Behind the Scenes, 27 September 2017: Engaging communities with creativity

by Fiona Evans, Vital Sparks Producer

It was in September four years ago when Vital Sparks was launched to help communities run their own creative projects.

The scheme is a partnership between Plymouth Culture and Plymouth City Council and is funded by Arts Council England. The idea was to use art to grow confidence and vigour in neighbourhoods that were tired of being told what they wanted. Bringing folk together to get murals painted, community gardens planted and yarn bombs knitted. Creating opportunities for people to get together and be creative.

Photograph of a Vital Sparks funded creative session

The project has always had a bursary scheme at its centre and the average grant is about £2,600. The funding is complemented by the offering of support to new fledgling projects as and when they need it, so some of my time is spent visiting projects, or calling them to see how they’re getting on. Sometimes projects don’t need any help. At other times I have been kept busy writing funding bids, press releases, risk assessments……the list goes on. I’ve also found signposting new community groups to other more established Vital Sparks funded projects to be significant as they can share their learning. This has enabled us to create a network which I think is a great idea.

Photograph of the Barne Barton Rangers Vital Sparks supported project

You’d think that giving money away would be easy but it’s surprising how much work is attached to handing out grants. I’m lucky because being based in the same building as the Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives staff means I have the benefit of working with a Business Support Team who make sure all our grants get paid. Things can get a bit complicated when groups don’t have a bank account! There are instances in the past when I’ve driven my Vital Sparks bursary recipients to the local Credit Union to set one up or had to find other ways to ensure they receive their funding.  

Every day is different with Vital Sparks. At the moment, for example, I’m lending support to a variety of projects including a growing piece of work called Lesbian Voices. Through ‘Pride In Plymouth’ Jo Lewis has recently secured a grant of £46,200 from the Heritage Lottery Fund. I first came across Jo when she was a writer on a previous project of ours called ‘In Other Words’. She is seeking out and recording lesbian voices and histories of Plymouth and will be starting to recruit volunteers in November. Vital Sparks has provided some match funding for this exciting project and I can’t wait to see what is created.

Photograph from an Art, Craft and Laughter Vital Sparks funded workshop

The Plymouth Art Weekender has just taken place and some of our projects ran events during it. On one of the days I popped in on Art, Craft and Laughter to see how they were getting on. Set up by Debbie and Charlie Seldon they use art and craft to help tackle mental health issues…..hence the laughter. They provide a safe, non-judgmental space for people to experiment and learn. They were taking part in the Art Weekender for the first time. Their feedback will be very useful when we think about encouraging more people to take part next year. 

Photograph from a Fijian craft workshop supported by Vital Sparks

I also went to the School of Creative Arts where a free Fijian workshop funded by Vital Sparks was taking place as part of a bigger cultural festival called ‘Bula’ which culminates with Fiji Day in October. It was the first time this community have run a workshop for the wider public and it was great to see so many people there.

Whilst our current projects keep me more than busy, I am also focusing on a new and exciting phase of work for 2018. The biggest news in the world of Vital Sparks is the new Mayflower Community Fund that we will be managing next year. We are finalising the details at the moment and the scheme is set to launch in January. If you’re interested in doing something in your community to mark Mayflower 400 watch this space! 

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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

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

Museum on Tour, 12 April 2017: Thinking Tantra

by Rachael Aylmore, Plymouth University Fine Art student and Peninsula Arts Exhibition Intern

As part of the journey towards the History Centre, Peninsula Arts and staff from the Arts and Heritage Service are working together on a series of partnership exhibitions.

During my placement at Peninsula Arts I have been fortunate enough to support the installation of their current exhibition, ‘Thinking Tantra’ – ‘Tan’ being Sanskrit for stretch and ‘tra’ Sanskrit for beyond boundaries. These beautiful, bold and abstract Tantra pieces of art have been created as tools for meditation and rituals linked to Sanskrit texts.

The exhibition unfolds
Together with Polly Irish and Catrine Wallace (also Fine Art students and Peninsula Arts Interns), I have gained an understanding of the many different processes and tasks that are involved with setting up an exhibition – from prepping the space, collecting the work, curating and even publicity. Throughout the last two weeks in March before ‘Thinking Tantra’ opened, we watched it unfold in front of us and learnt all the important steps and skills (as well as people) it takes for an exhibition to come together smoothly and successfully.

Before we even get a glimpse of artwork, the Peninsula Arts Gallery must be prepped, walls taken down (or moved) and walls painted for each show. It’s important that that the gallery is in good condition for the artwork to be displayed. There are many helping hands involved in this process including technicians, gallery assistants and curators. Stripping the gallery back to its bones and starting from fresh allows the curator to view the space with new eyes and make the final decisions about the placement of works.

