Museum On Tour, 4 May 2017: Ropewalks #6 – Writing Ropewalks

by Jon Nash, Scriptwriter

As a writer and theatre maker I’ve always been interested in story. The stories we hear, the stories we tell each other and ourselves. Stories help us make sense of the world around us and can bring us together to learn and think and feel.

So around a year ago I began a project of research into the history of the Barbican: its buildings and people, trades and events. As I collected the expected dates and timelines and names and records, I was looking for the smaller human stories that stood out against the backdrop of history with a capital H.

An historic photo of the Barbican, Plymouth from Plymouth City Council's (Arts and Heritage) Service's collections

In workshops with young people from the city I shared some of the stories I’d found and asked them which ones they felt were the most interesting to them. The ones that caught their attention had a few things in common:

  • They connected Plymouth to big important history in a way they hadn’t known or imagined
  • They showed how ordinary people lived often during extraordinary times and talked about people just like them
  • They were unexpected or surprising or funny or a bit dangerous or subversive

Over the weeks of research and development with our brilliant volunteer actors we talked and improvised a lot about these ideas and how, in something like a walk, we could bring them to life and surprise our audiences.

An historic photo of fishermen on the Barbican, Plymouth from Plymouth City Council's (Arts and Heritage) Service's collections

We began to take fragments of history, from the Bread Riots, to smuggling to Dutton’s shipwreck and looked for the human beings that could tell us those stories, what they might have to say about them that could surprise us. We’ve been pirates and fishwives and emigrants and customs officials and all sorts of characters. Which led to the questions: who is telling these tales on this walk? Why are the telling them and from whose point of view?

Among the historical quotes about Plymouth, one stood out. Count Magalotti (visiting from Italy) in the 17th century describes Plymouth as a city of ‘women and children’ as the men were often away fishing or sailing or at war. We wondered what stories the women of the Barbican might tell and how they might view the events we were interested in. We imagined them being there by the harbour side from the very beginning. They’re still there today if you look in the right places.

The initial focus of my research had been food and drink. Over time this isn’t really about menu options but something much more urgent. How do you survive? How have people who live on the Barbican survived? What would these women want us to know about how they lived their lives, even when the going got tough?

Photograph of Nancy Astor campaigning on the Barbican, Plymouth during her historic 1919 election campaign

Much of my work in writing the final show has been about finding these voices, listening to them and not minding too much when they argue or disagree or even stretch the truth a little. To create a trio of long-lived Barbican women who can bring these stories to us and make us feel as if were were really there.

I’m on to my second draft now and they still keep surprising me. I hope they’ll do the same for all those who come to see the final performances.

Buy your tickets for ‘Ropewalks’ here. Performances take place on selected dates during May, June and August.

Lithuania to Plymouth – a volunteer’s story

by Ieva Anušauskaitė, student of Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences

In May, before leaving my homeland Lithuania I had visited one very bright priest, who was an ex-parson of my home-town parish. I was writing an essay about the history of my home-town church. That’s why I needed to visit him. I bragged to him that I am going to do an internship in England in a museum for whole summer. Later he said: I am jealous of you, I love museums. When I visit a museum I get new ideas and inspiration. He added that those nice sculptures which stand now in front of our church were an outcome of one of his visits to a particular museum.

The experience which I get whilst volunteering in Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery is very varied. Literally, I have a touch to England’s and World’s social history by auditing, cleaning, photographing and packing objects from the Social History collection. Most of the objects are local, but there are some which came from different countries, as for example British-Indian passport or photographs of Istanbul during First World War, which were taken by a British army officer, coins from Canada, Hungary, Argentina, France which were in use in 19th century…and lots of the other interesting things! Yesterday I handled a Bible which was printed in 1643. It was the oldest book which I ever had in my hands!

Doing some cleaning work
Doing some cleaning work

Other kinds of experiences are collecting stories and feedback from visitors. The majority of ladies indicate prams as their most favourite objects on the display and the majority of gentlemen state that the guns display is their favourite. The diving suit, JFK’s nightclub sign, “Ha Penny Bridge” sign are very popular as well. Most frequently people are curious about “the exercise bikes” and the “cot bed with Jesus in”.

