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.
During lockdown the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre has worked to bring our collections to you in as many different ways as possible. This difficult period has emphasised the importance of having a strong digital presence and we are continuing our endeavours to help everyone gain better access to our county’s wonderful heritage resources.
One method of doing this is increasing our capacity on the Know Your Place website. This project, which began in Bristol and later expanded across the south west of England, layers historic maps of the region and provides interactive layers of historic data, archival collections and community input. This enables the public to compare and contrast contemporary OS maps with historic maps, such as tithe and estate maps, which is great when studying the development of areas and communities. But not only this, it pinpoints (geotags) heritage collections of all shapes and sizes to their relevant locations on the maps – these are known as information layers. Watch this short video to get an idea of why you might use Know Your Place and the ethos behind this progressive project, which is always looking to add documents and detail for public consumption.
Here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre we have been working hard during lockdown to improve our part of the site, KYP Wiltshire, by creating more layers to assist with local history research across the county. A huge amount of work has been done during the last 6 months, by multiple members of staff, to recreate the tithe awards layer. Some of you may have noticed this layer before, or even used it in the past, but not every tithe award was uploaded, and some were found to be faulty. The layer is now up and running, with every tithe award (over 350 T symbols as below) accessible on the site.
For detailed information on tithes, we recommend browsing The National Archives’ handy research guide, but here’s some brief information on how are they can benefit local history research. In 1836 the Tithe Commutation Act was passed, which put an end to tithes being paid in kind to the church (as was often the case previously). Tithes (one tenth of agricultural produce) were now a monetary tax to be paid to the church, but in order to ascertain who would have to pay what, a nationwide survey was taken, with the whole country being mapped (tithe maps). Alongside the maps, the tithe awards (part of a larger document called the tithe apportionments) were produced, which detailed landowners and occupiers of the land.
Plot numbers, listed alongside names, link the award to the map, and show how much each plot of land is due to pay in tithes. Any historic document that lists names in relation to a place is going to be useful for family historians. The tithe award will place a family in a specific location, give an idea of how wealthy (or not) they were, e.g. if they are listed as a landowner that would infer wealth, and they sometimes throw unexpected names into the mix. For example, their relatives may be living nearby and would thus be recorded in the same document. In terms of local and social history, tithes give us a great sense of how the land was being used at a certain point in time, and by whom.
We thought it might be of interest to describe exactly what’s gone into making this data available. Our fantastic volunteers from the Wiltshire Family History Society had previously transcribed the documents in our search room and created a mammoth Microsoft Word document, so this needed to be split up into single documents for each parish. We then needed to convert every document into a PDF (the preferred file format for Know Your Place). Finally, we had to get easting and northing grid references for every individual parish, which proved very time consuming and required some serious local knowledge from various members of staff. This enabled the team in Bristol to upload the tithe awards very accurately over each parish church, or otherwise in the centre of the town, village or hamlet.
To activate the tithe award layer and find the data, follow these simple steps:
Thanks to the interactive nature of the website, you can view the award data in conjunction with any of the historic maps available, or indeed the present-day OS. To change the map, simply click on ‘basemaps’ on the legend to the right of the screen and choose whichever map you’re interested in, though in this instance you may wish to view the tithe award data in conjunction with the tithe map, which can be found at the very bottom of the ‘basemaps’ section. You can also bring a second map into the equation, by clicking ‘comparison map’ at the top of the legend, choosing your map and then using the drag and slide function across the main screen.
There is also a spy glass function, on which you can change the transparency to examine change in a precise spot on the map – this can be used by clicking the small square towards the top right of the page and then the slider beneath it manipulates the levels of transparency. This may all seem a bit fiddly to begin with, but you soon get used to it.
The drag & slide, together with the spy glass function, is a valuable tool to local and house historians. Area development is easy to examine, as is property history. For large or very old properties, it is often possible to see boundary changes over time, as well as structural changes or additions, such as extensions to properties.
It is well worth exploring the webpage further, such as the Historic Environment Record section of the information layer which includes monuments and listed buildings – each item in the list can be accessed in the same way as the Tithe Award data.
