This week is #MuseumWeek – a worldwide festival for cultural institutions on social media. So it seems a perfect time to talk about some of the amazing museums that can be found across Wiltshire. Whatever your interests - from archaeology to transport to modern art - you will find something that appeals and inspires.
Like many other spaces, museums have been closed for much of the last year due to the pandemic. They are now able to re-open and have been looking forward to welcoming back the public once again, having made all the necessary arrangements to ensure a safe and enjoyable visit following the latest national lockdown. You can find out more information about museums in the county by visiting the Museum in Wiltshire website.
There are so many great museums it’s difficult to know where to kick off, so to quote The Sound of Music, ‘let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start’ by looking at some of the earliest objects from Wiltshire.
To find out about more about Wiltshire’s prehistory, you can’t beat Wiltshire Museum, Devizes and Salisbury Museum. Both are home to collections designated as having national or international importance, which tell the story of Wiltshire over the last 500,000 years.
Wiltshire Museum has beautiful gold items from the time of Stonehenge, some of my other favourites items on display are these exquisitely worked bronze age arrowheads.
Salisbury Museum’s award-winning Wessex Gallery includes the Amesbury Archer and finds from Stonehenge.
Sophie Hawke, Finds Liaison Officer for Wiltshire:
Hello, I am the new Finds Liaison Officer for Wiltshire, job sharing with Wil Partridge at The Salisbury Museum. I started in my new role at the beginning of January but have only managed three days in the office so far, due to Covid lockdown restrictions.
Like Wil, I have been working from home. This is a bonus in some ways as it’s warmer at home than in the office (we are situated directly above the medieval porch at work so any heat rises up to the ceiling and stays there) and my travel time to work is currently ten seconds as opposed to an hour. On the down side, I have to tidy up before any Zoom calls and hope that no-one rings the doorbell whilst I’m unmuted on Zoom as my dogs will bark incessantly at the bell.
I have always been fascinated by archaeology. I joined the Young Archaeologists’ Club in Dorchester, Dorset aged 10 (a long time ago), then went on my first dig aged 11, at Dewlish Roman villa. I was hooked!
Fast forward a few years, I studied at University of Bristol for a Certificate in Archaeology with Mick Aston as my tutor, started a family, did an Open University degree, then immediately returned to Bristol Uni, with Mick as one of my lecturers, for a part time MA in Landscape Archaeology.
During all this, I started work at a secondary school and stayed for 15 years, as part of my role there was (and still is in a voluntary capacity) as Archaeology Liaison Officer for the Roman villa under the School playing field. In 2018, I was awarded a Headley Trust internship with the Portable Antiquities Scheme at The Salisbury Museum, and Historic England. Following this I worked for Historic England as a Finds Supervisor and just before Christmas 2020, I was offered this Wiltshire FLO job. I love working with finds, meeting people and doing research so this is my dream job! My favourite find to date is a hoard of Roman pewter found near Westbury. When the finder sent photos of it, Wil and I couldn’t believe our eyes as it contained a lead tank (see photo below), quite a rare find, which may be a portable font.
It’s that time of year when the first emails land in my inbox requesting placements on the History Centre’s popular work experience (WEX) programme.
This year it is a little different – those early requests are arriving, but students are now looking for Virtual WEX!
In my blog from March 2020 – Celebrating Archives – I was eagerly anticipating a year of anniversaries, the highlights of which were to be Salisbury’s 800th birthday and the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Events were planned, projects finalised, and we had an excuse, though none is ever really needed, to dig out some of our archival treasures that show just how connected Wiltshire is to key moments of national commemoration. And letters from Florence Nightingale would have featured in the work experience programme.
And then… the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. All certainty about future events rapidly disappeared as History Centre staff joined colleagues from across Wiltshire Council in responding to the crisis. While statutory services at the History Centre had to be maintained our usual talks and courses were cancelled; we had to close during lockdowns; our regular jaunts around the county to speak to community groups and history societies ended; and as education officer there were no school visits to plan or deliver, and no work placements to organise.
It was clear we needed to transfer what we could online, and I found myself working with colleagues from Libraries and Leisure to create resources that gave Wiltshire residents virtual opportunities to enjoy heritage, arts, literature and physical activities. The result was the Active Communities page on the Wiltshire Council website – a great resource which will hopefully have a legacy post-pandemic.
