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, 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.

Decant Day, 3 August 2016: People Power

By Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

We’ve been talking a lot about the importance of volunteer support in some of our previous posts and videos, and it’s a topic that I’m sure we’ll keep returning to as the History Centre project progresses.

Quite recently nine business and IT specialists from EDF Energy’s Plymouth office came in to the Museum to volunteer for the day.

EDF packing day
Nine volunteers from EDF Energy recently spent the day helping with packing in our art store

Given the fact that we have more than a million objects to log, wrap and move before work can begin on the physical creation of the History Centre, we thought it would be a good idea for them to give us a hand with some our packing and cataloguing. They ended up having a very productive day filled with packing tape and bubble wrap – as you can see from the short piece of time lapse footage below!

The nine people who joined us volunteered through EDF Energy’s ‘Helping Hands’ scheme. This is a programme which allows EDF’s staff two days of work time each year to support projects in their local communities through volunteering. What a brilliant scheme!

EDF volunteers
Many hands make light work

Packing our collections for safe storage while the History Centre is developed is a huge task. As we’ve also mentioned before, many of our staff have been working extremely hard on this for months already. The support they’re receiving from the volunteers who are helping them is vital to keeping this element of the project on schedule.

A productive day's work!
EDF Energy’s day with us proved to be really productive

At the end of their day with us the EDF team had wrapped an amazing 77 works of art! We’re very grateful for the time they spent with us and the contribution they made to our packing efforts.

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!