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

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Decant Day, May 25th 2016: Secret Love Poem Discovery?

By Lottie Clark, Decant Curator

During any great development project involving collections you get an in-depth reintroduction to the treasures tucked away within the stores. While rifling through drawers of photographs, sketches or drawings; or working through boxes of costume; sky-high racks of painting and artworks; or cabinets of beetles, you’re bound to make discoveries or uncover hidden objects previously unrealised.

Sometimes a decant can be equated to a large-scale tidy up so finally getting to the back of that racking, or looking inside a porcelain pot to find a letter from the donor, or the scrap of an address, is not uncommon. We all remember being told to tidy our room, or finally setting aside that weekend to sort through the attic, only to spend hours looking through old music we forgot we had, posters we once hung on our walls, or that vital bit of cooking equipment we ‘couldn’t live without’. A museum collection is no different. Every so often you come across that label you were meant to file, or that exhibition card you were going to transcribe. While now is the time to get these administrative threads tied up, sometimes loose sheets of paper can lead to more questions than answers, as was the case recently when working through one of our Cottonian print folios.

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Cottonian Gallery

The majestic folios, dating from c.1740, stand proudly in their original bookcases within the Cottonian Gallery here in the Museum. As Plymouth’s only ACE Designated Collection they have a precedent to be on display and be accessible under certain conditions. As such we have several streams of continuing work with the Cottonian Collection to see it, amongst other things, digitised for our online platforms.

While tying up one of those aforementioned ‘loose ends’ we managed to pair-up a set of over 400 images with their original, previously unknown, folio. Although time-consuming this was a brilliant piece of detective work that now means all those images can be digitally linked on our database to each page of the original folio – how exciting! However, this also meant the folio needed to be carefully removed from its place in the bookcase, then referenced page-by-page. No mean feat when these tomes measure, on average, 50cm x 40cm and weigh upwards of 10kg! Which is when our great discovery occurred!  Nearing the end of the folio a loose leaf of paper shifted and fell from the pages. We immediately ensured it wasn’t a loose image coming unstuck from the pages – but there were no gaps to indicate the 18th Century adhesive had disintegrated – all the images remained firmly on their pages. So we began reading what looked like a rudimentary list of prints, albeit it in French.

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Front of interleave, with list

Initially we thought the list could have been made by one of the collectors – a ‘wish list’ perhaps of prints they wanted sourcing, or were interested in obtaining. But then we turned the slip of paper over to discover a ream of writing, in what appeared to be Italian, signed faintly in pencil ‘P Mariette’.

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Detail, back of interleave with poem
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Charles Rogers

With the bit between our teeth we delved into the archive to discover a letter from Pierre-Jean Mariette, a renowned collector and dealer of old master prints, to Charles Rogers FRS FSA, founding collector of the Cottonian. The letter is thanking Rogers for the recent acquisition, by Mariette, of a print by Sir Robert Strange based on a Van Dyck work.*

Oh how the plot thickens! Had Mariette scribbled his poem on the back of a list – or vice versa? Who was the poem’s intended – and did they ever receive it? Was this an initial draft that became a more honed final piece (and, if so, why sign it)? How had the poem found its way into the folio – especially as Rogers never travelled to Europe  so would not have met Mariette in person, even if the folio, or the prints within it, were traded through him?

All of these questions from such a small discovery! Maybe one day we’ll have the time to delve deeper into the intriguing story of the poem l’amore, but for now we need to continue our documentation and decant work – and, perhaps more so, brush up on our European languages in order to translate it!

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Both sides of the interleave

*Especial thanks to Exhibitions & Display Officer Kate Johnson who translated the letter for us with her impeccable French!