I also found myself co-ordinating the History Centre’s online presence. Colleagues, missing out on the daily rhythm of dealing with enquiries and customers, turned their energies to our website and social media platforms. They kept regular users updated and entertained, and engaged with new followers. And the hard work has paid off as we see more users, followers, likes and engagements with our various social media accounts.
Necessity drove us online in 2020 providing many challenges, but now there are opportunities in 2021, opportunities the History Centre wants to exploit. Virtual Work Experience is one of those. There will always be a need for real world, physical engagement with archives and books, photographs, painting and sculpture, artefacts and objects, not to mention being in the audience for a live theatre or musical performance. But while we wait for the time when we can return to in-person talks, courses and classroom sessions we need to make the most of the technology available.
I am working on developing a virtual work experience programme for GCSE and A-level students. Our work placements are always popular and each year we are fully booked, but we are limited in how many students we can take – normally two GCSE students in any given week and a couple of Year 12 A-level students. Geography and public transport also play a part and, while I provide a county-wide heritage education service, WEX students tend to come from Chippenham and the surrounding area.
The plan is to use an online classroom platform to deliver Virtual WEX. This has the potential to significantly increase the number of students the History Centre can reach, extending coverage to the whole of Wiltshire and Swindon, and beyond. I will always champion in-person placements and visits to the History Centre to really get hands-on with historical documents – there is a thrill to seeing and touching a document signed by Charles I or Oliver Cromwell or, having learned about Henry VIII in school, holding the marriage contract between Henry and Jane Seymour. But as an advocate for cultural education, online sessions are a valuable tool in reaching and inspiring young minds. And while students will not be able to handle the documents in a virtual session they will still be able to see them and work with them.
A key aspect of our work placement programme is the breadth of experience students enjoy, not only working with archives and local studies collections, but also learning about the work of the conservators and archaeologists based at the History Centre. It is also satisfying to see the students grow in confidence over the course of their week with us and to hear back from schools about the positive impact the placement has had on the youngsters.
We hope that those who see what we do via an online taster day will be in-person users of our services in the months and years to come. This opening up of access also supports the History Centre’s commitment to inclusion and diversity, not only as part of Wiltshire Council but also within the Archives sector.
WEX 2021 won’t be the same as previous years but we hope a virtual experience will give young people an opportunity to see what enjoyable and rewarding careers can be had in the heritage sector.
During lockdown our teams, like everyone, have had to adapt to new ways of working and think creatively about how we continued to support our heritage community and maintain our statutory services. In Part 1 Neil and Dorothy shared some of the work done by the Archaeology team and Wiltshire Buildings Record. In Part 2 we turn the spotlight on our Archives and Local Studies team, the Conservation and Museums Advisory Service and the Heritage Education Service.
Archives and Local Studies
While lockdown forced the cancellation of our 2020 events programme, we were able to reinvent some of the activities in new formats. County Librarian Julie Davis had planned a talk on TheHome Front in Wiltshire, as part of the celebrations for the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May. Instead she turned her slides into an online film show with a recorded narration. Julie also recorded readings from her recent publication From Blackout to Bungalows which explores the effects of World War Two on Wiltshire. These are available on our VE Day page on the website.
Pre-lockdown we were delighted to host a display of artworks by students from Wiltshire College in the History Centre foyer. Community history advisor Joy Bloomfield, who worked with the college on this project, redisplayed the pieces in our search room and created a more widely-accessible online exhibition available via our Facebook page.
Julie's Memory Box sessions also went online. Before lockdown the group would use written sources as a springboard for discussion and reminiscence. Unable to meet physically Julie recorded several readings themed on local fairs and industries which are now online to be enjoyed at home. Similarly, Ian Hicks has replicated his popular Introduction to Ancestry.com sessions as online videos. All videos can be found on our youtube channel including four short Welcome Back films featuring members of our team. Creating video content is new for most of us at the History Centre and, we’re not afraid to say, it was a bit daunting to begin with, but we have learnt new skills, gained confidence and seen the benefits of developing online content for the History Centre. Watch this space for more online material over the coming months.
