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, 23 November 2016: Ground floor gallery objects on the move

By Fiona Booth, Digital Engagement Officer

As a member of the Programmes Team, I’m not directly involved in the physical move of the Museum and Art Gallery’s collections. That’s primarily been the significant task for our Collections Team and our MA Team (front of house) with volunteers ably supporting. However, it’s been really interesting to go into the main building recently to see what’s been happening.

The first noticeable thing when you walk into our foyer – once a central meeting point for people coming in – is that it’s now a holding zone for items that were previously in galleries or storage and are now ready to leave the building for their temporary home.

I pass through the foyer when going to meetings or catching up with staff and am always struck by the amount of packing materials being held here, as well as the number of boxes that have been processed. It’s usually a hive of activity! Not being in the galleries every day, it’s really noticeable to see what has been moved each week. When I speak to staff and volunteers involved, I really start to appreciate the effort that has gone into planning the decant, let alone physically carrying it out.

Claire, Val and Tina from our MA Team are working through the World Cultures objects that were in the stores. Each object in each box is checked and paperwork completed. Before the box can leave the building, the packing within it is checked too. Some of the groundwork is in place because a World Cultures project a few years ago included storage improvements. This was long before the History Centre project became a reality however, so extra care needs to be taken if objects are packed in layers within a box, for example. Then some inventive work happens, often structuring string or tape within the box, to ensure that delicate parts of an object are protected on their journey out of the building.

Our shop and café area is now a ceramics working area and I really enjoy looking at all sorts of objects while they’re being packed here. I followed Vicky and Jane to see what’s involved in packing this collection.  Off to the basement they went with a trolley, to bring up the next lot of ceramics to be packed. This involves carefully removing the items from their shelving – as you can see, they are stored behind glass doors. They’re placed in the trolley and the trip back upstairs is carefully made to a huge workstation where the packing can begin.

For our curators, packing objects that were on display can present their own challenges. For example, some objects that were on display in our ‘Bringing the World to Plymouth’ gallery were nicely mounted and it would be a shame to repack the object differently. Other objects would have not been stored in boxes at all. These now require boxes so they can be transported offsite.  Sometimes the object won’t fit in a standard box so a new bespoke one has to be made!

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The physical move is not the only challenge. As part of the collections care process we must ensure we document the new location of all our objects once they’ve been moved. So, before each item is packed the accession number is noted on a transportation sheet. The number of the box it’s being stored in is also recorded. To assist with this process we’ve got PCs located in our galleries. This enables us to update the database as swiftly as possible. Once these details have been captured, the object moves onto be packed.

A woman holding a bowl, whilst sitting at a desk with a computer
Checking the object details on the database

I can’t imagine having to do this each time I moved house! The amount of planning this has taken is considerable – but we are now over half way through the decant with more objects out of the building than in it. This is a massive achievement for all involved.

Decant Day, 12 October 2016: Our Clare Twomey commission comes down

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

The decant of the Museum and Art Gallery’s former public spaces is moving at pace and some of our most iconic works are now being packed up ready for safe storage.

One of the first is ‘Plymouth Porcelain: A New Collection’ by Clare Twomey which has been decanted over the last couple of weeks.

We worked with Clare on this commission in 2011-12. She is a British artist who primarily works with clay in large-scale installations, sculpture and site-specific works. Over the past 10 years she has exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate, Crafts Council, Museum of Modern Art Kyoto Japan, the Eden Project and the Royal Academy of Arts. Working on the project with her was a fantastic opportunity for us to collaborate with a really well-established artist and the staff involved learnt a lot.

The work broke new ground when it was made as it was the first time Clare had created a permanent piece for a Museum. Prior to this many of her major installations had been designed to disappear, break or perish in the course of their exhibition period.

Clare Twomey Collage
Clockwise from top: Trophy by Clare Twomey at the V&A Museum, 2006: one of the objects selected for our commission and its new porcelain version in Clare’s studio, 2011; ‘Plymouth Porcelain: A New Collection for Plymouth’ by Clare Twomey installed in our Atrium Gallery, 2012; Clare looking at an object brought in to one of our casting days, 2011.

Since February 2012, visitors have been able to view ‘Plymouth Porcelain: A New Collection’ above the doors of our China Connection gallery. The artwork has 33 suspended cases each of which contain a white porcelain object cast from objects suggested by the people of Plymouth – including a coffee pot that my granddad brought home from Singapore in the 1950s where he’d been serving with the RAF!

The work was inspired by our Plymouth Porcelain collection – the largest public collection of its kind from the first factory that ever produced hard-paste porcelain in England.

William Cookworthy of Kingsbridge, Devon discovered China clay in Cornwall in 1748 and obtained a patent for the manufacture of porcelain twenty years later. His Plymouth factory started in 1768 and ran for two years, producing a wide range of domestic and decorative items. We believe it stood where the site of the current ‘China House’ pub is on Sutton Harbour.

Packing collage for Clare Twomey's commission (1)

Packing collage for Clare Twomey's commission (2)
Taking down Clare Twomey’s work involved two members of our front of house team, our art curator, two volunteers and our scissor lift!

Decanting such an important artwork is no quick or easy feat and the process involved three members of staff plus Rosemary and Chris – two of our brilliant volunteers.

The suspended boxes were carefully taken down one at a time – access to them was provided by our trusty scissor lift. The porcelain object was safely removed from the box. Both items were then carried to a packing area where they could be wrapped and documented ready to be transported to our offsite store.

Here’s a short piece of timelapse footage showing part of the decant:

In total it took the team four hours to take down the boxes and move them and the porcelain items to the packing area.

It’s since taken a further four days to do all the packing and documentation.

Volunteer collage for decanting Clare Twomey's commission (1)

Volunteer collage for decanting Clare Twomey's commission (2)
Once all the boxes were down, all the porcelain objects were taken out and carefully packed and documented. The boxes were safely wrapped too.

All 33 boxes have been packed in protective bubble wrap and pallet wrapped. The individual ceramic items have also been safely wrapped and packed into 3 large containers.

Part of the commission safely packed and ready to be moved to our offsite store.
Part of the commission safely packed and ready to be moved to our offsite store.

It will be strange not to see this beautiful work on display for a while, but there are lots of other ways in which we’ll be highlighting our important Plymouth Porcelain collection to people while the development of the History Centre is taking place. More information about these will be published really soon in the news and what’s on sections of our website and in future Decant Day blog posts.

We’ll leave you with this short clip of the final box being taken down:

‘Plymouth Porcelain: A New Collection’ was made possible thanks to New Expressions 2, which was supported by MLA Renaissance South West and the National Lottery through Grants for the Arts to enable regional museums to commission new work and join forces with contemporary artists.