It’s like Christmas
Once the space is prepped and ready to go, the exciting process of removing the carefully packaged artwork from storage can begin – it’s like Christmas in March! We can then begin the all-important quality and condition check of every single piece of art.

Once the checks have been completed, one of the final parts of setting up an exhibition is of course installing the work. Although rather daunting and nerve racking the process is relatively straightforward and can be done fairly quickly once a system has been established. A lot of measuring, maths and wrongly drawn pencil marks later, the exhibition space finally starts to come alive!

Photograph of the Thinking Tantra exhibition install at Peninsula Arts in 2017

Thinking Tantra
With the exhibition installed and displayed in its full glory, you can really get a feel for the use of colours, shapes and rituals as well as the transcendental ideas behind the Tantra artwork.

Photograph of the Thinking Tantra exhibition at Peninsula Arts in 2017

I hope you’ll visit the exhibition while it’s here in the city. We are the only UK venue on the tour outside London and it will be on display until 27 May.


‘Thinking Tantra’ is a collaboration between Rebecca Heald, Drawing Room, London and Amrita Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

‘Thinking Tantra’ is a History Centre partnership exhibition.

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, 8 March 2017: Working round the clock

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

Since the decant of the Museum building came to an end our curatorial staff have found themselves with another huge mountain to climb – this time with the development of the content for the permanent galleries that will feature in the History Centre.

It’s been a punishing few weeks for them as they’ve pulled together all the details that our designers Event Communications need.

One of the people I share an office with is our Collections Manager, Louisa Blight. It’s been a real eye-opener for me to witness the level of information that she and her team have produced in order to move the gallery development on to its next phase.

Louisa and her team of Curators and Archivists have been ably assisted in this process by Alice Cooper, our History Centre Project Coordinator.

Two women looking intently at a computer screen in an office
Louisa and Alice working hard in the office.

Together they’ve all been working round the clock making decisions about what will go on the walls and in display cases, and ensuring they’ve got photographs, correct information and dimensions for the relevant objects and works of art.

They’ve also had to consider how all the stories and facts associated with the objects flow through each gallery space in a coherent way to help create the brilliant visitor experience we’re aiming for.

As you can imagine, there have been a lot of questions, discussions, too-ing and fro-ing and hard work – and there’s plenty more to come!

We’ll be sharing their latest thinking with our consultation groups over the next few weeks. We’re then expecting Event Communications to produce a new set of designs for the galleries in May. This will be another milestone achieved for the project.

As well as this huge piece of work a raft of other things have been happening too.

For starters, there’s the general care, maintenance and security of the collections that are now at our offsite store to deal with, and the filling out of funding applications for new acquisitions.

A number of our Curators and Archivists regularly write articles for the feature we have in the Plymouth Herald’s ‘Looking Back’ supplement each Tuesday.

Examples of Plymouth Museum's editorial feature in the Plymouth Herald's 'Looking Back' supplement
Examples of the editorial feature in the Plymouth Herald that many of our Curators and Archivists contribute to.

Some of them are involved in the development of the offsite exhibitions we’re running while our building is closed, including the ‘Britain in the Fifties: Design and Aspiration’ exhibition that will open at the Council House later this month.

Our natural history curator is busy pulling together a new ‘Wild About Plymouth’ programme. WAP – as we like to call it for short – offers a nature or science-based event for families every month. Unbelievably, it’s now in its tenth year!

A boy on a beach
Our Natural History Curator leads our ‘Wild About Plymouth’ programme, which is now in its tenth year.

Our city and maritime heritage curator has been involved in helping to get a number of Plymouth’s historical plaques installed or refurbished at a range of locations. In fact, 2016-17 has been Plymouth’s most prolific year for new, replacement or refurbished plaques for nearly two decades.

Our decorative art curator has been also busy organising a big loan of Plymouth Porcelain for the Cookworthy Museum in Kingsbridge. Over 100 items have gone to them for the next two years – many of which will be seen in a new exhibition that opens at the end of March called ‘William Cookworthy – Pioneer of Porcelain’.

A Plymouth Porcelain Sphinx from Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery's decorative art collection
One of the many Plymouth Porcelain objects that are going on loan to the Cookworthy Museum in Kingsbridge for the next two years.

I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface here – but hopefully this gives you an indication of just how hard our curatorial team are working.

It will all be worth it when the History Centre opens in 2020 and working towards such an ambitious goal is a great thing for any organisation – but right now it’s very much a case of everyone rolling up their sleeves and pushing on through. Anyone for a cup of tea?