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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