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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As this post hopefully outlines, the delivery of the new scanner marks the start of an exciting time for the staff, volunteers and film collection at SWFTA. For a further reminder about the archive and its role in the History Centre partnership take a look at the ‘Meet the Team’ feature we produced last year.

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?

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, 9 November 2016: Packing up the Cottonian Collection

By Susan Leedham, Cottonian Collection Researcher

As we near the halfway point of Decant (ready for building work to start in the New Year) it was time to move one of our most important pieces – our nationally designated Cottonian Collection.

aha210211-4474The Cottonian Collection was gifted to the people of Plymouth in 1853 for our ‘amusement and instruction’ and we are incredibly lucky to be able to call this unique and fascinating collection our own! The collection contains over 10,000 objects including prints, drawings and oil paintings (including many by Plympton-born painter Sir Joshua Reynolds), along with 2,000 books, ceramics, sculpture, and some large pieces of unique eighteenth-century furniture. Because of its contents, the collection was awarded Designation Status by Arts Council England. This means that it has been identified as one of the most important collections in the country.

Although the Cottonian Collection was gifted to us by William Cotton III in the mid-nineteenth century, it is much older and started life 350 years ago. In mid-seventeenth-century London, a middle-class man called Robert Townson began buying books and a few prints. The collection then passed through the hands of two further gentlemen (William Townson and Charles Rogers) who each purchased numerous drawings, prints, paintings and books. By 1799 the Cottonian Collection was two-thirds larger than its current size – just imagine how impressive it would have looked! Sadly two sales in 1799 and 1801 reduced the collection to the size it is today, however the remainder was brought to Plymouth by William Cotton III in the 1830s and on his death was donated to the people of Plymouth.

As you can well imagine, moving a collection of this size and importance was no easy feat. With only one week to accomplish this task, we worked with a company of specialist movers who helped us to pack and transport our precious Cottonian Collection. The first objects to be moved were the three large bookcases. As you can see from our time-lapse footage this was a big job!

Carefully removing the books from the shelves (some are very large and heavy) the books were packed into boxes lined with acid-free bubble wrap and tissue for their journey to the offsite store.

It was essential that each box is marked with a shelf number so that we could make sure that all the books went back on the shelves in the right order! The large bookcases were then dismantled for the journey and placed in crates to keep them safe. Once at the other end, they were carefully re-built and the books were placed back on the shelves. This was a job that needed a lot of care as the eighteenth-century wood is sensitive to movement and changes in temperature.

cottonian-decant-img_0238
Reinstalling the furniture in its new location

In the time-lapse and the images below, you can also see some of the oils, bronzes and other works being taken packaged ready to be taken off-site. This gives a sense of the scale of work undertaken!

It was a busy week and in total nine pieces of large furniture, 2,000 books, 9,000 prints, twenty-two oil paintings and 54 pieces of sculpture made the journey.

Tea at the Cottonian a Success!

What a success our first event of Young Explainers 2013 has been! On Friday the 11th of October we hosted an event at the Museum named ‘Tea at the Cottonian’; there were special guests including the Lord Mayor of Plymouth, Vivien Pengelley, Peter Smith, the deputy leader of Plymouth City Council as well as Monika Kinley OBE, who attended. The event was an opportunity to re-air the collection to the public whilst exposing the Young Explainers new gallery labels and guides.

The event started with Dr. Jenny Graham, Associate Professor in Art History at PlymouthUniversity, playing a mixture of 18th century music on the grand piano from the museum balcony, which was a beautiful start.

We laid out a selection of cakes and tea to fall in with the refreshments that the Mayor and Mayoress put on at the original opening of the collection. The designated ‘Cottonian Collection’ is an engaging assortment of works collected over a number of generations, made up of a variety of disciplines and deep in its own history. Through the event there was a welcome speech conducted by myself (Victoria Smith) as well as a short history of the collection.

Following this we invited the guests to split into three groups so that they could circle around the gallery to listen to small talks on the sculptures and oils as well as the theme of mythology in the collection.

10311451086_6f1d0b3ea7_z

[Pictured above, l-r: Katie Palmer, Luke Pitcher, Xia Yu, Victoria Smith, Cllr Peter Smith, Lord Mayor Vivien Pengelly, Ellie Barker, Natalie Butler, Liv Davies, Kristin Annus, Katy Neusten]

We had a lot of great feedback and all who attended and helped out had a marvelous time.

Pictures were taken by photography student Lewis Mulrennan-Cook. To view the Tea at the Cottonian photos, please click here.

To view his photography page, please click here.