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!

 

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 rebecca.wikes@plymouth.gov.uk

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Mystery items from our Farley’s collection

Our Social History curator has been working on a collection that relates to the Farley’s factory which was in Plymouth. She has been unable to identify what these objects are, so we’d like to hear from anyone that can help. They look as though they would be used to carry out a fairly specific job so we hope someone might remember using these at work!

If you can help, please add a comment below or get in touch at museum@plymouth.gov.uk.

Uncollected object enquiries project

By Florence Morgan-Richards, Project Assistant

Following on from our Stories from the Stores project we are looking at all the objects in the stores which are not part of the Social History collection. Over the years many local people have brought objects into the Museum for identification and loan. Some of these objects never found their way back to their owners even though they are clearly of historical or sentimental value. Other people have kindly donated objects but no official transfer of ownership took place so we cannot formally accession them.

We want to make sure that everything in the stores is owned by the Museum, and to return objects which are not of local significance or of which we have other examples. Some of these objects which were brought in are of such importance to the history of Plymouth that we feel they should be in our collection, but of course we would first need the owners to transfer ownership to the Museum.

We have been trying to trace the owners of the objects to request they transfer ownership to us or to return the object to them. In most cases several attempts have already been made to contact people but without success. Many people have so far collected their objects or transferred title and we appreciate their help in this process. Other people we have been unable as yet to trace.

Please look through the images of the objects in the attached PDFs and let us know if you think any might be yours. These items are as diverse as Neolithic stone arrowheads, a Plymouth Gin ashtray, a sixteenth century bell, Second World War ration books, a magic lantern and many other objects besides.

Please contact Florence Morgan-Richards by Tuesday 14th April on 01752 308871, 01752 304774 or via email on florence.morgan-richards@plymouth.gov.uk.

The early times of Reynolds at Plymouth Dock

By Celia Bean, project volunteer

Before he was 20 Joshua Reynolds had declared that if he did not prove himself to be the best painter of the age by the time he reached 30 he never would.  So we can assume that when he returned to Plympton St Maurice in 1743 after prematurely finishing his apprenticeship with Thomas Hudson in London he would have had this ambition in mind.  His decision to work in the up and coming area of Plymouth Dock (later Devonport) was the first step in this plan.

My involvement with the research for PCMAG’s planned exhibition is to research Reynold’s time at Plymouth Dock between 1743 and 1749, so I am looking at what the area was like at that time, who Joshua painted whilst he was there and the influences that he had.

On 3 January 1744, Joshua’s father, Samuel, wrote to his friend Charles Cutcliffe who had been instrumental in arranging Joshua’s apprenticeship to Thomas Hudson, saying that his son had started painting in Plymouth Dock and had painted 20 portraits, including that of ‘the greatest man in the place, the commissioner of the dockyard’ and that he had 10 more commissions lined up.  The commissioner at that time was Philip Vanbrugh, younger brother of Sir John Vanbrugh (d 1726) who designed Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

The Town Clerk of Plymouth Walter Kendall, an important member of local society not only wanted his portrait painted, but also that of his wife and five of his family.  The Kendall’s family home was at Pelyn, Cornwall where they would have mixed with the local gentry and they were in a position to spread the word about the young painter.

Later that year Joshua returned to London as he and Thomas Hudson had patched up their quarrel and were on good terms.  Joshua’s father wrote that ‘Joshua by his master’s means is introduced into a club composed of the most famous men in their profession’.  This club met at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House in St Martin’s Lane and the clientele comprised mainly artists and connoisseurs who had an interest in old-master prints and drawings. An ideal place for an ambitious young painter not only to learn from the company of like-minded people, but also to do some valuable networking.

Reynolds returned home around the time of his father’s death on Christmas day 1745.  His mother Theophila moved to Torrington, where she lived with her eldest daughter, Mary, until her own death and Reynolds and his two unmarried sisters, Fanny and Elizabeth took a house in Fore Street, Plymouth Dock. The sisters opened a millinery shop on the ground floor and Joshua had a studio on the floor above.

Around this time Reynolds painted portraits of his sister Frances (known as Fanny) Reynolds and a posthumous portrait of his father Rev Samuel Reynolds, as well as his own self-portrait (recently acquired by PCMAG).  Perhaps he displayed these in the shop window to advertise his skill.

Plymouth Dock was the site of the most modern and technologically advanced Naval port in Europe and a new modern town grew up around it.  It was an area of well-planned streets that were wide and imposing and paved with what appeared to be marble. It was probably limestone from the local quarries, which with its veined appearance would shine like marble when wet or worn. This town was still very small when Reynolds and his sisters arrived, consisting of about seven streets concentrated around the dockyard entrance.  The main one was Fore Street where Joshua and his sisters had settled and it was along this street that all those having business in the dockyard, be they naval or civilian, had to pass.  An astute location for an ambitious young man, as this was an area on the up and a useful place for Joshua to do some networking amongst the naval officers, who at that time were either aristocrats or gentry – the very people who would consider having their portrait painted.