We have also used lockdown to add more content to the Know Your Place website. Scanned copies of our tithe awards have been added to this already brimming resource. The tithe awards give details of landowners and occupiers plus land use for parishes across the county. In addition, more content has been added to pages of the Wiltshire Community History website, most notably on the subject of Wiltshire schools. Julie has also continued her engagement work with the team of Wiltshire Libraries Local Studies’ Champions to create digital material for the library service's YouTube channel.
Lockdown resulted in the disruption to many arts, heritage and cultural projects but as restrictions eased organisations looked to restart their programmes. The History Centre is delighted to be working with our new partners at Celebrating Age Wiltshire on their lottery-funded project to improve health and wellbeing of older people living in isolation. We are also feeding into the Swindon Heritage Action Zone, which is part of a wider Historic England heritage project and the project officer is working with local people in and around Swindon’s Railway Village to post old photographs onto the community layer of Know Your Place website.
Visitors to the History Centre usually come to consult documents, but the Local Studies Library is also an important research tool. It contains over 50,000 volumes and is the largest collection in the world of books about Wiltshire. We are always on the lookout for new titles and actively collect any published work that is about Wiltshire or is written by someone with a strong Wiltshire connection.
The last few months have been an opportunity to catch up with the backlog of cataloguing, making over 100 new books available to users of the service. They include biographies; newly published research on the two world wars and a beautifully illustrated book of the plants found in the gardens of Salisbury Cathedral Close. Perhaps these books may inspire you to write something and be part of Wiltshire’s written history. New lists of our latest catalogued books can be found in our Local Studies newsletters.
We have also used this time to update our staff toolkit which contains key guides on various collection themes in the hope we have the answers to all your questions at our fingertips. Quite an undertaking, we’re sure you’ll agree. Colleagues have also conducted research on topics such as militia records, the architecture of Salisbury and the Kennet and Avon Canal, plus we have been putting the finishing touches to a major new catalogue for the archive of Westinghouse Rail. This has involved formatting data collected by our volunteer Mike and uploading onto our electronic catalogue.
Like most archives and museums, we have launched a new collection that will record the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives. The History Centre’s Living in Lockdown project aims to collect personal reflections from people in Wiltshire and Swindon on their experiences of Covid-19 and how it has affected daily lives. We are also looking for printed material such as posters and leaflets, or newsletters from local groups, plus photographs recording lockdown, such as public displays of art and craft, and how local shops, services and events have been affected. Read more about the collecting project (including how to get in touch) on our archives pages.
Conservation and Museums Advisory Service
The Conservation and Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) aims to promote excellence in the care and use of collections by providing conservation advice and practical treatments to heritage organisations and the public. We also support museums in Wiltshire to meet professional standards and become sustainable, resilient organisations.
Based at the History Centre, we can normally be found working in our two conservation laboratories, or out and about giving advice to museums, archives and historic houses. Lockdown meant that, like many others, we were confined to working at home and had to find a whole new way of doing things.
Without access to the specialist equipment and chemicals in the laboratory, we had to stop carrying out practical conservation treatments such as x-raying archaeological finds, cleaning coins, reconstructing ceramics and repairing documents. Instead the conservators have taken the time to carry out a number of other tasks.
We have been developing new training and support packages for both staff at the History Centre, and other museums and archives looking to gain Accreditation or better care for their collections. This includes topics like pest management, environmental monitoring and control, collection care planning, and preventative conservation of archives and historical collections. We’ve been looking at services aimed at those involved with archaeology, such as archaeological contractors and metal detectorists. There has also been the opportunity to develop our environmental sustainability plans, becoming greener to help the Council meet its pledge to become carbon neutral by 2030.
Even though the building has been closed, the archives have still required some care and attention, so we’ve been carrying out regular environmental monitoring checks to make sure the temperature and humidity levels in the strong rooms is suitable for their long-term preservation.
We have been exploring the digital world and finding alternative ways of working. A redesign of the CMAS web pages has begun including a simplified web address - www.wshc.org.uk/cmas - and we took part in a twitter conference organised by the Institute of Conservation (#IconArchTC) talking about our treatment of a Roman coin hoard owned by Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury. You can also watch our new video about the conservation treatment of a pair of Pele’s football boots.
Meetings have gone online, and we have been getting to grips with the technicalities and etiquette of virtual meetings, including Wiltshire Museum Group get-togethers. The team has also been available by telephone and email to answer questions and give advice to organisations and the public about all things conservation and museums.
