History Centre

The Living in Lockdown Wiltshire Collection

on Thursday, 07 October 2021. Posted in Archives, History Centre, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places

The Covid pandemic has affected us all. Last year the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre put out a call to arms, asking for contributions to a new collection that we are building; ‘Living in Lockdown: A Creative Response to Challenging Times’. We had an amazing response! A big thank you to everyone who has contacted us with material to include. It’s been exciting to look at the scope and variety of Wiltshire’s responses to the issues we face and continue to grapple with.

I’d like to share with you some of the material we have received to give an idea of not just the variety, but also to show how a collection is created, collated and preserved for the future here at the History Centre. We see our collections as the county’s treasures. The precious knowledge contained within them about you, our county’s residents and communities, and how we have faced the Covid challenge can now be discovered and studied by future generations thanks to your generosity and the facilities here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre.

We began our collecting process by sending out details of the project Living in Lockdown via our website and social media channels, utilising the help of some of the other teams we work with, such as the communications team at Wiltshire Council. As soon as the material started to wing its way to us, we began entering it on a spreadsheet; basically an ‘accessions’ record to help us register all the material, document where it came from and where it is being stored at the History Centre. We soon built up hundreds of entries, with donations from History Centre staff and other teams within Wiltshire Council such as Wiltshire Libraries, plus local residents, groups, organisations and creative practitioners living and working in the county.

Many types of formats have been received (paper copies, digital images and documents, CDs) and types of material, from cards, booklets, local newsletters, official letters, drawings, newspaper articles, writing and poems - the list goes on…

collection of dpcuments including newsletters, pamphlets, a green poster with rainbow saying 'stay alert', distancing poster and a hand-drawn annotated illustrations.

The creativity that has come out of these dark times has been wonderful to see. From artworks to music, poetry, writing and photography – it shows how intrinsically intertwined creativity is within us as a positive response to challenge and change, and how valuable and essential culture is to us as human beings and communities. We feel honoured to play our part in this cultural experience.

Cards with poems entitled 'Numbers' and 'Sounds' sit in an folded paper pocket painted to look like a murmuration of birds
The hand made ‘A Book of Pauses’ by Jennie Gilling of Warminster, created as a response to different aspects in the natural world that highlighted our human situation in 2020.
Poster advertising Paul Thomas 'one man band' exhibition of drawings made during lockdown.
Art work by Paul Thomas which formed a collection that was exhibited in Salisbury in 2021.

The type of material will determine where it will sit within the collection. The History Centre is home to an archive and a local studies library. They have distinctive specialisms, for example on a basic level, the library deals with published material and the archive unpublished, but there are also some crossovers, for instance photographs could sit within the Local Studies Historic Photograph and Print collection but also within the archive collection too. We also have a new digital repository for born digital works. This is great for us, as it means the History Centre is well placed to welcome all sorts of material. The only items we can’t take are 3D items which are better placed in one of Wiltshire’s fantastic museums!

Mural on a brick wall with a rainbow leading into a yellow brick road

The Ancestor sculpture, a kneeling figure holding a flag with added mask

Small painted stones placed alongside a path through grass
Photographs taken during lockdown: mural in The Butts, Chippenham, 11.2020, photographed by Michelle Chapman, ‘The Ancestor’ in Amesbury, fully equipped with mask, 11.2020 and the Devizes snake stones, 7.2020, photographed by Wiltshire Library staff

The next stage in the collection’s journey will be for myself as the County Local Studies Librarian and one of my Archivist colleagues to assess the collection and formally decide where everything should be placed (this is called ‘appraisal’). This usually involves a lot of excitement and quite a bit of time, as I know I always find so much of interest, but I must take a proper look at it all – we have to spend time getting it right, don’t we!

The documents and creative items will go into the archives, with the books and pamphlets that have been published finding their home in the local studies library. We have yet to make a decision on the digital material, but it is safe to say it will be stored in the most appropriate location. Anything left over after this process will make a valuable addition to the Ephemera collection in Local Studies. We usually define it as a miscellaneous collection of materials that you might often throw out, but believe me, in the future, these items will be a fantastic source of information…

Being a newbie out of lockdown (for the time being?)

on Thursday, 16 September 2021. Posted in Archaeology, History Centre

(With apologies to my colleague, Neil Adam, for stealing the title from his blog article)

Hello everyone, my name is Tim Havard and I am the new Assistant County Archaeologist for Wiltshire, a role I began in early August 2021.

I have always been fascinated by history and archaeology. I grew up on a small farm in south Worcestershire almost at the foot of Bredon Hill (an outlier of the Cotswolds). I’m sure that some are aware of the spectacular Iron Age hillfort on top of the hill but I was a frequent visitor here in my youth when my little legs would carry me up the long walk to the top. I spent many happy hours running up and down the banks and ditches here pretending to be an Iron Age warrior.

