Behind The Scenes, 30 August 2017: A trip to the offsite store

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

I went to our offsite store for the first time recently and was given a tour by our Registrar Nicki Thomas. I took a few snaps while she was showing me around which I thought I would share with you in this week’s post.

Our works are stored over two floors. On one floor we have our Cottonian Collection, objects from our world cultures collection and, as shown in the photo below, crated works of art and some items that have recently returned to us from Buckland Abbey where they have been on loan.

We also have some enormous rolled canvases. This one is called ‘The Release of St Peter’. The frame, which as you can imagine is also huge, is stored separately. Storing large-scale items in this way is a much more practical solution.

When we were decanting the Museum last year our curators talked a lot about how the process was enabling them to learn more about the collections, verify and update our documentation and highlight areas that need to be prioritised for research. Nicki echoed this while she was showing me around.

This part of the store also contains some pieces of sculpture………

……….and our costume collection, all of which would have been frozen to minimise the likelihood of any bugs or pests in the fabrics, and then gone through a period of defrosting before being placed into storage.

On the other floor we have more art, some archaeology and more world cultures. We also have other resources and equipment. This floor is warmer and staff monitor the environment at all times to ensure everything is being stored in the most appropriate conditions. There are also workstation areas for staff and prep areas where works of art can be unwrapped or wrapped if needs be.

This wonderful artwork shown in one of the prep areas is ‘Kilchurn Castle’ by JMW Turner. It’s due to go on loan to the Scottish Portrait Gallery soon. They will be touring it and a number of other works by Turner to Japan. It’s likely that we’ll have a small number of additional loans going out to international venues in the near future. We’ll fill you in on these in a future post!


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

Decant Day, 8 February 2017: Bows, arrows, axes and spears

By Steve Conway, Decant Officer

As you know we have finished the decant of the Museum and Art Gallery building, which is now in the process of being turned into a construction site. The final few weeks towards the end of last year were extremely busy. Now we have all the objects safely moved to our offsite store, I thought I’d take a few minutes to highlight one of the final tasks we dealt with and never got time to cover on the blog before Christmas.

This particular task involved emptying the weapons from the ethnography, or world cultures store in the basement of the Museum. Not the sort of thing you do every day!

The weapons come from all over the world and include bows, arrows axes, clubs and spears. Some of the spears are quite sharp and measure up to 3 metres in length. This makes them quite awkward and unwieldy to move.

As a result, we were faced with the slightly unusual challenge of needing to devise a safe transport solution that wouldn’t just protect the objects, but the team of people who were handling them too.

Our solution was to re-use our large transit-frames which are usually meant for transporting large oil paintings. As you can see from the image below, we added strong polypropylene mesh to the frames and then tied the weapons to it with soft cotton tape.

A photograph of a transit frame with weapons attached to it for transportation
A transit-frame re-deployed for transporting the weapons

This was a fairly time consuming task as we only had three transit-frames available to use. This meant we had to unpack each frame as soon as it arrived at the offsite store and move the weapons onto extra mesh that we’d installed there. This quickly freed up the transit-frame so we could use it to transport another group of weapons.

Now the work is done and they’re all on display at the store the effect is really impressive – as you can see from these images below!

A photograph of a series of world cultures weapons on temporary racking
An image of the weapons in their new (temporary) home at the offsite store
A photograph of weapons and bark cloths from Plymouth Museum's world cultures collection in temporary storage
A different view of some of the weapons along with some rolled bark cloths from our world cultures collection
A photograph of long ethno weapons in temporary storage
More weapons in storage – you can see how the length and shape of some of these might make them difficult to pack and move

Decant Day, 23 November 2016: Ground floor gallery objects on the move

By Fiona Booth, Digital Engagement Officer

As a member of the Programmes Team, I’m not directly involved in the physical move of the Museum and Art Gallery’s collections. That’s primarily been the significant task for our Collections Team and our MA Team (front of house) with volunteers ably supporting. However, it’s been really interesting to go into the main building recently to see what’s been happening.

The first noticeable thing when you walk into our foyer – once a central meeting point for people coming in – is that it’s now a holding zone for items that were previously in galleries or storage and are now ready to leave the building for their temporary home.

I pass through the foyer when going to meetings or catching up with staff and am always struck by the amount of packing materials being held here, as well as the number of boxes that have been processed. It’s usually a hive of activity! Not being in the galleries every day, it’s really noticeable to see what has been moved each week. When I speak to staff and volunteers involved, I really start to appreciate the effort that has gone into planning the decant, let alone physically carrying it out.

