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


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 –