Aerial photograph of hilltop with hill fort
Photo credit: Nick Turner Photography

Much like many hillforts of Wiltshire, a simple photo cannot do justice to how spectacular the site is. The only way to truly appreciate the setting and views afforded is to visit it on foot. There is a large stone at the top of the hill known locally as The Elephant Stone and legend has it that if you walk three times around the stone then you will be cured of any illness!

Whilst living on the farm my interest in archaeology would manifest itself in the form of digging random holes in the ground to see what I could find. My father and grandfather were a little less enthusiastic about my endeavours than I was at the time. They were probably quite happy therefore when I went to Southampton University to study archaeology which I chose over history as it would afford me chances to get out of the lecture theatre.

Following university I worked for a small archaeology unit outside Southampton and then moved to Cotswold Archaeology where I worked for 22 years. This gave me the opportunity to work on many sites in Wiltshire and see some fantastic and rewarding archaeology. Among my fondest memories of fieldwork undertaken in Wiltshire have been a small evaluation trench unexpectedly full of Saxon features, a test trench to investigate the prehistoric and medieval defences of Malmesbury and a watching brief in the shadow of Malmesbury Abbey. However, the highlight of my fieldwork in Wiltshire was undoubtedly the direction a large scale excavation of a multi period site at Wroughton, on the site of the former airfield, in 2018 and 2019 with archaeology ranging in date from the Bronze Age through to World War Two.

Following on from the evaluation, the first feature uncovered was a prehistoric pit alignment.

Cleared earth with round shadowy features visible on the ground
Prehistoric pit alignment flanked by Iron Age Storage Pits (photo Cotswold Archaeology)

As the stripped area was extended, further evidence for intensive Iron Age occupation in the form of roundhouses and numerous storage pits were uncovered. The western half of a huge ring ditch, possibly denoting a henge was found. The site was also occupied in the Roman period; a cemetery of 14 burials and a drying oven belonging to this period were recorded.

Hole dug into ground with chamber lined with stone
Roman Drying Oven (photo Cotswold Archaeology)

The site was one of the most rewarding of my fieldwork career. It was not without its challenges though; a wide open airfield site in January and February was particularly inclement; at times the wind was so strong it was not safe to work on site.

Conservation of the Radstock Jubilee Drum

on Thursday, 02 September 2021. Posted in Conservation, History Centre, Museums

4 images of side-view of a colourful but tatty drum
Photo 1: Radstock Jubilee Drum Before Treatment

The Conservation and Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) is based at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham. We preserve the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives and provide support to museums, heritage organisations and individuals to care for and conserve historic collections and meet professional standards.

Close-up of side of drum with red, black and white striped paint on wooden body
Photo 2: Detail of painted surface before treatment

According to the UK’s professional conservation body the Institute of Conservation:

‘The purpose of all conservation is to facilitate the public’s access to and enjoyment of our cultural heritage. It helps us understand ourselves and our future by preserving our past.’

So, when a marching band drum from Radstock Museum recently came into the object conservation studio at CMAS, we had to think about how to preserve the history of the object in the best way.

The drum was from the Radstock Jubilee and much of the original paint had cracked and lifted from the surface. There were already large areas of loss, but the main text on the drum remained. It was not the intention for the drum to be used again, instead the Museum planned to place it on display. In discuss with the Museum it was decided that it would be most ethically appropriate to preserve the remaining paint to show the history and use of the object.

The importance of digital preservation

on Friday, 20 August 2021. Posted in Archives, History Centre

As an archive service, preservation is at the heart of what we do; together with collecting records and making them accessible, it forms the holy trinity of archival functions. Record keepers and archivists have been preserving records for centuries and if we were to examine boxes at random in our strongrooms, we would no doubt come across records on centuries old paper, parchment or vellum. Many of these records are still in perfect condition and will continue to be so in perpetuity as they are housed in climate-controlled conditions.

However, it is now widely accepted that paper records are created less and less these days, with many offices proudly proclaiming to be ‘paper free’. Yet the information and data must still be recorded, must still be collected, and most importantly must still be preserved. Herein lies the problem, the media on which digital records are stored are not nearly as stable as traditional record formats. For example, a hardback financial ledger stored in the correct conditions could last for centuries, whereas a thumb drive containing the same information may not last for a decade before it becomes corrupted. Not only this, with advances in technology comes the issue of obsolescence. For example, CDs were the ‘go to’ audio format as 15 years ago, though now how many of us even own a CD player? That’s before we even consider cassettes, audio reels, Betamax and cinefilm. All of these require specialist equipment to work with the content. Audio-visual material in these formats often gets donated to archives and we have plenty here at Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre and it is our responsibility to make them as accessible as possible. While this is sometimes impossible, we will always strive our best and explore all possible options. However, collecting the specialist equipment would not be the best course of action. When possible, it is best to have them digitised, as it is considerably easier to use a digital file, though this still does not solve the problem. We must now consider the concept of ‘bit rot’; that is, when the quality of a digital file diminishes over time and through overuse.