Wiltshire’s museums have been hit hard by the lockdown, with the cancellation of events, loss of income, and other challenges that come from having to close their doors overnight. Working with South West Museum Development, we have supported them throughout the last few months, answering enquiries to help them look after staff, volunteers and collections, providing information about the latest government guidance, and encouraging applications for the grant funding available. This has continued as museums have started to re-open. Museums in the county have been working hard to address the issues and several have now welcomed back visitors, with special measures put in place to keep everyone safe: Wiltshire Museum, Chippenham Museum, Boscombe Down Aviation Collection, REME Museum, Salisbury Museum, The Rifles Museum, Crofton Beam Engines www.croftonbeamengines.org. More will follow in the not too distant future.
Although the CMAS team is now back in the building and the laboratories, we’re not quite back to normal! It’s likely to be a little while before we’re able to make visits to organisations or carry out face to face training. So, in the meantime, we’ll carry on developing our digital delivery and because we love showing off the work we do we’re planning to add more case studies, videos and a virtual tour of the laboratories to our web pages soon.
Heritage Education Service
As heritage education officer I work with schools and community groups providing facilitated sessions in schools, community settings and at the History Centre. All those face-to-face sessions ended with lockdown. The other aspect of my work involves creating classroom and online resources – and this has very much continued.
In anticipation of the lockdown the History Centre could see that digital resources – our website, blog and social media platforms – would be our way of keeping some of our services operational and allow us to stay in touch with our community of users and volunteers. With that in my mind my role morphed into coordinating the History Centre’s digital services and joining with colleagues in Libraries and Leisure to develop and deliver online services to replace, as best we could, the wide range of physical services provided by our teams. This resulted in the Active Communities webpages and a host of downloadable resources on the Wiltshire Council website.
As our services resume, with new policies and procedures in place, my work on the History Centre’s digital strategy will continue alongside creating classroom resources for teachers. I am also delighted that many of the projects we support are getting back on track, including the Salisbury Soroptimist’s Her Salisbury Story project (funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund) celebrating the women of Salisbury past and present. I will be providing support and training to the group and their volunteers as they work on this wonderful project.
After meticulous planning and much hard work we are delighted to have welcomed out first visitors back into the search rooms on 25th August. Making sure the History Centre is COVID-secure for staff and visitors does mean we have had to put in new procedures for accessing our services and these follow national guidelines and regulations. We are now operating an appointments-only system for accessing our services and face coverings are mandatory for all visitors. To book your archives and local studies visit go to our website. http://wshc.org.uk/visiting-the-centre.html For other teams please telephone ahead to make an appointment.
Back in 2014 we were fortunate in securing a National Heritage Lottery Fund award as part of their Collecting Cultures project. This gave us funding to connect and support museum collections throughout the county of Wiltshire in a variety of ways. We could add to collections, perhaps filling gaps where creativity was unrepresented, provide conservation, training and support for museum staff and volunteers and generally connect with our museum network in a way that would build strong links for the future. We hoped to create a legacy that would reflect the creative influence of our county.
The journey has taken five years to complete and we have recently submitted our final evaluation and report to mark the journey’s end. And what a journey it has been; we have learnt so much and connected with so many different people and organisations along the way, it has been an absolute pleasure to be part of it.
Our focus has been primarily on the creators who have associations with our county and the chart below will give an indication of the mediums represented and objects subsequently purchased.
It would have been easy to concentrate on fine artists alone, but we quickly realised that there were many different creative industries within the county, so we tried to represent as many as possible. Generally, the work purchased reflected the twentieth century and mid-century design in particular. It was a time of great change as WWII ended and new ideas about art and design began to emerge, some of our objects purchased certainly reflect those changes. The whole project has been supported by accredited Wiltshire museums and we need to especially thank Salisbury Museum, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, and Chippenham Museum, all supported by a range of organisations and individuals associated with the creative industries and museum service.
Many of our purchases were made direct from the makers and this has led to detailed background knowledge and provenance to accompany the objects, as well as developing strong ongoing relationships that will lead, in some instances, to the deposit of an artist’s archive at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. These archives will be available to all for further study. For some more expensive items, the purchase became a joint effort as partners applied for matched funding from larger organisations, making such additions to collections possible.
