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.

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Museum On Tour, 7 June 2017: New exhibitions and events

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

Summer was always a fun time at the Museum and Art Gallery before we closed. We would make sure we had exhibitions on display that were of interest to local residents and tourists. Our holiday workshop programme brought many families into the building and gave children lots of opportunities to be creative.

Thankfully as a result of our ‘Museum On Tour’ programme it’s business as usual this year, even though we’re having to use a range of offsite locations instead.

Image copyright John Cook 2017. www.ourberylcook.comOne of the major elements of this is the exhibition of work by much-loved artist Beryl Cook that we’re staging at the Council House from 24 June to 9 September. Cook lived in Plymouth for many years and we have three works by her in our permanent collections.

What’s so special about this exhibition is that we have co-curated it with Beryl’s family. They were the most important thing in her life. As well as providing us with access to some of her earliest and quirkiest works, working in collaboration with them has given us a range of personal insights into her and the people she loved the most.

The exhibition will be divided up into a series of different themes including fame, family and friends and fantasy. There will be a special range of merchandise available to purchase – a new experiment for us at the Council House.

The exhibition has also given us lots of inspiration for events and we’ll have a host of talks, tours and family activities on offer. You can find out more about all of these from the what’s on section of our website. It’s great to have an exhibition that we can generate so many ideas from.

Image copyright John Cook 2017. www.ourberylcook.com
Image © John Cook 2017. www.ourberylcook.com

This work shown above is one of the paintings that will feature in the exhibition. Many people local to Plymouth will recognise the location as the famous Elvira’s cafe in Stonehouse! A man sits at one table drinking a large mug of tea while a dog watches its owner eating a sausage sandwich at another. The woman behind the counter who is serving a customer with a piece of cake is Teresa, Beryl’s daughter-in-law. Teresa will join our exhibition curator Hilary Bracegirdle for a lunchtime talk next month during which she will share her memories and stories.


Another exciting development for us over the summer are our ‘Out and About’ events. Staff and volunteers will be taking a series of themed activities to local community festivals across the city and beyond over the next few months. We began with a successful event at the Freedom Community Festival last weekend and will also be at:

  • Contemporary Craft Festival, Bovey Tracey: 9-11 June
  • Armed Forces Day, Plymouth Hoe: 24 June
  • St Levan Fair, Plymouth: 15 July
  • Love Parks Week, Whitleigh Hub, Plymouth: 20 July
  • Plymouth Play Day: 2 August – a venue for this will be confirmed soon
  • Devonport Park Festival, Plymouth: 20 August

If you’re planning to attend any of these events make sure you come and say hello to us on our stand. Here are some images from the Freedom Community Festival to close today’s post. People made banners and badges highlighting the things that are important to them. Thanks very much to everyone who came along and got stuck in!

Museum On Tour, 10 May 2017: Plymouth History Festival

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

Hopefully many of you will be aware that the Plymouth History Festival began on Saturday (6 May).

This is the fifth year in a row that it’s taken place and I have been involved with helping to co-ordinate and promote it since it began.

The festival runs until 4 June. Many people might think this is the busiest time for me on the project – but the bulk of the work actually takes place between December and April.

Myself and other colleagues who are responsible for event programming usually meet in early October to decide the dates and any particular themes for the following year. We then announce these in the press and give the individuals, societies and organisations who want to be involved around 2-3 months to confirm their events with us. We also have to make sure we have our own events organised by the deadline!

Once all the information is in I have my first major task on my hands: editing everything into a consistent format, double checking dates, times, address and contact information, creating a diary of listings for each day and then using it all to build our website. I usually put this live by mid-February.

After this my next major task is to take this information, source around 40 different high resolution images to go with it, write the foreword, draft copy about the latest developments with the History Centre and then brief all of this in to a graphic designer so they can produce the festival brochure. This is a massively popular piece of print.

While the brochure is being designed I source the printer, book advertising space in as many of the local what’s on publications as the budget will allow, liaise with our distribution company and raise the relevant purchase orders. Then there’s the job of proof reading the brochure, running it past everyone involved, briefing any amends back to the graphic designer, proof reading it again, signing it off, getting the artwork to the printer, checking their proof to make sure everything is fine with the colours, pictures and fonts, and then finally approving it for print.