With so much to consider (the above barely scratches the surface), it is of little surprise that the discipline of digital preservation was born. It was clear that digital preservation practitioners would be required to monitor changes in technology and the affects this would have on the long-term preservation of digital material. The nature of their work, ensuring records survive in perpetuity, is inextricably linked to the work of archivists and it is of little surprise that many archivists now train in digital preservation.

While the majority of the records we receive here at WSHC arrive in paper format, we as archivists now need to be aware of this new discipline, as digital accessions are becoming more frequent. Indeed, some organisations now employ digital archivists, whose remit is solely focused on digital records and digital preservation.

Library collections have a life of their own

on Monday, 19 April 2021. Posted in History Centre, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places

Local Studies Library – the elderly volumes that might surprise you!

I can’t believe it’s been 5 years this month since I was lucky enough to become the County Local Studies Librarian here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. In this time, I’ve had the exciting opportunity to learn a lot more about Wiltshire’s fantastic Wiltshire Studies collection, both at the History Centre and in the county’s many local libraries. You could spend a lifetime delving into the items we hold; there is never enough time in the day to enjoy looking at the collection and the many and varied topics, people and places that span hundreds of years.

The items in our collection have found their way to us through many different means. Some have been purchased, others gifted or donated by kind individuals, many local residents who share our belief that Wiltshire’s treasures should stay in the county for everyone to access and enjoy. Others have been in the ‘library’ system much longer, from reading rooms at places such as the Mechanics Institute in Swindon, historically part of the Wiltshire local authority before Swindon became unitary in 1997.

Local Studies libraries are classed as a ‘special collection’, and within Wiltshire’s are items dating from the 17th century to today. You would be surprised to learn how robust the most elderly items in our collection are; the acid in modern paper makes modern books more troublesome to keep safe. Even so, we like to keep an eye on our oldest items to ensure they are well looked after. I am currently conducting a condition survey to check on their wellbeing and the process has been very informative, opening my eyes to the rich variety of items we hold.

Our journey begins with some of our oldest items; Civil War and Commonwealth pamphlets from 1647-1658 (ref. AAA.946). These include the impeachment of members of the House of Commons by Sir Thomas Fairfax in 1647, an account of the speech of King Charles I on the scaffold in 1649 and a copy of the Commonwealth Mercury dated 25 November 1658, describing the removal of the body of the late Oliver Cromwell from Whitehall.

Title page with a decorative border for King Charles His Speech Made Upon the Scaffold 1648
AAA.946 King Charles Speech

Pest Monitoring to Protect Our Archive Collection

on Tuesday, 30 March 2021. Posted in Archives, Conservation, History Centre

Surprise! - Historic pest found in archive volume by an unsuspecting archivist

We’ve recently reviewed the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme that we have in place at the history centre so that we can effectively protect the archives from the possibility of any damaging insect pests.

IPM is a multi-faceted approach to pest management and our program is used alongside a number of other preventative measures such as good cleaning and housekeeping routines, thoroughly checking new accessions for any hitchhiking pests before they are put into the strong rooms and maintaining a stable environment within the strong rooms so that pests do not feel at home. This way we can continue to protect our archives into the future.

Insects can cause a real problem for historic collections, which can be tasty treats for them to feast on, causing irreversible damage and loss of information.

It is really important to protect the archives against possible pest infestations. A small number can quickly increase to become a big problem if left unchecked and cause substantial damage to a collection.

During the pandemic some collections such as The National Trust have reported increased pest activity due to the reduction in footfall and reduced monitoring and cleaning of spaces, leaving areas undisturbed for pests to thrive. With such large numbers of documents held in repositories such as WSHC it is impossible to frequently check all items individually, so programmes to monitor and reduce numbers are put in place.

We have set up ‘blunder traps’ in the History Centre, strategically located around the strong rooms and other areas of the building, and by frequently monitoring them we are able to get a picture of any pests present and which areas they are visiting.

The traps we use do not control pest infestations they simply allow us to monitor levels of pests. If we find a pattern of large numbers of any particular archive pest, we can then look into dealing with any problems and target them specifically.

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