However, my most important impressions are related with people who I met whilst helping in the gallery and being “across the road”. I was amazed by the members of staff work and administrating the volunteers. It is very nice to see how attentively they communicate and lead all work. That is a good example of a leadership. I am having a very good time with all the volunteers.  I will not forget the lady from Scotland who I volunteered with and who taught me a Scottish phrase “she doesn’t like grass growing under her feet”. With another lady Sheila I skived off one afternoon and went to Mount Edgcumbe.  With another lady Irene I had unexpectedly nice afternoon in Mount Batten where we went by water taxi. With other volunteers we liven our work by having interesting conversations in different subjects.

Children from summer school of art listening a story about Barbers shop list
Children from summer school of art listening a story about Barbers shop list

One more very useful and interesting experience I had was story telling for students from summer school of arts. Project assistant Laura picked several objects for me which have very interesting stories: a wood carving from Miss Pinwill collection; a table knife which belonged to T.E. Lawrence known as Lawrence of Arabia; a barber’s shop price list and a silver snuff box with wooden container which was presented for local surgeon for devotion to his patients during a cholera outbreak in 1832. The idea of the school children’s visit was to understand, that even though some objects in a museum look ordinary, they can have very unusual and interesting stories. I found this experience most useful and challenging, keeping in mind that I am going to be history teacher.

It is very nice to see how museums in UK do their best to involve visitors in interactive activities. I enjoyed participating in “Big Knit”, “Adventures in music” events and school sessions. It was useful to find out about “Discovery desks”. I have never seen such activities anywhere. During the time spent in a museum I definitely changed my opinion about museums.

2013-22-08 SftS Photo 3
Volunteer’s most favourite object

Back to the introduction of my post, now I understand what the priest meant. I got dozens of ideas for my future work in school and I will definitely try to realise them. I would like to encourage all who are even a little bit interested in history to be involved in volunteering in a museum!

Stories from the Stores – mystery object 2

By Rachel and Tabitha

Can you help us find out about our mystery objects?

Some objects have been found in the social history stores with no associated information, so we don’t know what they are. Many of them are on display in the museum if you want to come in for a closer look.

This object was found with a collection of material from Farley’s (famous for making rusks). Did you or someone you know, work for Farley’s? Do you have any idea what this object is called? Or what it was used for? Or better still do you have a story or anecdote connected to it?

You can click on the thumbnails for larger images.


Audit reaches object number 5000: record sleeve

Towards the end of last year we had recorded 4000 objects and during March we reached the 5000 mark. I began volunteering in the middle of December so it’s been a great experience being part of this progress and surprising how little time it’s taken to go through around 1000 objects!

Record sleeve c.1930s, from Tulley Music Warehouse
Record sleeve c.1930s, from Tulley Music Warehouse

This record sleeve was a great object to reach this landmark with, especially when you consider what is happening to high street music shops at the moment. The sleeve dates from the 1930’s or earlier. It would have been individual to the shop and used for all the records that it sold, as opposed to the unique album sleeves we see today. We can also see on the left the old logo for His Master’s Voice (HMV) which made records and gramophones from the late 19th century onwards. Interestingly 10 Ebrington Street, where Tulley Music Warehouse was, is just down the road from Drake Circus where the current HMV store is. As the company has unfortunately gone into administration this artefact is a humble reminder of a by-gone era of buying music on the high street and not on our computers.

A volunteer’s view on Stories from the Stores – by Tamsin

Tamsin working in our stores
Tamsin working in our stores

I began volunteering on the Social History audit in December 2012 and I have really enjoyed my experience so far. I mainly help record artefacts but I also have helped select objects for display which was particularly fascinating. Working on the audit means you get to see and handle a huge variety of objects, some of which you certainly wouldn’t expect to see in a museum! This means in every shift you can expect to have a completely different experience and get a broadly different and intriguing insight into the past.

 Through helping with the audit I have come face-to-face with such objects as an air raid warden‘s helmet from WWII Plymouth, a shoe that had been found in a wall to protect a pub from evil spirits, and a knitted English breakfast! This is just a tiny snapshot of the extraordinary variety of artefacts that are hidden away in the stores. As a great enthusiast for social history (especially local) this has been a great experience so far and full of discoveries and I am definitely looking forward to coming across more fascinating objects in the future.