He was fortunate that through his father Samuel he was acquainted with some of the local aristocracy such as the Parkers of Borringdon (later of Saltram) and the Edgcumbe family of Mount Edgcumbe and it is perhaps in these residences that he was able to examine paintings of merit.  He was particularly taken with the works of a Devon artist William Gandy of Exeter (d 1729) and in his early works Reynolds copied some of Gandy’s method, especially in regard to painting the head.  Reynolds also took note of Gandy’s observation that “a picture ought to have a richness in its texture, as if the colours had been composed of cream or cheese, and the reverse to a hard and husky or dry manner.”

Although he continued to travel to London, his principal patrons at that time were from the West Country, not only The Parkers and the Edgcumbes, but notably Richard Eliot, MP for St Germans and Liskeard.

With the contacts and commissions he was starting to get whilst living in Plymouth Dock, Reynolds was beginning to hone his skills towards becoming the best painter of the age.


Bibliography

Leslie, C.R. and Taylor, Tom, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 vols., London, 1865

Northcote, James. The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 vols., London, 1818

Cotton, William. Sir Joshua Reynolds and his Works, Gleanings from his diary, unpublished manuscripts, and from other sources  (ed. J. Burnet), London 1856

Robinson, Chris, A History of Devonport, Plymouth, 2010

Stories from the Stores – your thoughts…

by Rachel Smith, Curator of Social History and World Cultures

I think it’s fair to say that a blog update is long overdue. However, I am very happy to be able to share you with some of the things that we learned from our exhibition last summer. Thank you very much to anyone who visited the exhibition and especially to those of you that took the time to come along to a focus group, fill in a questionnaire or take part in our Treasure or Trash interactive. We have learned a great deal and are now able to use what we have learned to improve the Social History collection.

We had hoped to get 350 completed questionnaires by the end of the exhibition, but due to the hard work of the gallery volunteers and the willingness of visitors to participate we managed to collect 432. Here are some of the interesting points that we learned:

  • 86% found the exhibition interesting
  • 85.5% liked the way it was displayed
  • 58% thought there was the right amount of interpretation while 39% said not enough
  • 85% said it made them want to visit a museum store
  • 49% said objects should be connected to Plymouth
  • In general visitors thought we ought to collect more toys, sports equipment and clothing
  • Favourite objects: pram, weapons, ovens, radios

Five focus groups were run by our Evaluation Consultant. Each group was asked what they liked about the exhibition and what they would like to see us collect more of in the future.

Young people liked that many artefacts had Plymouth stories and they liked that objects were grouped by type so that you could see a timeline of some items. They would like us to collect more domestic items, items made in Plymouth and gadgets, especially games consoles.

Retired people appreciated the minimal interpretation and the opportunity to think for themselves. They also liked that most items were in living memory. They would like us to collect objects relating to childcare and motherhood, hobbies and especially related to shopping.

Friends of PCMAG enjoyed the chance for visitors to talk to staff and the element of nostalgia – they thought it was fun to see every day items. They would like us to collect more objects related to local employers and transport, and especially kitchen equipment.

Traditional Crafts Group liked the feeling of being backstage. They were drawn to objects that reminded them of people, places or their own childhood.They want us to collect more packaging, domestic items, toys, and especially items connected to changing fashions.

Plymouth workers liked that the objects were themed, and also said it felt like a treasure hunt for children because you have to find things for yourself.They would like us to collect more objects related to Plymouth manufacturers, toys, farm equipment, and especially items to represent a 1950s Plymouth home.

Of 114 forms completed in the gallery a large majority were suggesting items of treasure. The most popular items were the prams, the ‘big gun’ (World War I anti-tank gun) and the doll’s house. The JFK’s disco sign, the barber’s chair and the Bush televisions were also well-liked. There were very few recommendations for trash: the plough was the only object to get more than one vote and that was because it stood out as a rural life object in amongst a mostly urban collection. Suggestions for what we ought to collect, or should have more of included technology (such as computers and phones), sports equipment (such as golf clubs and football kit) and toys and childhood related objects (such as school days and teddy bears).

I’ve just given a quick overview of the feedback we received, so as you can see we learned a great deal. We already refer to this feedback when we get offered objects for the Social History collection and it will be useful when we undertake reviews of different part of the collection. But the fun part will be to begin collecting some of the objects that you told us were missing from the collection.