the front of The Box leaflet - July 2017

I’ve been involved in a number of branding projects and launch events during my career and they all bring their own set of unique challenges with them – especially when there’s a great deal of interest and expectation in the project or organisation they represent. There are three things that really stand out for me about this particular launh.

The first thing is the great teamwork that took place. Getting ready for the launch required a number of people with a wide range of skills to collaborate. Along with myself it involved contributions from colleagues in public art, events and audience development, digital engagement, volunteer coordination and business support. We also had to engage with a range of suppliers from graphic design, web development, film and video production, to photography, public relations, merchandising, printing – even air filling for balloons!

The second thing was the amount of help we received. We had a lovely group of enthusiastic volunteers assisting us throughout the day. We were also lucky enough to benefit from a great deal of support and cooperation from the local media as well as the team who manage Drake Circus and the mall’s retailers, especially Marks and Spencer and Yo Sushi. We are very grateful to everyone.

The third thing was the quality of the performances devised and directed by the Barbican Theatre which were pieces of global contemporary dance combined with street theatre, rap and folk music.

Curious ‘choruses’ of walking boxes wove their way around the shopping mall before aerial dancers and performers gathered to open and unwrap a series of objects. Our new strapline, ‘Where the greatest explorer is you’ was referenced, with Polynesian-influenced moves inspired by our world cultures collections, and the discovery of a character representing the female mountaineer Gertrude Benham in a packing case. Huge thanks and congratulations to the directors, choreographers, designers, artists, performers and musicians involved.

As our CEO Paul Brookes said: “Like our architecture, ‘The Box’ as our title is a brave, contemporary move. As the launch performances from the Barbican Theatre team showed, although at first glance it may appear simple it actually holds a multitude of meanings. The performances also illustrated how Plymouth’s cultural sector can work with the businesses and facilities within the city centre to showcase the artistic journey we are all on together.”

Greg Lumley, Drake Circus Centre Director said: “A massive congratulations to The Box team. It looks like it will be an exciting and welcome addition to the city. The Drake Circus team look forward to working with The Box to ensure we continue to create a compelling visitor offer that positively impacts the local economy.”

I’ll leave you with the links to our official launch video and the images from the performances. Until next time…..

Main performance images:

10

Curious chorus images:

16

Official launch video:

Behind the Scenes, 28 June 2017: New members of the team

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

Largely thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund support the History Centre project is receiving, we have recently welcomed some new members of staff.

The roles they’ll be carrying out are quite varied and they all bring a range of skills and experience to the team. We thought you’d like to meet them and find out a little more about them.

Photograph of new Plymouth History Centre staff - June 2017
Back row from L-R: Lizzie Edwards, Stacey Turner and Nicoletta Lambertucci. Front row L-R: Rebecca Wickes, Stacey Anderson and Terah Walkup.

Lizzie Edwards: Lizzie has moved to Devon from London to join us as a Learning Development Officer (Schools). She previously worked at the British Museum as the Education Manager for the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre, where she managed a learning programme for schools and families using advanced digital technologies to engage these audiences with the Museum’s collection. Notable projects included creating a virtual reality Bronze Age experience – referenced in the DCMS’ Culture White Paper as an example of how technology can expand engagement with heritage – and developing a programme of ‘Virtual Visits’ for schools outside of London. Prior to working at the British Museum, Lizzie also worked at the National Maritime Museum, Museum of London and the Building Exploratory.

Stacey Turner: Stacey has really had to hit the ground running since she joined us a few weeks ago as our new Events and Audience Development Coordinator. She’s already helped finalise our fantastic Beryl Cook-themed summer event programme, plan our autumn/winter programme, organised two exhibition launches and worked at Local Studies Day, the Freedom Community Festival and the Contemporary Craft Festival. Stacey joins us with experience of developing and managing events at the National Marine Aquarium as well as a university in Australia.

Nicoletta Lambertucci: Nicoletta is a curator based in London and holds an MA in Philosophy and Art Theory from Goldsmiths College. She will be working with us as our Contemporary Art Curator, looking at how we can embed contemporary visual art and new commissions throughout the History Centre. Since 2011 she has worked at DRAF (David Roberts Art Foundation) – an independent contemporary art space in London. In 2016 she curated Tarantallegra at Hester, NYC and Mundus Muliebris at BASEMENT ROMA, Rome. In 2018 she will present a two-artist project at Meter, Copenhagen in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen. She is also a contributor for Cura Magazine.

Rebecca Wickes: Rebecca joined us in mid-April as our new Volunteer and Early Career Development Officer. This is a post we have never had before so we are very excited about the potential it has to enhance our service. Rebecca will be working with staff from all areas of the History Centre to develop our volunteer offer and to help recruit the volunteers we need. She has come to us from the National Trust where she previously coordinated over 300 volunteers. She also possesses substantial experience in commercial and marketing activities within a heritage setting.

