Brighton Toy and Model Museum: A volunteer’s story

Luke Wyborn, first year student of BA (Hons.) Museum and Heritage Studies, promotes a local museum and describes his role there.

Brighton Toy and Model Museum view. Photo by Luke Wyborn

The Brighton Toy and Model Museum was established by avid toy collector and renovator Chris Littledale in 1990 and has been entertaining and educating visitors ever since. Located in the arches underneath Brighton Station, its four thousand square feet of exhibiting space contains over ten thousand toys and models, including priceless model train sets and many period antique toys. Its display area includes two large operational model railway layouts (in 00-gauge and gauge 0), and displays of period pieces from a range of classic manufacturers that includes Bing, Dinky, Hornby, Marklin, Meccano, Pelham Puppets, and Steiff. The Museum also includes individually-engineered pieces such as the working quarter-scale traction engine and the Spitfire fighter planes in the lobby, and a range of other working scale models throughout the Museum.

The museum prides itself on having one of the largest toy collections in the world owned by a single person, with displays showcasing artefacts from over a hundred years ago. The Museum worked towards official Museum Libraries and Archives Council accreditation for many years, finally receiving this recognition on 30th July 2009. It has featured in many television programmes over the years including Sky Atlantic’s “Urban Secrets” with Alan Cumming and most recently BBC4’s “Timeshift: The Joy Of (Train) Sets”, available to view on BBC iPlayer.

I’ve been volunteering at the Museum since November 2012 and during that time have benefitted immensely from working behind the scenes and learning the day to day activities and duties that are needed to run a successful museum. Shortly after I began, the Museum received a funding grant of £34,000 from the National Lottery for the upcoming 150th anniversary of Frank Hornby, of which the Museum will be holding celebratory events and ‘train running’ days over the next few months. They have also recently purchased Galaxy Tablets that will be installed around the Museum with (eventually) the entire Museum collection catalogued and available to view on these devices in a ‘wiki’ style. This cataloguing of the exhibits has been no easy task however, and myself and all the other volunteers have been hard at work, writing and photographing, to make this a reality.

Other recent roles I’ve had include making amendments to the Museum emergency procedure booklet and updating where necessary, as well as writing the draft edit of the Care and Conservation procedure needed for the 2013 MLA accreditation. Some of these roles have been quite challenging but in the long run, being a first year Museum & Heritage Studies undergraduate, I feel they’ve given me much deeper understanding of the mechanics of a museum and will benefit me in the future, especially as I won’t have the free time by my third year studies to continue in this role. I’d thoroughly recommend anyone interested in this field to come and volunteer, you’ll learn a lot, the staff are friendly and very knowledgeable in their field, and the free coffee isn’t too bad either!

Revival: Utopia, Identity and Memory

Georgina Jarvis, an MA student of History of Design and Material Culture, appraises a recent conference at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Mariano Fortuny, dress, c.1920. Pleated silk, cord with silver, trimmed with beads. Museum number:T.739-1972.(c) Victoria and Albert Museum,London

We are living through a period of change; demonstrated in early 2013 as the last high street record store moved into administration, unable to keep up with the ways in which music can now be both distributed and consumed digitally. Technology is affecting our material world profoundly: increasingly goods that had previously been taken for granted are being replaced by intangible alternatives. With this kind of change it is possible to see what Raphael Samuel meant by the ‘fragility of the present,’ and why there exists a desire to borrow from, or retreat to the past.

This tendency is certainly not unique to our time; this was made clear at a November 2012 conference at the Courtauld Institute of Art called Revival: Utopia, Identity and Memory.  One of its described intentions was to generate new understandings of reworkings of the past in architecture and design. To achieve this a group of speakers with diverse areas of interest came together. The complexity of such a task was clearly illustrated by the glossary of terms, which had been compiled collaboratively by participants. Rather than editing or condensing each entry down to a simplified definition, individual responses were presented alongside one another in dialogue. This glossary was distributed at the start of the conference and served as a strong indication of the richness of discussion to follow.

A number of common threads ran throughout the event. Niccola Shearman’s paper, ‘German Expressionists and the Gothic – the case of a super-revival,’ highlighted her interest in the effects of revivalism on identity when mixed with contemporary influence. Through her research on the woodcut in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, Shearman analysed the various factors that trigger a return to that past; asking whether art reflects the spirit of the age, or contributes to it. She explained that revivals tend to come at a time of cultural questioning, and in doing so highlighted the way that seemingly very different periods of revival occur through time due to the same concerns.

