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

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.

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!



Decant Day, 3 May 2017: News from the offsite store

by Lottie Clark, Curator of Decorative Art

Spring has finally sprung and we’ve now set up our permanent home at ‘MASS’, our offsite store!

The last few months have seen many changes at the store. We are now housing all the art collections (including fine art, decorative art, sculpture and costume), our Designated Cottonian Collection, the ethnography collection and some of our archaeology collections, plus an array of other Museum materials and equipment. We also have a dedicated team based at the store. This means we’ve been able to welcome both researchers and volunteers back to explore our collections!

We’ve had Amanda Yale, an independent Paper Conservator commissioned by the University of Plymouth, looking at our Cottonian Collection. Amanda spent a few weeks conducting a survey of all of the books within the collection as well as the archive, which has never been catalogued or put on display. Our hope is that her work will feed into a joint project with the University, one of our History Centre partners, to digitise the entire Cottonian Collection for future research and use.

In the past couple of weeks we’ve welcomed the first of our volunteers too. Jane Howlett and Celia Bean were two of the incredible team of volunteers who assisted with the decant of the Museum and Art Gallery building last year and they’ve been itching to come back and lend us a hand. Recently they’ve been re-assessing and documenting our ceramics collection in preparation for the new displays we’ll be creating for the History Centre when it opens in 2020.

Volunteer Jane Howlett lending us a hand at MASS

Madeleine Shaw, another of our volunteers, has been working with our Collections Assistants on our works on paper programme. Through this we hope to inventory and re-house all our works on paper in improved conditions in order to preserve them for even more centuries to come.

This is no mean feat: the collection encompasses prints, watercolours, drawings, sketches and even miscellany like velum manuscripts, letters and marriage certificates. It amounts to approximately 11,000 individual works which we are looking to improve both the storage and documentation information of by 2020.

Collections Assistants Jackie and Claire making progress with the works on paper programme

Luckily, one of our newest additions to MASS has more than a helping hand in this project – and many more besides. Terah Walkup joined us as our new Fine Art Curator at the beginning of April and she’s already made an incredible impact on our work with the art collections. Originally from Texas, Terah hails from Exeter and comes to us via RAMM and the Art Institute of Chicago. She’s thrown herself headfirst into the works on paper programme, has been getting up to speed with History Centre developments, given a Bite Size talk at Peninsula Arts about their ‘Thinking Tantra’ exhibition, and more. Not bad for her first month!

As well as these ongoing projects we’ve seen items from our collections go out on tour to other venues in the South West. These include ‘Green Devon’ by Robert Polhill Bevan, now on display in the Museum of Somerset’s ‘A Fragile Beauty’ exhibition. Over 100 pieces of Plymouth Porcelain to the Cookworthy Museum, Kingsbridge for their ‘William Cookworthy: Pioneer of Porcelain’ exhibition. All these loans were coordinated from MASS and there are more in the pipeline.

'Green Devon' by Robert Polhill Bevan from the collections of Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery
‘Green Devon’ by Robert Polhill Bevan can currently be seen on display at the Museum of Somerset, Taunton

For now the work continues exploring and improving our collections here and we look forward to keeping you updated with all our discoveries in the lead up to 2020.

If you’e interested in any volunteering opportunities, either with the team here at MASS, or the wider Arts & Heritage Service, please contact our new Volunteer and Early Career Development Officer on

Decant Day, 5 April 2017: A New Scanner for SWFTA

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer
with thanks to James Gibbs at SWFTA for his great and informative Facebook posts!

This week a piece of equipment arrived at the South West Film and Television Archive (SWFTA) that has been long-awaited – a brand new scanner. On the surface of it, this might not seem like major news, but it will make a really big difference to the work that takes place at SWFTA and will also have an important legacy for the History Centre.

SWFTA has been using a Rank Cintel MKIII scanner for some time. In fact, it’s provided around 30 years of faithful service to the archive and, prior to that, BBC Bristol. Even last week it was busy being put through its paces as all of these were run through it for various projects, including the ongoing development of the gallery designs for the History Centre.

Part of the collections at the South West Film and Television Archive, Plymouth.
The Rank Cintel MKIII has certainly been kept busy recently!