Stacey Anderson: Our new Media Archivist has worked in a number of heritage organisations in the region including the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, Cornwall Record Office and the Courtney Library at the Royal Cornwall Museum. She was the founding Archivist for the South West Image Bank and, most recently, the Executive Archive Director for the South West Film and Television Archive. Stacey is a Registered Member of the Archives and Records Association (ARA), an active Committee Member of the Film Sound and Photography Section of the ARA and a member of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA). A passionate advocate for our region’s film and photographic heritage, Stacey leads the gallery team working on the History Centre’s ‘Media Lab’. She will also be helping to shape our digital preservation strategy which will ensure the long-term management of our media collections.

Terah Walkup: Our new Fine Art Curator (maternity cover) has previously worked as a research associate at the Art Institute of Chicago where she coordinated exhibitions and assisted with the re-installation and re-design of the museum’s ancient art collection. In Chicago, she also ran public museum programmes and gave popular lectures on the history of art. Terah brings a keen interest in the eighteenth century to her role so is really excited to be working with the History Centre’s wealth of paintings, prints and drawings. Since moving to the South West over a year ago, she has volunteered at cultural institutions in the area, including Exeter Cathedral and the RAMM, as well as learning the proper way to put jam and cream on a scone!

Decant Day, 31 May 2017: Collections Roundup

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

It’s been another busy few weeks for our Collections staff so I thought I’d round up a handful of the things they’ve been working on in this post.

Plymouth – From Destruction to Construction
We recently opened an exhibition at the Council House called ‘Plymouth – From Destruction to Construction’. The exhibition has been coordinated by two of our Learning Development Officers and looks at the impact of the Blitz on Plymouth and the ambitious plan that was devised to rebuild the city afterwards.

Our Curator of Decorative Art has organised some objects from our art collection to be included in the displays including a jug, cup, teapot, bottle and ceremonial trowel. The first four of these were all smoke and heat damaged in the Blitz. The jug even has another object fused to its inside from the impact. You can see them on show in the exhibition throughout the year.

Heat damaged object from Plymouth City Council's Arts and Heritage Service's collection
An image showing the inside of the jug
Photograph of the Blitz exhibition at the Council House Plymouth, May 2017
The objects on display in the exhibition

Ropewalks
Objects from the collections across the History Centre partnership were also recently used in the research and development of a brand new series of theatrical walking tours. Our ‘Ropewalks’ explore the history of the Barbican area and have been developed in partnership with the Barbican Theatre and writer Jon Nash. The team who devised the project and script have drawn on research conducted with the Museum and Art Gallery, the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre and the South West Film and Television Archive.

Members of the team have been blogging regularly about the work they’ve been doing and you can find links to all their posts here. Tickets for performances in June and August are now on sale. Those that have taken place throughout May have had brilliant feedback from audiences.

Photograph of the cast members of Ropewalks, Plymouth - May 2017
Our ‘Ropewalks’ performers have really impressed audiences so far

Staff Away Day
Staff from most of the History Centre partners, including some of our Curators and Archivists, recently took part in an Away Day at Mount Edgcumbe.

Although there are lots of meetings taking place for the History Centre all the time it’s really rare that we all get the chance to spend the day together away from our offices. The event was an opportunity for us to discuss and share ideas about the kind of organisation we will become in the future, as well as work with people we don’t often collaborate with. One exercise where we worked in small groups of six to brainstorm ideas for exhibitions and then feed them back to everyone else was a real highlight and produced some really interesting results.

20170515_144750
Our staff Away Day was a good opportunity for everyone to share ideas

Forward Planning
For the first time ever I officially heard the words ‘Recant Programme’ in a meeting a couple of weeks ago! It only seems like yesterday that we were planning how we were going to empty the Museum and Art Gallery so building and construction work could take place. Now, our Collections staff are already starting to think about what they’ll need to do to move everything back in 2019 – as well as bring the collections from the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, South West Film and Television Archive and South West Image Bank onto site. More on this in future posts!

……….and finally
One of the most major pieces of work that our Curators and Archivists have been involved in over the last few months is the development of the designs for the new galleries that will feature in the History Centre. As I highlighted in a previous post back in March, it’s a huge piece of work.

More progress has been made on this over the last couple of months and a series of workshops have been held with Event Communications who are leading on the gallery design.

Each workshop has focused on a particular gallery, has lasted for 2-3 hours and involved management and education staff too. The sessions have been fairly intense at times as people challenge each other to ensure we end up with the very best design – but it’s a process which has also strengthened our collective vision for the project.

We should be receiving some updated visuals from Event in the next couple of weeks and we’re really looking forward to sharing them with everyone. Watch this space!