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.
A new project recently appeared in the archive conservation lab: a brittle and damaged looking document that turned out to be an interesting new accession.
Letter Sent to Francis Yerbury, 14th May 1747 (1387/1697)
The document is a letter sent to local Clothier Francis Yerbury in 1747. It is thought that he may have run a cloth mill in Trowbridge although the letter is about a mill in Bradford-On-Avon. Hanne Dahl, Exhibitions and Collections Officer at Trowbridge Museum has transcribed the letter and below gives an overview of the its content:
The letter seems to consist of two messages. One is regarding a cloth order which John Howell has received and is ensuring Francis Yerbury he will pay for. The other is a new cloth order for the Empress of Russia of Clergy cloth in scarlets and greens. 5 cloth samples of Yerbury’s are attached to the letter as a colour reference. The Empress mentioned was probably Elizabeth of Russia who lived 1741-1762. According to popular history clothing was the chosen means in Elizabeth’s Court by which to display wealth and social standing and according to historian Mikhail Shcherbatov (1733-1790) her court was “arrayed in cloth of gold, her nobles satisfied with only the most luxurious garments, the most expensive foods, the rarest drinks, that largest number of servants and they applied this standard of lavishness to their dress as well.’ Hanne Dahl, Exhibitions and Collection Officer, Trowbridge Museum April 2019
The new accession was passed on to the archives here at WSHC by Hanne after being in the care of the Ponting family; the late Ken Ponting being former Managing Director of Samuel Salter Ltd. weaving mill in Trowbridge.
As is often the case with the documents I work on, there is much of historical interest and I could spend many hours researching them. However, as a conservator, once I have enough detail to inform my conservation decisions, I must tear myself away from the fascinating historical insight and prioritise stabilising and preserving the letter so that future researchers can access it safely.
It was originally folded to be posted and has the postal address visible on one of the folded sections. The letter is written in brown ink and has textile samples and a small part of a wax seal attached.
Several factors made this a conservation challenge; not only was the paper extremely thin and fragile but the additional attached textiles samples and seal remains also had to be considered at all times as they could easily become detached and lost.
The document needed to be packaged so that it could be safely stored in the archive but also handled without the risk of further damage. As the paper was so thin, it could easily tear again with further handling, even after conservation.
I decided that once repaired, the document would be safest inside a mount- this would allow for compensation of the thickness of the attached textile samples and seal remnants as the depth of the window mount would prevent them getting squashed or dislodged in storage. It would also enable easy viewing as and when required without direct handling of the letter. Text found on the back of the letter was all in one area so the mount could be adapted to have a viewing window on the reverse. This would also mean the document didn’t need to be taken out of the mount or handled to see this.
Areas of damage on the letter
The letter arrived with us inside a frame, attached to a backing board with tape partially holding it around some edges. The paper was so thin and weak that tears had started to appear along many of the original fold lines whilst large areas were breaking around the edges. It was important to remove the letter from the backing for several reasons; the backing board itself, made from poor quality board was likely to be causing damage to the paper. Unless they are archival quality, backing boards and framing materials are often made of very poor quality materials with high levels of acidity. As these materials break down they can transfer acidity to materials they are attached to, increasing their deterioration. I also needed to access the document to effectively repair the tears and remove the adhesive tape.
I was able to successfully remove the letter from the mount using a spatula to ease the tape away from the board surface.
When the board was removed it was possible to clearly see acid transfer which appeared to be coming from the document and transferring onto the backing board, suggesting the paper itself is acidic. This is likely to be due to the ingredients used when the paper was originally made, for example additives such as sizing and fillers or the materials the paper is made from such as wood pulp. The ingredients vary between paper mills and throughout the history of papermaking, for example Lignin from wood pulp is extremely acidic and is generally found in modern papers such as newsprint. This is what makes newsprint go yellow and brittle so quickly.
After removing the document from the backing a new area of writing was discovered where the letter had in fact continued overleaf. The archivist was then able to add this to the existing transcription.
Once the letter was separated from the backing board I could then remove the adhesive tape. This task of removing tape is always daunting for a conservator as different adhesives react completely differently to different types of removal. Sometimes it can take a long time to find a method that softens or releases the adhesive so that the tape can be removed.
On this occasion I found that applying moisture directly onto the tape was enough to release the adhesive. However, a thick piece of brown adhesive tape down the left side of the letter was so stubborn that after removing a small amount I decided it would be better to leave that particular piece of tape on rather than risking damage to the already fragile paper surface.