Claire, Val and Tina from our MA Team are working through the World Cultures objects that were in the stores. Each object in each box is checked and paperwork completed. Before the box can leave the building, the packing within it is checked too. Some of the groundwork is in place because a World Cultures project a few years ago included storage improvements. This was long before the History Centre project became a reality however, so extra care needs to be taken if objects are packed in layers within a box, for example. Then some inventive work happens, often structuring string or tape within the box, to ensure that delicate parts of an object are protected on their journey out of the building.

Our shop and café area is now a ceramics working area and I really enjoy looking at all sorts of objects while they’re being packed here. I followed Vicky and Jane to see what’s involved in packing this collection.  Off to the basement they went with a trolley, to bring up the next lot of ceramics to be packed. This involves carefully removing the items from their shelving – as you can see, they are stored behind glass doors. They’re placed in the trolley and the trip back upstairs is carefully made to a huge workstation where the packing can begin.

For our curators, packing objects that were on display can present their own challenges. For example, some objects that were on display in our ‘Bringing the World to Plymouth’ gallery were nicely mounted and it would be a shame to repack the object differently. Other objects would have not been stored in boxes at all. These now require boxes so they can be transported offsite.  Sometimes the object won’t fit in a standard box so a new bespoke one has to be made!

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The physical move is not the only challenge. As part of the collections care process we must ensure we document the new location of all our objects once they’ve been moved. So, before each item is packed the accession number is noted on a transportation sheet. The number of the box it’s being stored in is also recorded. To assist with this process we’ve got PCs located in our galleries. This enables us to update the database as swiftly as possible. Once these details have been captured, the object moves onto be packed.

A woman holding a bowl, whilst sitting at a desk with a computer
Checking the object details on the database

I can’t imagine having to do this each time I moved house! The amount of planning this has taken is considerable – but we are now over half way through the decant with more objects out of the building than in it. This is a massive achievement for all involved.

Decant Day, 27 April 2016: Preparing the Costume Collection for Decant

By Alison Cooper, Curator of Decorative Art

The costume and textile store is just one area of the Museum which has to be decanted to MASS as we prepare for the building of the Plymouth History Centre. The costume and textile collection holds nearly 10,000 items including male and female dress from the 17th through to the 20th century, as well as many examples of domestic textiles, lace and crochet, haberdashery and costume accessories.

This collection is one particularly close to my heart as I started work at Plymouth Museum as a project assistant working with this collection back in 2006.

Fans in storage

Historic textiles have a number of issues to consider when caring for them as they are particularly fragile and susceptible to light and environmental damage, not to mention pests!  So before the collection is moved, the items have to be examined and packed accordingly so that nothing gets damaged whilst moving. Everything is packed in acid free boxes and buffered with acid free tissue paper. Some collections are extra delicate so they may need extra packing. Very delicate silk for example is packed with a fine ‘spider tissue.’

Here is a box of fans in the collection. They have been individually packed on plastazote and secured with cotton tape. This means that they are secured and won’t roll around in the box, potentially bumping into each other and breaking. They look very pretty too!

Another factor to consider is documentation. We need to keep tabs on all of the items in the collection as they are moved – so double checking and updating package numbers for locations on our digital database is absolutely necessary. When the costume boxes eventually move, we can log them in to MASS when they arrive which means that we don’t lose track of anything.

Not many of our costumes have been photographed so having the opportunity to look back through this collection has reminded me of some stunning examples that we have. I now have a much better short list of items that we might be able to put on display in the History Centre in 2020.

Some of the oldest items in the collection date to the Georgian period. The open robe dress above was probably made in around 1760. It has a fitted bodice and a full skirt which would have been worn over a quilted skirt and crinoline – a type of hooped cage that helped the skirt stand out.

Below is another open robed dress in the collection dating to about 1760. The waist is so tiny that we don’t currently have a mannequin small enough to mount it! The silk used is probably Spitalfields Silk purchased in London. It is beautifully decorated with flowers and metallic gold embroidery. The robe would again have been worn over a crinoline and underskirt. A separate piece of material called the stomacher, would have been fitted at the centre front. The brocade and ruffles on the sleeves are beautifully hand stitched. Looking more closely inside the sleeves, circular weights are sewn in to enable the lighter silk to be held down so as not to spoil the look of the dress.

Varied carpet beetles, and their young known as ‘woolly bears’ are real dangers to costume collections as are clothes moths. I am inspecting the items carefully whilst packing to make sure there are no signs of active insect damage which could spread to the wider collection. No sign of pests so far I’m happy to report! If we identify any sign of pests, the item would be quarantined and then frozen. This is a simple way of treating pest infestations without having to use any chemicals which might affect the collections. When the boxes are safely in the off-site store, we will spot check them regularly to make sure that no other insects have found their way in.

Here is a photo of the store. It looks a bit of a mess but with 170 boxes packed so far, we are certainly getting there.