Once the brochures have been delivered our distribution company collects around half of them and gets to work dropping them off at a range of venues across Plymouth and the travel to work area. The other half are distributed through our own networks, at the events we attend throughout the month and by the festival event providers – all of whom have been brilliant about coming to the Museum to collect their copies this year.

By this point I will have also sent out information about the festival to local media, forwarded the artwork for any adverts we have booked to the relevant publications and planned a social media campaign. The History Festival has its own Facebook and Twitter feeds and in the run up to and during the festival I post and share regular updates. This year we have also produced a series of graphics for the Big Screen in Plymouth’s city centre – I’ve used them in this post. I’ve also been able to secure some of the large format poster sites in the city centre car parks so we have produced a series of posters for these, as well as for the library network and Tourist Information Centre.

I’ve been very proud of the History Festival since it began and as a Service we are hugely grateful to all those who take part. It is a mammoth amount of work – a fact that isn’t necessarily acknowledged the way it should be. Lots of my colleagues from the Arts and Heritage and Library Services are involved too and are running events at different times throughout the month. There is no separate team to deal with the management, coordination, promotion or facilitation of the festival – we are doing all of this on top of our ever-growing commitments to the History Centre.

This year’s festival began with a really successful Local Studies Day and there are nearly 100 different events on this year’s programme including exhibitions and displays, guided walks and tours, talks and presentations, music, film and performance, special events and family activities. There’s real variety on offer for all ages and interests and the range of subjects highlights the depth of Plymouth’s history.

Take a look at the festival website if you haven’t done so already and I hope you enjoy the events you attend. Plymouth History Festival will return in 2018 and we will announce the dates and details a little later in the year!

The Cottonian Collection; A Brief History

Time is quickly running away with itself, and it is now time for the Art Bite scripts to be taking shape. An Art Bite is a twenty minute talk given by the Young Explainers to a small collection of the public within the gallery space.

One of the Art Bites this year will be focused on the history of the Cottonian Collection, from its humble beginnings right up to the modern day. Without wealthy benefactors, such as William Cotton, giving to institutions such as the Plymouth Proprietary Library, this country would not have such a thriving collection of artistic history. The Cottonian Collection itself dates back to the 1600’s, when Robert Townson collected a great deal of books, most of which were sermons. He had also begun to collect a number of paintings and drawings; this was the foundation of the collecting culture that developed in the 17th century.

From here the collection passed through to Charles Rodgers, whom Townson worked with at the Customs House, London. Rodgers made many of his own additions to the collection, but he had no male heirs, so the collection then passed to William Cotton; Rodger’s brother-in-law. After Cotton’s death the collection passed down through two more William Cottons. William Cotton II unfortunately sold a vast quantity of the collection due to a lack of space to house the massive collection. By the time the collection was passed to Cotton III the collection was but a fraction of the size that Rodger’s once was.  Fortunately for Plymouth, Cotton III gifted the collection to the people of Plymouth in two installments, in 1852 and 1862.

Once the collection was given in its entirety in 1862 it held around 4,700 prints and engravings, and some unique and extensive series of illustrations of the Italian, Flemish, French and English schools. The bookcases contain around 500 volumes of rare and valuable specimens, from early typography to Greek and Roman classics and Fine Arts. There are also 1,500 volumes of English books, which contain articles of ‘veriu’, carvings, and illustrated 15th century missal. 250 original drawings by ‘Old Masters’ are also included, from names such as Rubens, Van Dyke, Leonardo da Vinci, and more. There are also framed paintings, some of which are by Joshua Reynolds, drawings, illustrated manuscripts, terracotta statuettes, bronzes, antique 17th century vases, bookcases, and cabinets, most especially one from the 17th century inlaid with red tortoise! 

For more information on the events that we have organized please visit – http://www.plymouth.gov.uk/homepage/creativityandculture/museums/museumpcmag/artsandheritagewhatson/museumevents/museumartbites.htm