Although this scanner will now go into ‘semi-retirement’, SWFTA will continue to use it and it will eventually go on public display in one of the galleries at the History Centre.

SWFTA had a bit of preparation to do in the early part of March before they could take delivery of their new addition…..

Photograph of SWFTA's old scanner being moved in preparation for the delivery of a new one.
Making way for the new delivery…..

When the scanner arrived on 27 March all the way from Italy, it turned up in a 350kg crate! A team of 6 from Kirtley Removals made sure it was safely delivered to Plymouth. They previously worked with the History Centre when the City Museum and Art Gallery was being decanted last year and made the heavy lifting look easy…..

Delivery of a new scanner at the South West Film and Television Archive, Plymouth

The Kirtley Removals team did a great job of looking after the scanner on the last leg of its journey

The new scanner is a CIR D-Archiver, described in the industry as a ‘complete tool for the restoration and archival process’ and ‘an all-in-one solution for film archival’.

It’s different to the Rank Cintel MKIII because it scans every single frame of film as a separate image file.

The D-Archiver can scan in and export a variety of different file types. SWFTA will most likely be scanning RAW files and then exporting them as Digital Picture Exchange or DPX files.

DPX is usually the chosen format for still frames in storage worldwide. The files will be big which presents us with storage challenges, but the major positive is that they will be the best quality copies possible. This is great news for the History Centre. The better preserved the SWFTA collection is, the greater the potential for using it to enhance our visitor experience and providing the public with access to it.

SWFTA staff and volunteers had their first day of training on the scanner this week. The day involved a bit of unpacking, a bit of assembly and a bit of scanning. All in all it was a good and productive day at the archive – as you can see from the slideshow below.

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As this post hopefully outlines, the delivery of the new scanner marks the start of an exciting time for the staff, volunteers and film collection at SWFTA. For a further reminder about the archive and its role in the History Centre partnership take a look at the ‘Meet the Team’ feature we produced last year.

Decant Day, 20 July 2016: Freezing Film

By Stacey Anderson, Archive Director, South West Film and Television Archive

The South West Film and Television Archive (SWFTA) is the largest regional film archive in the UK and one of the founding partners for the History Centre project.

The current focus for decanting is the Museum and Art Gallery, and the film and television archive won’t physically move across to the History Centre until later in the project. However, there are some things we can do now to ensure we’re as organised as possible, and to demonstrate good archival best practice and management for the long term preservation of the collections we will be caring for as a partnership.

SWFTA behind the scenes
The South West Film and Television Archive (SWFTA) is the largest regional film archive in the UK

With that in mind, and as a nod to my commitment as a professional Archivist, my colleagues at SWFTA and I have been working with the Museum and Art Gallery’s Conservation Officer to prepare for the eventual decant of the film collections by testing some freezing. This will serve as one of the storage solutions that the History Centre will provide for the collections!

Our first test has been on some magnetic film, which accounts for about 60% of our film collections. SWFTA also looks after some 30,000 tapes across multiple collections and in various formats though cassetted magnetic tape content cannot be frozen and will be kept within a cold storage environment.

The idea to test magnetic film in a freezer has come about as a result of:

  • consultation with collection experts
  • some intensive mapping activity to determine exactly how much magnetic and non-magnetic material we have
  • the investigation of solutions for storing unstable media content

When we started our hope was that freezing will provide us with a long-term solution for preserving SWFTA’s important film material, as well as photographic material from across the History Centre collections, for generations to come.

The freezer used for the testing of our magnetic film
The freezer used for the testing of our magnetic film

Given the volume of the collections we hold at SWFTA and the fact that much of it has significant screen heritage status, it’s vital that we get the long-term physical storage for it right.

To run the test we selected two magnetic reels of film from our SWFTA-owned core collection. They have already been digitised at high standard so this minimises the danger of losing any of our content.

The two reels were packaged up and placed in the freezer for a month. Following this they were removed, left to defrost and then viewed to see if there had been any changes to their quality.

The test was a success and despite a month in the freezer and a fortnight of thawing out, the film plays perfectly fine!

