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.


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, 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!

Decant Day, 31 August 2016: Packing up the Art Store

Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

As the final week before the City Museum and Art Gallery closes its doors to the public (Saturday 3 September) progresses, so too do our packing efforts behind the scenes!

One of the biggest tasks we’ve undertaken recently is the packing up of our main art store and our ‘In The Frame: Plymouth’s Portraits Revealed’ exhibition.

In order to complete this task we worked with Momart – one of the world’s premier fine art transport, storage and installation companies. Momart work with collectors, galleries, artists and museums worldwide. This includes prestigious venues such as Tate, the V&A and the British Museum, so we knew we were going to be in very good hands.

There were only two weeks available to complete this particular mission! Over 140 temporary travel frames, 3 pallet horses and 12 transit crates were delivered to the Museum and Art Gallery before the work started – all of which should give you an indication of the scale of the task.

Momart were with us from 25 July to 5 August. As you can imagine, there was a lot of work to get through in a short space of time – but we were thrilled with what had been achieved by the end of the fortnight.

Our art store before the packing began
Our art store before the packing began

The first thing Momart tackled were our large framed oil paintings. Many of these were in our main art store while others were hanging in our ‘In the Frame’ exhibition.

The 'In the Frame: Plymouth's Portraits Revealed' exhibition contained a number of oil paintings from our art collection
Our ‘In the Frame: Plymouth’s Portraits Revealed’ exhibition contained a number of oil paintings from our art collection

The exhibition had been on display since late 2014 and featured nearly 50 works of art from our fine art collection some of which date from as far back as the early 1500s. It also included one of our most recent and most significant acquisitions – an early self portrait of famous Plympton-born artist Sir Joshua Reynolds.

All in all Momart packed and moved 265 paintings!

Momart1 Collage

The team from Momart hard at work
The team from Momart hard at work

In addition to this, they also moved our entire sculpture collection to our secure offsite store – another thing ticked off our list.

Momart packed and moved our stored sculpture collection in addition to our paintings
Momart packed and moved our stored sculpture collection in addition to our paintings

One of the other key achievements from this element of the decant is the fact that we now have up-to-date documentation and condition reports for the fine art collection. In the future this will be really useful in helping us to prioritise conservation work and seek the appropriate funding to help protect the artistic treasures in our collection that need it the most.

Watch this short time lapse video to get a glimpse behind the scenes at the decant work Momart undertook in our art store. We’ll be back with another update on the Museum’s decant in a couple of weeks.

Decant Day, 17 August 2016: Plan Chests and Patch Boxes

by Lottie Clark, Decant Curator

Throughout the summer the decant has been all about the art collections! This isn’t surprising as the combined collections of Fine Art and Decorative Art amount to nearly 50% of the collections being decanted.

We’ve had professional art-moving contractors in to pack and transport over 140 paintings – with the smaller works being soft-wrapped in-house by staff and volunteers. Our ceramics, metalwork and woodwork continue to be packed in the stores by our team of volunteers. Meanwhile, the costume is nearing the end of its freezing treatment which is being overseen by our Conservation Officer.

So, that leaves some of the smaller miscellany in the collection to be decanted and transported offsite. One such group of objects is our array of cast medallions and plaques. They were originally housed in a large and cumbersome mahogany plan chest – which has held a domineering place in one of our stores for decades.

Chest and Drawers
Our imposing mahogany plan chest

However, these cast medallions and plaques have recently been re-homed in a brand new conservation-grade plan chest, ready to be wheeled to our offsite store.

In the process of moving each item a plastazote foam recess has had to be cut for each individual piece. This can be done either with a scalpel or a hot wire cutter. Both instruments require careful attention to detail as the work is precise and delicate. The end result is a fantastic way of packing collections though – especially for transporting. Each mould is cut to the specific size and shape of the piece which ensures that nothing slides around in drawers or containers.

Art Plan Chest 2 - medallions
A collection of our Wedgwood plaques and medallions, housed in their hand-cut foam moulds

This method also means unusually shaped objects can be stored neatly and safely. For instance, the top drawer contains our small collection of bone and enamel-handled cutlery.

Drawer and Knives
Some of our bone and enamel-handled cutlery

The final collection housed within the plan chest is the rather adorable set of 42 patch boxes.

These tiny boxes have all been intricately produced from enamel, beautifully decorated with either motifs or mottos, and hinged together with metal – usually copper, although sometimes more precious metals were used, especially if the boxes were produced by jewellers, rather than potters.

Art Plan Chest 2 - patch boxes-crop
Some of our patch boxes in drawer storage

Our patch box collection all comes from the late 18th Century, from roughly 1750 onwards. However, patches themselves are believed to have been used as early as the 1600s. When pock-marking diseases were commonplace any scar or blemish to the face was said to be covered up by a small patch of fabric, usually black. They were applied via a mixture of glycerine and a myriad of animal ingredients, most commonly sturgeon swim-bladder. While black velvet, taffeta or even thin leather could be used, those on impoverished budgets would resort to mouse skin instead.

Patches (or mouches) soon took off as a grooming accessory and became part of the fashionable beauty regime. The black of the fabric contrasted perfectly with a pale complexion, which was heavily sought after. As they were now no longer used to cover pockmarks their placing and shapes also became more elaborate and important. Spot, hearts and crescent moons were the most common shapes, but even animals, birds and, it was said, a horse and carriage were applied to the face of gentlewomen (and some men) of the day!

Much like fan language, patches could also be used to denote flirtatious behaviour, or even political allegiance! A heart shaped patch to the left cheeked showed you were engaged, whereas a patch to the eye corner meant you were passionate. One worn between your mouth and your chin told others you were silent. During the political furore of the Whigs and the Tories patches worn on the relevant sides of the face could display where your political allegiance lay.

While the patches themselves could symbolise courting behaviour, so could the boxes they were contained within. Patch boxes were designed to be portable – for reapplication purposes – so the lid normally contained a mirror within. Sometimes there was an additional compartment for rouge. By means of their small size they quickly became love tokens of their own, or sentimental gifts of friendship. We have several in our collection decorated with mottos and inscriptions that were likely given as gifts.

As with most fashions the beauty patch ebbed away to be replaced by another cosmetic fad and has never really had a resurgence. During the 1940s and 50s the beauty spot made a brief comeback – the most notable wearer being Marilyn Monroe, but by now these were applied by kohl or liquid make-up, not fabric. In the 1990s, Cindy Crawford became renowned for her beauty spot (and her refusal to have it removed) but hers is completely natural. It meant the need for small boxes to carry your patches in also became redundant – but I personally think this adds an extra charm to our little collection. They’re a little slice in time that gives us an insight into how people lived, dressed and even found love back in 1750.