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!


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, 21 December 2016: Light at the end of the tunnel

by Fiona Booth, Digital Engagement Officer

Since my last update in early December so much work has been undertaken with the Museum decant. We can now finally say that all the collections that needed to be out the building and moved to our offsite store have gone! Huge congratulations are in order for all the staff and volunteers who have made this happen. We’ve talked about it a lot on this blog over the last few months, but the amount of work that everyone has had to do should not be underestimated.

I had another look around the galleries recently to see what progress had been made in the last few weeks. It was a chance to see all manner of things being packed or moved – from Scott of the Antarctic’s Skis, to Ancient Egyptian objects, to ship models.

By the time I looked around most of the objects from our Bringing the World to Plymouth gallery had been decanted. There were a few really interesting objects from our stores still being packed however. These included weapons which had been in storage and which were being prepared for transfer. These are fastened to racking (as you can see in the photograph below). They will stay on this racking for the duration of the project which reduces the need to handle them.

Weapons secured to racking

When I photographed in our Plymouth: Port and Place gallery in October, preparatory work was being undertaken by staff before the objects could be moved. Now, lots of empty crates and boxes awaited and many objects were already packed. Compare the two photographs here which were taken about a month apart.

On this particular day, one of our really large ship models was being packed into its crate. The model was manoeuvred into the crate by three of our staff, which was a challenge given its size! The crate even has a door so that it can be accessed. In the photo you can see Ian from our MA Team reaching through to secure the object. Later on in the day, I returned to the gallery and many more ship models had been packed away, placed in front of the large model as you can see below.

Through to the Uncovered gallery, Fiona Pitt (Curator of Archaeology) had already moved a significant amount of objects into storage. Only some of the heavier items were left (some you can see up high in the gallery). With a lot of objects out of this gallery, she was using the opportunity to check through and update some of the documentation.

Meanwhile, our Uncovered gallery was being used to decant the objects from the Ancient Egypt gallery. Jordan (pictured below) is currently studying Archaeology at Exeter University so he’s been getting some first-hand experience of packing objects. As you can imagine, these are very delicate and need some care to make sure that they are stored safely. Jordan was doing a thorough job and explained how he had to pack these items. First, he placed a layer of plastazote in the bottom of the box. After drawing round the objects on a second layer, he cut out the shapes and checked the accuracy to hold the objects securely in place. The larger the object, the more support is needed.

After placing the objects into the middle layer, Jordan put padding around them. He then put a final layer of plastazote on top. Once the lid was on the box, he would label it, put a fragile sticker on it and complete any required paperwork. After this the object would be ready to be moved.

Carrying this out for each object takes considerable effort and time and staff and volunteers have worked for months, repeating this process every day to decant both the galleries and the stores. It’s been a successful few months and I think it’s safe to say that staff are now looking forward to a well-earned Christmas break!

Decant Day, 28 September 2016: Up Close with the Collections

by Steve Conway, Decant Officer

Well it’s really happening.  The Museum has closed and the final push is on to clear our amazing collections out of the building ready for the contractors to start work in January.

If you visited the Museum before we closed you would have seen us carefully packing collections from the stores with the help of our volunteers. Now we’re concentrating on the galleries.

A full case in the natural history gallery.
A full case in the natural history gallery.

For me, the best thing about packing a Museum is unlocking the display cases, opening the reflective glass doors, and getting up close to the collections.  For the past few weeks we’ve been doing just that in the ‘Explore Nature’ natural history gallery and it’s great to say ‘hello’ to some of our old friends again!

Once the exhibits are taken off display they are checked for signs of deterioration. Information updates are added to our database so we can plan any treatment programmes that need to be carried out while the Museum is closed.  Many of the objects from the natural history collection will be frozen as a precaution against pest infestation before they go into storage. Feathers and fur can be particularly tasty for moths and other pests!

Natural history objects out of their cases and ready to be packed.
Natural history objects out of their cases and ready to be packed. These creatures have been sharing a display case for several years, but are impressive specimens in their own right.

With a closed building we are using all the public areas to pack and hold collections ready to transport them to our offsite store.  As a result, the Museum foyer has been transformed into a sort of ‘departure lounge’ for the world cultures displays collection, which is being carefully documented and packed to the highest standard.