Once the tape had been removed I surface cleaned the document being careful to avoid any weak areas. I was then able to move on to repairing and stabilising.
Tears on paper documents are generally repaired by adhering small pieces of Japanese tissue to the reverse.
The tissue I used for the letter is only 5 gsm, so it is extremely thin and light- but strong enough to stabilise the tears and weak areas without distracting from the letter itself.
Two areas of the document had large gaps that although supported on the back with the Japanese tissue repairs, needed to be infilled with a paper of a similar thickness to the letter itself, to prepare the document for mounting. In the conservation of archival documents (as opposed to artworks) it is particularly important that repairs such as this are visible additions, clearly seen as modern repairs and not blended to make them invisible. This ensures that future historians and researchers are aware of the difference between the original document and any conservation work that has been done.
Creating an Inlay
In paper conservation an inlay is a piece of paper that is attached around the outside of the document to protect it and prevent further damage to fragile edges. This is achieved by tracing around the edge of the document using a needle and then removing the inner piece of inlay paper to create a paper frame. The inlay paper is attached to the document by thin strips of Japanese tissue adhered along the gap between the two. The inlay protects the original document whilst still retaining full visual access to it. It also means that the document can be attached inside the mount by putting hinges on the inlay paper rather than directly on the document itself and that the letter can be fully displayed in the aperture of the window mount without falling out through the middle.
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.
I was recently cataloguing an early 20th century postcard for our Historic Photograph & Print Collection which was quite unusual; it was commemorating the death of two gunners called Harrild and Murray. Included on the front of the postcard were photographs of each of them. I really wanted to find out more. What happened to these men and what were their full names? Even a location for the event wasn’t clear, so I needed help!
After a timely tweet, Trowbridge Museum came up trumps and confirmed that the men had been stationed at Trowbridge Barracks and had been involved in an accident with the funeral being held on 30th July 1909.
My next port of call was to a local newspaper, the Wiltshire Times, where on Saturday 24th July 1909 the inquest was reported. The two gunners were Sidney Harrild (age 19) and Richard Murray (age 26), and another, Gunner Wells, who was seriously injured. It appears that the gunners were removing primers from shells although there was a debate around whether the powder was also being removed. The powder in seven of the cartridges exploded, with “terrible results”. The funeral was also reported, occurring slightly earlier than we thought, on 27th July.
“With full military honours, the remains of Gunners Murray and Harrild were laid to rest on Tuesday afternoon, the awfulness of the tragedy and the solemn progress through the streets of the soldiers with their dead comrades combining to make this occasion one that will not soon be forgotten.”
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.
With Summer struggling to make a reliable appearance, there’s plenty of things to do if you want a day out but the weather’s not up to scratch. Museums in Wiltshire have a fascinating array of collections and exhibitions just waiting to be discovered. Here’s a round-up of just a few of the temporary exhibitions you can see around the County at the moment.
If you’re near Salisbury it’s your last chance to see the Sophie Ryder exhibition at Salisbury Museum which ends on the 9th July. Sophie’s work represents a world of mystical creatures, animals and hybrid beings made in a variety of different materials, including wire, plaster and bronze.
The exhibition has a selection of sketches and working models for Sophie’s pieces and there is a reproduction of her workroom, giving visitors an insight into how she approaches making her creations. And if you visit before the 3rd July you will be able to see some of her larger, monumental sculptures around the Cathedral, with etchings and prints on display at Sarum College in the Cathedral Close.
If your tastes are a little less contemporary, the Museum is also playing host to ‘Writing for Eternity: Decoding Ancient Egypt’, a touring exhibition from the British Museum, until the 3rd September. It is a family friendly and interactive exploration of the development of writing in Ancient Egypt and what it is able to tell us about people’s lives thousands of years ago. You can even try writing in hieroglyphics for yourself!
For those who find themselves on the other side of the Plain, head to Trowbridge Museum for their latest exhibition ‘Reimagined: The Cycling Revolution around 1900’, on display until the 29th October. Enjoy a collection of vibrant, new paintings by Patrick Hallissey inspired by the Museum’s photographs of cycling from the turn of the 19th century - when men sported moustaches as wide as their handlebars and women wore corsets to cycle.
The artwork is complemented by a selection of images and objects from the Museum’s collection, which tell the story of how the bicycle influenced society, giving people a new freedom of movement that affected how they worked and played.