Inspired by and supporting this project a wide range of activities and events have been delivered increasing access to, knowledge of and participation in heritage. These have been enjoyed by over 47,000 participants. A mapping project was produced to help museums work together, supporting purchases and collecting policies so there is less overlap and more efficient working. 105 individuals have attended a series of training courses for museum staff and volunteers, covering a variety of topics that will help make their own museums and heritage organisations as sustainable as possible. Exhibitions have been held across the county highlighting newly acquired material and encouraging responses from the audiences and other artists and creators.
This wide-ranging project created the landscape for other activities to grow, raising the profile of creatives across the county and it has been wonderful to focus on this type of contemporary art and give it recognition. Many makers enjoyed the new-found connection with heritage and were inspired to create new works.
Please allow me an indulgence to choose my favourite object purchased during the project; this is a painting by Wilfred Gabriel de Glehn of the countryside surrounding Stratford Tony, where he lived. He was a painter previously unrepresented in a main collection in Wiltshire and his impressionistic work is an important addition. His association and friendship with John Singer Sargent resulted in many painting trips abroad, especially to France and Italy, where they were also accompanied by de Glehn’s wife, Jane Emmet. The painting is now part of the collection at Salisbury Museum and I hope that we can add more works in the future by this accomplished artist.
We are fortunate to have had such a unique opportunity to connect with each other in this way and are so pleased that we have been able to put new collecting practices in place to reflect the legacy of the project. The work does not stop here, it is the start of so much more and we look forward to showing you future collections and acquisitions that reflect the creativity of the county and its people.
Museum and archive collections are, in their very nature, eclectic. They often have roots in one person’s fascination with the past and they develop and grow much like a tree putting out roots. They are often dependent on donations, and collecting policies within museums are developed to provide some structure to this form of collecting, making sure that very valuable storage space is used to advantage and the best are represented. It is not that often that choices can be made by museum and archive staff about what to purchase, what gaps to fill and who to represent.
The Heritage Lottery Funded Creative Wiltshire project has aimed to facilitate just that. With a carefully prepared bid back in 2014 we were successful in achieving funding to add to some of our Wiltshire collections and with careful consideration we have purchased items that aim to fill gaps, often representing a new creator with a strong Wiltshire connection. We are now reaching the end of this project and our final exhibition at Salisbury Museum will show off some of our recent purchases.
This project is not just about the purchases, it is also about offering training and development to volunteers and staff associated with museums within the county, as well as education workshops, a tool kit for teachers and other events in the wider community. The exhibition at Salisbury Museum has provided a perfect opportunity to put an ‘Exhibitions Assistant Trainee’ in place, to plan, oversee and install the final exhibition with the support of the Salisbury Museum Director, Adrian Green and his team. Thank you to Emily Smith, our successful applicant, who has been able to gain great ‘hands on’ experience of all aspects of exhibition work within a museum context. We gave her a tough brief; expecting planning, curation, exhibition design, mounting of work, co-ordinating staff, borrowing and transferring of objects required from around the county and she has had a busy four months putting this in place. We thank you for your enthusiasm and we are thrilled with the results. The exhibition at Salisbury Museum has now been extended to 29th September 2019; why not pop in and see what you think? You will find work by Rex and Laurence Whistler, Howard Phipps, Nancy Nicholson, Nick Andrew, Jonathan Wylder and Wilfred Gabriel de Glehn, amongst others.
During the course of the project other exhibitions have been held at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery and Chippenham Museum and both have focused on recent acquisitions to their collections. Sophie Cummings of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery says the project has exceeded her expectations and allowed them to purchase pieces by Ken White, previously un-represented in their collection, as well as fine art by Joe Tilson, Harold Dearden, David Bent and Janet Boulton and ceramics by Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Patricia Volk and Sasha Wardell.
The current exhibitions at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery are well worth a visit.
An Art of the People – Ramsbury & Cricklade Potteries features work by Ivan and Kay Martin of Cricklade, and Peter Holdsworth of Ramsbury.
Out of the Box: An exhibition of paintings by David Bent
An exhibition of work by David Bent which includes geometric landscapes, intricate photographic collages and paintings as well as his aviation art and “Movement 2000” series. Stunning and inspiring work by this Swindon based artist.