MA Curating Alumni Jenny Mearns shares her new role in museum marketing

Jenny Mearns is Marketing & Membership Officer at The Salisbury Museum and also a graduate of the Curating Collections and Heritage master’s programme. In this blog post, she reflects on her career so far, and how the MA Curating informed her practice and helped her develop her confidence

I enrolled on the MA Curating, Collections and Heritage course in September 2020, after spending time volunteering with the National Trust as an archive assistant, which ignited my interest in working with collections within the museum and heritage sector. My previous roles were varied (visual merchandising, freelance writing, and running my own small fashion label) yet consistently enabled me to utilise my creative and curious nature!

Fashioning our World Exhibition, The Sailsbury Museum

 

As part of the MA course, in April 2022 I commenced on a three-month work placement at The Salisbury Museum, as project assistant on the Fashioning Our World project. This primarily involved investigating the fashion collection at the museum, seeking evidence of historical sustainable fashion practices (mends, repairs, repurposing, alteration). I found this role enormously rewarding, leading me to continue at the museum upon completion of my placement as volunteer project assistant on Fashioning Our World.

A fragment of a wedding dress showing evidence of historical sustainable fashion practices, discovered on Jenny’s work placement

In November 2023, a full-time role became available at The Salisbury Museum, so of course I jumped at the chance of applying, resulting in me being offered the role of Marketing and Membership Officer.

In this role, I am responsible for developing all marketing assets, from press releases, social media campaigns, liaising with local and national media, to designing, creating, and sending out monthly newsletters. I also look after existing museum members, recruit new members, and process monthly membership renewals.

Fortuitously, Fashioning Our World was the first exhibition I was responsible for marketing, which I found hugely rewarding, securing features in national press including the BBC, The Telegraph and The Times.

Further, alongside my role at the museum, I am committed to exploring my research interests, which amongst other avenues include dichotomies between display and storage within fashion collections in museums, and emotional attachment and clothing.

As such, I currently have some of my research undergoing peer review for publication, and, at the end of the month I will be presenting my paper – Diversifying Stories Through the Curation of the Fashioning Our World Project & Exhibition at The Salisbury Museum at the Beyond the Blockbuster: Exhibiting Fashion Now conference at Museum of London Docklands and London College of Fashion.

My time at the University of Brighton enabled me to engage with critical thinking giving me the opportunity to develop my research interests, with amazing support from my tutors. The course was undoubtedly instrumental in enabling me to move forwards, progressing in my chosen career path within the museum sector. My studies also helped to give me confidence in myself and my abilities, enabling me to grow not only professionally, but also to develop as an individual.

 

MA Curating Alumni Jen Grasso reflects on her career working with archives

Jen Grasso is the Digital Content and Systems Co-Ordinator at the University of Brighton Design Archives and is also a graduate of the Curating Collections and Heritage master’s programme. In this blog post, she reflects on her career so far, and how the MA Curating informed her practice as a researcher and archives practitioner.

With a practice-based background in photography and over 10 years working in administration and recordkeeping, I enrolled in the MA Curating, Collections and Heritage programme in 2019 to see how I could apply my passion for the arts, culture and heritage with my accrued professional experience. I was interested in the theory and practice that founded modern-day collections and how heritage and culture was developed and supported in the UK. During my course I quickly became passionate about working with archives, an area I was lucky to explore during my student placement assessing the archive of photography non-profit organisation Photoworks.

My placement was unfortunately cut short because of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, but I continued to build on my passion for archives. I volunteered at the University of Sussex Special Collections on the National Heritage Lottery Funded-project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) that digitized sound recordings for the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue (SAMI).  My main task was to listen to oral histories to flag sensitivity issues and create a summary for the catalogue. I listened to members of the Windrush generation talk about their first impressions of the UK; people’s experiences living through the Blitz; the recipients of the first social housing development in Southhampton, as well as different union members talk about the effects of industrial action. It was here I gained an appreciation for oral histories and how they can be used to document different communities.

Inspired by the UOSH project and the dissertation research I undertook during my master’s degree, which focused on polyvocal narratives and how they are expressed through photography, I began a community archive project documenting the role of the photobooth technician. This was also inspired by the postgraduate course in Archival Studies at the University of Dundee which I enrolled in following my master’s at Brighton. A technician myself since 2015, the Photobooth Technicians Project is an ongoing project that documents the history of the profession since its inception in 1925, in particular, the grassroots community that has arisen throughout the 21st century. It consists of semi-structured oral and written interviews combined with test strips from each technician, which is the main way to assess the status of one’s photobooth. I’m lucky to be able to share this project at the upcoming Photographic History Research Centre’s Annual Conference, The Photographer’s Assistants, at DeMontfort University in June.

In 2022, I was hired as the Digital Content and Systems Co-Ordinator at the University of Brighton Design Archives. My work and research in the Design Archives focuses on the intersection between analogue and digital technologies and how technology can be used to democratize heritage. Part of this research involves an ongoing project working with Dr Karina Rodriguez Echavarria and colleagues in the School of Architecture, Technology and Engineering looking at how Machine Learning and AI can make collections more accessible.