The reels took two weeks to defrost before we could view them however, and this could prove to be too lengthy given the amount of film we care for.

Film Freeze Collage
The Museum Conservation Officer putting the film to the freeze test!

We are now considering running a second test with a shorter defrosting period.

Running experiments like this now means we have time to tweak and adapt the process to the point where the freezing is as efficient as possible without damaging our collections.

Investing the time to get this right now can only bode well for when we move everything to the History Centre in time for its opening in spring 2020!

Decant Day, May 25th 2016: Secret Love Poem Discovery?

By Lottie Clark, Decant Curator

During any great development project involving collections you get an in-depth reintroduction to the treasures tucked away within the stores. While rifling through drawers of photographs, sketches or drawings; or working through boxes of costume; sky-high racks of painting and artworks; or cabinets of beetles, you’re bound to make discoveries or uncover hidden objects previously unrealised.

Sometimes a decant can be equated to a large-scale tidy up so finally getting to the back of that racking, or looking inside a porcelain pot to find a letter from the donor, or the scrap of an address, is not uncommon. We all remember being told to tidy our room, or finally setting aside that weekend to sort through the attic, only to spend hours looking through old music we forgot we had, posters we once hung on our walls, or that vital bit of cooking equipment we ‘couldn’t live without’. A museum collection is no different. Every so often you come across that label you were meant to file, or that exhibition card you were going to transcribe. While now is the time to get these administrative threads tied up, sometimes loose sheets of paper can lead to more questions than answers, as was the case recently when working through one of our Cottonian print folios.

Cottonian Gallery

The majestic folios, dating from c.1740, stand proudly in their original bookcases within the Cottonian Gallery here in the Museum. As Plymouth’s only ACE Designated Collection they have a precedent to be on display and be accessible under certain conditions. As such we have several streams of continuing work with the Cottonian Collection to see it, amongst other things, digitised for our online platforms.

While tying up one of those aforementioned ‘loose ends’ we managed to pair-up a set of over 400 images with their original, previously unknown, folio. Although time-consuming this was a brilliant piece of detective work that now means all those images can be digitally linked on our database to each page of the original folio – how exciting! However, this also meant the folio needed to be carefully removed from its place in the bookcase, then referenced page-by-page. No mean feat when these tomes measure, on average, 50cm x 40cm and weigh upwards of 10kg! Which is when our great discovery occurred!  Nearing the end of the folio a loose leaf of paper shifted and fell from the pages. We immediately ensured it wasn’t a loose image coming unstuck from the pages – but there were no gaps to indicate the 18th Century adhesive had disintegrated – all the images remained firmly on their pages. So we began reading what looked like a rudimentary list of prints, albeit it in French.

COP25 Interleave - Front - blog
Front of interleave, with list

Initially we thought the list could have been made by one of the collectors – a ‘wish list’ perhaps of prints they wanted sourcing, or were interested in obtaining. But then we turned the slip of paper over to discover a ream of writing, in what appeared to be Italian, signed faintly in pencil ‘P Mariette’.

COP25 Interleave - Back-blog-crop
Detail, back of interleave with poem
Charles Rogers

With the bit between our teeth we delved into the archive to discover a letter from Pierre-Jean Mariette, a renowned collector and dealer of old master prints, to Charles Rogers FRS FSA, founding collector of the Cottonian. The letter is thanking Rogers for the recent acquisition, by Mariette, of a print by Sir Robert Strange based on a Van Dyck work.*

Oh how the plot thickens! Had Mariette scribbled his poem on the back of a list – or vice versa? Who was the poem’s intended – and did they ever receive it? Was this an initial draft that became a more honed final piece (and, if so, why sign it)? How had the poem found its way into the folio – especially as Rogers never travelled to Europe  so would not have met Mariette in person, even if the folio, or the prints within it, were traded through him?

All of these questions from such a small discovery! Maybe one day we’ll have the time to delve deeper into the intriguing story of the poem l’amore, but for now we need to continue our documentation and decant work – and, perhaps more so, brush up on our European languages in order to translate it!

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Both sides of the interleave

*Especial thanks to Exhibitions & Display Officer Kate Johnson who translated the letter for us with her impeccable French!