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 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.
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.