It is also true however, that stylistically architecture or design may remain the same over time, the ideologies attached to them can alter. This was something highlighted as part of  Matt Lodder’s paper, ‘The New Old Style: Tradition, Archetype and Rhetoric in Contemporary Western Tattooing’. Here he described the cyclical nature of Western tattooing and the recurrence of a style that has become known as “American Traditional,” which is characterised by thick black lines and blocks of colour, typically depicting motifs such as anchors, swallows or portraits of women. Lodder was able to show that despite experimentation and innovation within the art, these traditional forms continue to be revisited and revived peridocally. By highlighting the repetition of imagery and form, Lodder was able to show how this style of tattooing has come to define our idea of what tattooing is and what it should be.

In a paper entitled ‘Mariano Fortuny’s Delphos Gown: a Pleating Together of Time(s)’, Wendy Ligon Smith directly addressed the question of metaphor within revivalism. The work of designer Fortuny (1871 – 1906) was informed by the past , through his study of art history and his famous Delphos gown, inspired by Greek sculpture. In order to create the pleats he invented a machine so effective that the pleats are still in place today and are often still stored in the way originally instructed; twisted, as shown in the image below. Although Fortuny refined the design over the course of his career, the design altered very little and is therefore at odds with Roland Barthes’s and Walter Benjamin’s theories that link changes in fashion to the passing of time. Ligon Smith cited Benjamin to highlight how the pleats in the Delphos gown could be seen as a metaphor for the layering effect of time. She argued that this continuity in style and technique contradicts the idea that fashion relies on forgetfulness for its newness.

This conference is not the only recent event to look at ideas of revivalism, memory and identity. For example, the Serpentine’s annual marathon (October 2012) brought together 60 participants over three days to present ideas on debates linked to memory in science, art and culture. Sustaining Identity, a November 2012 symposium at the V&A, saw architect Juhani Pallasmaa give an impassioned keynote, questioning whether newness is a relevant aspiration or represents a future without a past.  Pallasmaa argued that tradition needs to be re-invented with every generation. In fact many of Pallasmaa’s points were reflected in discussions that took place at the Courtauld, suggesting that a return to the past can be both a search for authenticity and a reaction to contemporary life.

Event info:

We Need to Talk about Things

Doctoral student, Bridget Millmore, reviews a recent Cambridge conference and its innovative approach to material culture and technology. 

Sometimes when you’re writing there’s a moment that you reach when your inner dialogue begins to question everything that you compose.  That’s when it’s time to step away.  For me that involved going to a conference. Material Culture as a subject area and the ‘material turn’ in history is definitely in academic vogue.  At the end of September 2012, I attended a colloquium at Cambridge University with the title ‘We Need to Talk about Things’.  It was the concluding event to a programme of seminar talks that focussed on the material culture of the eighteenth century –a fitting series for my own PhD on the material culture of eighteenth century love tokens.  At last, I had found the seminar group that studied the same stuff as me – but only as the series came to an end!

The keynote speech was given by Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, whose only visual  image for her presentation was one familiar to me – the tokens left for babies at the Foundling Hospital, London, established in 1741.  She spoke about the tactility of objects,  the conversations that are shaped through the display of objects, the words we use to describe the work that things do and the fact that we care about things because they are impregnated with meanings.  Discussing the tokens left for babies by their mothers at the Foundling Hospital, Jordanova drew attention to the degrees of ambivalence attached to these objects, which ‘stand in’ for complex situations and emotions.

The great thing that I discovered when I got home was that I could listen to all the sessions that I had missed.  They were all available as podcasts and they featured speakers and participants that I am familiar with through my studies – including John Styles, Nicholas Thomas and Maxine Berg.  For example, the seminar on fashion featured John Styles talking about the production and consumption of cotton, while the session on money included Catherine Eagleton from the British Museum (who I met when I researched the museum’s collection of love tokens and with whom I have subsequently been in correspondence).

What is particularly interesting about all the ‘things’ sessions is how they cross disciplines.  So, in the same talk, the speaker can be referring to musical and scientific instruments and the history of science but can then discuss the textiles on which they are represented – Chinese silk tapestries.  Similarly, the eighteenth century warship was introduced as an object in itself, but then discussed as a system of objects, a representation of empire and a self-contained community.

So I am now converted to podcasts – not only for those things you miss at an event but also for the times you wished that a speaker could repeat a point.  You can listen again to those bits that don’t make sense the first time you hear them.  If you are interested in anything connected to material culture and eighteenth century then why not take a look and listen:

A late 18th/early 19th century sailor’s love token engraved on a shilling, collection of Bridget Millmore