It has come to our attention that certain tithe maps have enlarged scale drawings of town or village centres on the physical document, but due to the nature of the digitally stitched together maps, these could not be included on the tithe map on Know Your Place. However, we are now in the process of creating image files of these sections of maps, that will be included as data points in due course, which will be accessed in the same way as the tithe award data.
As I mentioned earlier, this project welcomes community input. This is done through the ‘community layer’ which is automatically active each time you open the webpage (the green dots all over the screen). So, if you have a local monument, church, school or an old photograph of your ancestor’s home, you can take the picture, add some information, and add it to the layer. This can be done by clicking the pencil like symbol on the far right of the screen, then clicking directly on the relevant location and then following the instructions from there.
We’ve been helping get the community layer started by adding some examples from our History Centre collections. You will find images of schools and churches. There’s also the results of the Public Art Project, a fine array of images of public art in the county. If you spot any gaps, why not take a photo and add it to the community layer yourself?
Other organisations have been adding to this layer, Chippenham and Salisbury Museums, the Swindon Heritage Action Zone project to name just a few, plus members of the public and local history groups.
So why not take a look and digitally explore Wiltshire, both past and present. Check to see if you can spot your house on the 1st edition OS map or see if you can find any family members’ names in the tithe award data, but be warned – you may spend more time than you intend when you get ‘lost in the map’!
Finally, keep an eye out on our social media announcements of more historic documents being added to the information layers and feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns. You can find our KYP centred Facebook page @KYPWilts.
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.
I can’t believe that the first year of university is over! It goes so fast and with so much information it can be a bit overwhelming, but trust me, all that hard work and studying will pay off. The Conservation of Objects in Museums and Archaeology undergraduate course at Cardiff introduced me to a whole new world of practical science, as well as in-depth theory, of conservation materials and specialised equipment, such as x-ray and air abrasion machines. By the end of the year I felt pretty confident with the concept of conservation but was still nervous on how to actually apply the theory with real, archaeological objects; in a true work environment. This is where a work placement comes in. My first-year placement was at the Wiltshire and Swindon History centre, as part of the Conservation & Museum Advisory Service (CMAS), a commercial business which deals with issues both in museums and in public collections.
Although it can seem daunting at first, this experience is essential for developing those practical skills and applying the theory with real, archaeological objects, as well as understanding the treatment of different materials and the ethical choices conservators must make; focusing on what’s best for the object and adjusting treatment plans with the client’s wishes accordingly. Keep in mind that work experience is for your benefit, so don’t panic when you have millions of doubts and questions because the people you work with are there to help you (even if you ask questions every 5 mins).
So anyway, onto the actual conservation, hooray!
First things first, you will need to assess the object just by looking at it and writing up a condition report, which simply states any observable issues with the object. The majority of my time was spent working with a Roman ceramic oil lamp in the shape of a foot! Quite a fun object from Chippenham Museum, but as you can see there is a bit of a messy application of adhesive around the centre of the lamp where it has broken in two and was re-joined. There were also scratches, dust and cobwebs on the inside, layers of red dirt/soil on the surface as well as white flaking corrosion (see figures 1-4).
Ok, so the lamp required a good clean and that adhesive definitely needed to come off. Ultimately, the decision was to completely remove the adhesive and undo the join so that I could re-attach the two pieces with a better, cleaner join. In order to remove the adhesive, I needed to work out what solvent it was soluble in. For this, I took small samples of the adhesive from the lamp by slicing off some of the softer areas with a scalpel, under a microscope. I then put the samples into a petri dish and tested them with different solvents (see figures 5 & 6).
Testing solvents on the adhesive:
After about 30 minutes, I could see which solvent made the adhesive go soft and rubbery. The process of removing the adhesive required quite a lot of patience as the it didn’t want to budge; a scalpel was used to remove larger chunks of the adhesive and a poultice was placed around the join. A poultice was a way of creating a solvent environment to help loosen the adhesive and separate the two pieces. *Just to give you an idea of the tools used in this process, I’ve taken a couple of photos for reference.