Detail of the results of Santander-funded student placement applying machine learning to the discovery of the Design Archive’s collections. Original image © Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.

I am also responsible for the digital generation, dissemination, and preservation of records at the Design Archives, and am part of a team that cares for, and makes accessible, records relating to graphic and industrial design from the mid-20th century, a wonderful resource I’m incredibly fortunate to work with. This role allows me to do what I’m passionate about, working directly with collections helping make them accessible, and also brings me back to the University of Brighton, a community that inspired me throughout my master’s degree and one I am now proud to be part of.

Students’ work on display at Brighton & Hove Museums

Brighton Museum and Art Gallery have opened a new display that features work from MA Curating Collections and Heritage students

“DO NOT TOUCH!!!!” is a display of student posters that all try to challenge the classic signage in museums that ask visitors not to touch the collections. It is on at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery over the next few months.

Caring for Collections and their Users

 

Museum visitors often report feeling out of place or self-conscious in museums, and signage and instructions that dictate how visitors should behave are often part of the alienation and embarrassment that prevents some people from enjoying museums.

Classic signage that MA Curating students hope to avoid

Students on the module ‘Caring for Collections and their Users’ try to take a different approach. As part of their assessment they are challenged to present complex conservation information about caring for objects to museum audiences in an accessible and engaging way. Students can choose to produce a poster that encourages visitors to not to touch, or they can opt to design a set of child-friendly instructions for the safe handling of a mixed range of objects in a schools handling box. Their designs are informed the debates around access, learning, collections research, preventative conservation and audience development that are covered on the module.

Working with Brighton & Hove Museums

 

Each year, students on the MA Curating benefit from conservation workshops run by staff from Brighton & Hove Museums. This year, our long-term relationship with Gaye Conley, Head of Conservation, has led to an invitation to our students to display their posters. Gaye writes

I have wanted to display the students’ work for several years. It’s rewarding to see the outcome of the talks we have undertaken with the students, and it will be fascinating to watch the public engage with the students’ work.

Student posters on display at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery

Student Success

 

In the space available, Brighton & Hove Museum staff chose three posters produced in recent years. Ellie Bedford designed ‘Museum in a Box!’ to support a school session to help children safely handle objects; Paige Franklin designed ‘Look at Me!’ for an art and design gallery that has fragile objects on open display, and Elliot Thorn produced ‘Vase on a Plinth’ to help people see the consequences of touch, and what might happen if they bring food into the gallery. All of the posters use bold graphics and clear text to encourage visitors to feel welcome in the museum, and informed about how to care for our shared heritage.

Ellie writes,

The poster design was a fun challenge! I enjoyed bringing together all of the curating skills and academic theories that we had learnt, and applying them to a practical task. It’s very rewarding seeing it in print!

‘Museum in a Box!’, Ellie Bedford, 2022

 

‘Look at Me!’, Paige Franklin, 2023

Elliot writes,

Designing the poster was a fun experience. It was a challenge to figure out how to convey meaning without written language. One of my aims was to make the poster accessible to people whose first language wasn’t English, so clear visual storytelling was important. Overall, I’m happy with the end result!

 

‘Vase on a Plinth’, Elliot Thorn, 2022

 

Their university and museum tutors couldn’t be prouder! Congratulations all!

 

 

 

Student Work Placement: Amberley Museum

MA Curating Collections and Heritage student Ellie Bedford takes a moment out of her wide-ranging and dynamic placement at Amberly Museum to reflect on lessons learnt

Amberley Museum is a large 32-acre industrial heritage open air museum in Sussex, housed in the former chalk pits and lime burning business of Pepper and Sons. As well as telling the story of Pepper and Sons, it is also home to collections ranging from road building and narrow-gauge railways to TV and radio, as well as original period buildings. The curator, John Betts, says it is like being the curator of several museums, not one, and after six months of my placement I can’t help but agree.

With such a large and varied collection, spread across a huge site, John has an abundance of work to maintain, audit and care for the collections. This has the benefit of giving me the opportunity to take part in many interesting tasks. I’m here as a volunteer curatorial assistant, as part of a 150-hour placement module for the MA Curating Collections and Heritage at Brighton.

As I near the end of my placement, I have been reflecting on the experience I have gained in so many areas of museum curation. As well as learning to ride vintage bikes (a perk of the job), I have been able to take part in collections auditing, digitizing record cards, conservation cleaning of objects, writing environmental reports, researching and writing interpretation for displays and online exhibitions and integrated pest management.

I am always surprised by the variety and sometimes unexpected tasks involved with working in collections. Each day is unique and there is always something new to do. But a key insight I have come to is in understanding how interconnected museum tasks are. When we learn about auditing, integrated pest management or how to interpret objects, it is easy to think of these tasks as distinct aspects of museum work. During my placement, however, I have seen that these tasks are interlinked, interdependent, and that work on one task can affect how you approach another.