The Museum foyer is now acting as a 'departure lounge' for our packed collections.
The Museum foyer is now acting as a ‘departure lounge’ for our packed world cultures collections.

Our decant is a mammoth task that requires specialist input from all staff including our team of Museum Assistants. These are the people you usually see on our Welcome Desk, in our galleries and who help to install exhibitions and ensure the security of our buildings. They are now putting their years of knowledge about the collections into practice by assisting with every aspect of the move.

Although we have contracted specialist art transport firms Momart and Harrow Green for some of our collections, the bulk of the work is being done in-house. In a previous blog you’ve seen how members of staff and volunteers have been trained to handle, pack and move our diverse collections. All that training is now being put into practice as our December deadline approaches!

Paintings in the lift
One of our Museum Assistants helping to pack and load paintings from our art collection ready to go to our secure offsite store.

At the Museum, there’s a sign in the lift that says: ‘What goes up must come down!’ I’m thinking of changing it to: ‘What goes out must come back’, because this is only the start of the journey…..

Decant Day, 14 September 2016: Packing with the Public

by Lottie Clark, Art Curator

Those of you who ventured into the Museum and Art Gallery in the last months before we closed would have noticed a hive of activity taking place in our ‘It’s A Wrap!’ exhibition. The reason for this is that we were lucky enough to have a dedicated area set aside in the exhibition for packing items from our collections. This meant the public could come and have a nose and find out more about what the process involves!

Items from our art collection waiting to be packed.
Items from our art collection waiting to be packed.

It also meant we could keep our in-house training going and have a place for our dedicated team of volunteers to work.

One of the major tasks to achieve, while we were still open, was the continued packing of our art stores. While we had MOMART in to pack and move the large works and sculpture – as reported in our last #DecantDay post – it was down to our volunteers to soft-wrap the smaller works. After some training and a well-attended ‘Art Bite’ talk – both of which demonstrated the art of soft-wrapping in more detail – we were good to go!

Our volunteers were given some training before they started packing.
Our volunteers were given some training before they started packing.

Soft-wrapping art simply means it doesn’t get packed into a crate or wooden transit-frame. Despite this, the art is still very well protected – even elaborately gilded frames can be soft-wrapped, if deemed suitable enough.

Here at the Museum and Art Gallery our Conservation Team recommend ‘crossing’ cotton-tape over the front of a canvas. The tension of the tape lifts it above the canvas. This prevents materials from touching the painted surface and damaging the artwork.

The work is then wrapped and sealed in polythene to protect it and create what we call a microclimate. This means only minimal air, moisture and temperature fluctuations can affect the work inside. Using polythene also means we can see the work, so when it’s hanging on racking at our offsite store it’ll be just as easy to access as it was in our Museum store! The object is also padded around the edges with bubble wrap or jiffy foam to ensure it’s protected while it’s in transit.

One of the main tasks for our 'It's A Wrap!' volunteers was to help soft-wrap works of art from our collections.
One of the main tasks for our ‘It’s A Wrap!’ volunteers was to help soft-wrap works of art from our collections.

As well as helping to wrap works of art, our volunteers also continued to assist us with packing ceramics and creating mountains of tissue puffs!

Our volunteers have worked really hard throughout the summer to help us with our packing.
Our volunteers have worked really hard throughout the summer to help us with our packing.

In addition to this, we held 6 public packing sessions where adults and children could come and have a go at packing objects from our collections. These included ceramics, archaeology and medallions from our art collection.

The sessions were an incredible success and many people attended more than one – eager to continue helping us. All in all we transported over 300 works to our offsite store during the ‘It’s A Wrap!’ exhibition. This was only made possible with the help of our volunteers and the public who came in to lend a hand. Thank you!

Some more works packed and ready to go to our offsite store.
Some more works packed and ready to go to our offsite store.

Although we’ve now closed the doors to the Museum building our packing continues with pace. It’s now moved beyond the stores and into the galleries as all the items that were on public display while we are open now get packed up and moved to our offsite store. Keep an eye on this blog for more updates as our packing continues. We’ll be continuing to provide insights into all the goings-on behind the scenes as we work towards emptying the building by the end of the year!