Figure 7 From left to right – pin vice, plastic tweezers, scalpel, wooden stick and cotton wool
In conservation, we usually make or own cotton swabs by using a bamboo stick or cocktail sticks (depending on what you’re working on) instead of regular, pre-made cotton swabs. Making your own means that when the cotton gets dirty it can be easily replaced and the size of the swab can be varied so you can get into the small nooks and crannies that need a good clean. It also means that we aren’t throwing away millions of cotton swabs and being more environmentally friendly.
After many tries, the poultice wasn’t loosening the adhesive, so I went in with the scalpel and pin vice to try and dig out some adhesive in the join. Another poultice was then left on for a couple of hours. When it was removed I was able to gently pry apart the two pieces (finally!) and clean the new surfaces (see figure 9).
One of the main motivators for me wanting to work in museums was to satisfy my curiosity. What’s beyond that rope or behind that locked door? How are the collections looked after when they aren’t on display? What’s going on going on behind the scenes? Basically I’m just really nosy!
One of the best bits of my job is getting to visit museums across Wiltshire and find out about all the exciting developments that are going on.
Last week I managed to get a peek behind one of those locked doors at Chippenham Museum where they are creating a new exhibition space to hold a programme of changing temporary exhibitions. The project is funded by the Arts Council England through the South West Museum Development Programme and work is being carried out to upgrade the space to meet national security standards. Once this has been completed they will have a fabulous, flexible space that will be able to hold bigger and better exhibitions. Crucially it will enable the Museum to borrow objects from the Nationals, such as the British Museum and the V&A, for the first time, meaning that important collections that tell the story of town can be brought back to Chippenham.
The new gallery’s inaugural exhibition ‘Creative Chippenham’ will open on 20th November 2017 and continue into March 2018. This will be a ‘celebration of local creativity’, showcasing the talents of artists and craftspeople that have lived in and around Chippenham, including Howards Hodgkin and Robin Tanner. Many of items have been acquired for the Museum by the Heritage Lottery Funded‘Creative Wiltshire’ project.
Plans for 2018 also include an exploration of Chippenham’s Georgian history, with a ‘Little Bath’ exhibition featuring loans from other museums.
Chippenham Museum will be offering the opportunity to see behind the scenes to everyone. On Saturday 9th September, staff there are giving free tours around parts of the building that are not normally open to the public – this includes the collection stores to find out how the collections are cared for and to see items not normally on display. More information and booking can be found here.
It’s been a year since I first started working in Wiltshire – how time flies! Working as part of the Conservation and Museum Advisory Service (CMAS), I work with museums across the county giving support to staff and volunteers on a whole range of topics such as Accreditation, collections, exhibitions, audience development and fundraising.
Over the last twelve months I’ve been getting to know Wiltshire and visiting as many museums and heritage centres as possible. Having moved from South Wales, a very different part of the world with a different story, it’s been great to explore the county and find out more about it. With over forty fascinating museums, amazing archaeology and heritage sites, I’ve been spoilt for choice and I’ve really enjoyed finding out about the history of the area.
Driving around I frequently come across sites such as Silbury Hill, Stonehenge, Avebury and West Kennet. It’s a little treat every time I see them but it’s been many years since I studied archaeology. I was struggling to remember what I’d learnt about these special places – but where better to find out more than at a museum?! Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Museum in Devizes both have internationally important archaeology collections from the area and are a great place to discover the story of Wiltshire going back over half a million years and see the evidence from the earliest humans living in the area, including beautiful gold jewellery, finely made pottery, coin hoards and everyday tools. What a great introduction to the history of the area and a way to help me understand the things I’d seen out and about!
When I came to Wiltshire I knew the archaeology would be amazing – it’s something the county is famous for around the world. However, there are many other stories that I hadn’t heard about and the ‘Wiltshire’s Story in 100 Objects’ project was a good starting point to help me find out more about them. One hundred objects from Wiltshire’s museums have been carefully chosen to interpret the history of the county from 10,000 BC to the present day. It gives a great overview of the diversity of collections that Wiltshire’s museums collect, care for and interpret.