Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums
On 20 January I had the opportunity to visit Hughes Hall where SHARE Museums East were holding their second annual conference on collections care. The theme of the day was ‘Use Not Abuse‘ and the event attracted delegates from all over the region and further afield. Over 60 eager museum professionals filled the Pavilion Room and we were all in for a treat!
First up was the University of Cambridge Museums own Rachel Hand, one of the Collections Managers at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who shared her experiences with using and researching anthropological objects. Her case studies from both northern and southern hemispheres included examples of scientific analysis and anthropological research, each resulting in new discoveries and even reinvention! It showed us what amazing things can come out of a bit of vigilance.
Ciara Phipps and Claire Reed, Assistant Curator and Conservator at Southend Museums Service, spoke to us about their ambitious touring costume exhibition ‘Beauty and the Beach‘ and what they’d learned from putting it together. Their many insights into selecting, mounting and packaging fragile swimwear from the 1940s to 60s provided food for thought for anyone dealing with travelling exhibitions or loans. It also elegantly demonstrated that while the mount might be protecting the object, we must not forget to protect the mount.
Christina Rozeik, Conservator at the Polar Museum, then told us about her experiences setting up the first ever touch tour for the visually impaired at the museum. She emphasised the need for a collaborative team (including both education officers and collections staff), targeted marketing to reach the intended audience, and the need to plan ahead but remain flexible. Most reassuringly, she described achievable ways of training staff before this type of event and resources we can access to help us understand how we can support our target audience. Christina also gave us excellent advice on object selection criteria and encouraged everyone to remember that the visually impaired are by nature good object handlers.
Next up was Dan Pemberton, Collections Manager at the Sedgwick Museum, who aimed to demystify the process of 3D printing. He gave us a brief rundown of what type of 3D printer he had used and then took us through the process of scanning a museum object, creating the digital model, and finally printing the model. Dan was frank and honest about everything from costs to the time and training necessary to utilise 3D printing of museum objects, and I felt everyone came away from the session with a new understanding of the technology.
Following the morning session were several practical workshops (on disability access, costume mounting, and 3D printing), as well as a Q&A session with local and regional conservators in which I was one of the ‘tame conservators’ you could question on collections care issues.
After lunch we all returned for an afternoon session on working objects, starting with Tony Tomkins (Vice President of Leighton Buzzard Railway Museum) and Chris Grimes (Trustee of Greensand Railway Museum Trust) who shared their experiences of keeping WWI locomotives alive and well. They argued that for railway heritage ‘movement is telling the story’ and ‘not to use is abuse’ which gave us all something to think about. The concepts of ‘conserving the experience’ and ‘conserving the skill of running and maintaining’ are gaining ground in heritage engineering and we need to consider them in other areas of museums ethics as well.
Next George Monger, Conservation & Heritage Consultant from Conservation and Museum Services, gave a case study involving a steam bucket dredger. George asked challenging questions, such as: does everything need to be a working object? Will you eventually need to replace so much that it ceases to be the original object? Can it be safely operated in today’s world? He, like Tony, raised the issue that many working objects need to to continue to work because they can deteriorate otherwise – it is what they were designed to do. Things like oil solidifying and belts under incorrect tension etc. can be very damaging. The concept of an object looking lovely on the outside but rotting from the inside is a terrifying one and certainly made us all pay attention. He also lead us through a realistic picture of on going maintenance time, costs and facilities which it seems are often not well understood at the outset of a project.
Gudrun Warren, Librarian and Curator of Norwich Cathedral, told us about the fascinating history and rediscovery of the Despencer Retable. She argued passionately for its role in an active place of worship, and was rightly proud of its 600 years of continued (though not continuous) use. It was an excellent case study of a religious item which has a secondary function as a museum piece and how this affects its care and use. This also really helped dispel the myth that all working objects are ‘big, hot and dangerous’ with moving parts and health and safety legislation snapping at our heels.
The final talk of the day was delivered by Chris Calnan, Conservator at the National Trust. He shared the story of the Anglesey Abbey Pagoda Clock, which after many years of use in the house could no longer run without internal damage occurring. There were difficult decisions to be made resulting in the digitisation of its music box in order to retain the sound experience and avoid further damage to the mechanism. We also heard about the discoveries made (such as the Chinese lottery tickets) while cleaning and researching the clock. It was a fascinating talk with many ethical dilemmas but a really positive and totally reversible outcome.
The day wrapped up with a Q&A session and a summary by Glenys Wass, Heritage Collections Manager at Peterborough Museum. The theme of the day ‘Use Not Abuse’ was well addressed by all speakers with such a huge range of Use options presented. We were challenged to re-examine our understanding of Abuse, and encouraged to be brave in our Use. Our speakers gave us excellent examples of how really good and exciting projects have been done with understanding and appropriate consideration and protection to collections value – however that may be defined. I overheard many discussions which included those magic words ‘I think we could do that’.
I think everyone took away something useful from the conference and I’m already looking forward to next year’s one on Emergency Planning!
Jenny Mathiasson, Museum Technician, Whipple Museum of the History of Science