For example, one of the first projects I worked on at Amberley Museum was assisting John with an audit of the TV and radio gallery.  As part of the audit, we physically checked each item (which sometimes was quite the logistical challenge), as well as the corresponding object record card and accession details and worked to fill in any gaps in the information we had. We also started to scan and digitize the object record cards.

John auditing the TV collection!

Having accessible digital records allows us to better understand exactly what is in the collection, as items of interest can be “lost” when part of a large collection such as is present in Amberley. Most of the record cards have photographs on them, which helps us to identify objects.

Once we had a clear picture of what was in the collection and its condition, we were able to develop a better integrated pest management system to help preserve it, and to put in place a programme of preventative conservation. The design of these conservation systems depends on the information gathered at an audit. The auditing process also facilitates research into the collection, and can help when applying for funding bids, as it is easier to show why the funds are needed, and how they will benefit the collection. So an audit of objects in the museum can provide direction for other related tasks. As an added benefit, I found that digitizing the record cards helped me to familiarize myself with the collections.

Another project I have worked on that highlights the value of Amberley Museum’s collections is the Hidden Innovators project. Hidden Innovators is an ongoing project to highlight the contribution of women and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds to telecommunications, amateur radio, technology, and engineering. I have been tasked with researching and writing about the seventh person to be highlighted: Nell Corry. Nell was a record-breaking early 20th century amateur radio enthusiast who made important contributions to the development of radio technology.

Amberley Museum has her archive, which includes logbooks, newspaper clippings and QSL cards (a type of post card to confirm radiocommunications, which were unique to each enthusiast). As part of my research, I have been preparing Nell’s archive for long term storage in acid-free archival sleeves and storage boxes, as well as reading these primary records to inform my write up of her work on radio. This research of primary documents can be very valuable. In fact, when John was researching the collections to prepare another Hidden Innovators entry, he discovered that Nell Corry’s Morse key was in our collection.

 Nell Corry’s Morse Key

 Archiving QSL cards for long-term storage

An example of a witty QSL card

Researching Nell’s story has shown me yet again how interconnected the various tasks in museum curation are. The need to tell a new story necessitated a re-examination and re-evaluation of existing collections, which in turn led to new connections and understanding from objects that had already been accessioned.

So stay tuned, Nell’s story will go live soon. And after that, there will be another interesting and unique, and potentially quite unexpected task awaiting me at Amberley Museum.

 

Hidden Innovators

 

Conservation Work Placement: A Patchwork of Skills

Helping to de-install the mannequins used for Dame Vera Lynn: An extraordinary life at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

MA Curating Collections and Heritage student Harriet Brown reflects on her work placement in textile conservation with Zenzie Tinker Conservation studio.

For the placement module of the MA Curating Collections and Heritage, I worked at Zenzie Tinker Conservation (ZTC). This was an incredibly varied placement where I supported a wide variety of projects.

Over 150 hours, I helped with condition checks at Smallhythe Place, the actress Ellen Terry’s Kent house which is now owned by the National Trust. I participated in a shoe mounting workshop at Worthing Museum and helped with the surface cleaning and packing of the Gage family coronation robes for Firle House. I also helped to make mounts for curtains for Rudyard Kipling’s house at Bateman’s, another property owned by the National Trust in East Sussex.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surface cleaning the Viscount Gage’s coronation robes and the coronation robes on display at Firle House

The main project I worked on during my placement was a patchwork quilt from the ZTC study collection. It joined the study collection after Petworth Cottage Museum decided to deaccession the object. In return, ZTC did some vital conservation work on objects in their remaining collection.

 The Petworth Patchwork

This quilt is a nineteenth-century unfinished patchwork quilt, made from a variety of fabrics, each wrapped around a paper template. The quilt was made by someone (most likely a woman) who lived locally in or near Brighton. I discovered this through my close examination of the patches in the quilt as many of the addresses and names of businesses on the patches that were still readable could be traced to locations in Brighton. These were mostly around North Street and Ship Street. The earliest date I found on the papers was the 2nd of August 1859 and the latest date I found was the 30th of October 1870. The large range of dates in the quilt was likely down to the fact that paper was relatively expensive, so scraps would have been saved up over time to be used in a project of this size. Due to the fact this quilt is over 150 years old, several of the papers have naturally started to show wear and tear. Also, the quilt had at one point been stored folded and so there were several large creases running through the fabric and papers. These both provided excellent opportunities for learning about conservation techniques.

Over the course of the 150-hour placement I photographed the patches and carried out research on the patches that were legible and had names and addresses on them. I also researched the practice of quilt making. Some of the patches had more information than others. For example, from one of the patches I was able to find out about a solicitors firm that had been operating in Brighton from 1775 to 2019! (more information can be seen here).

Once this cataloguing was finished, I then surface cleaned the paper side of the quilt. This was done using a vacuum with a brush attachment on the lightest setting and then going over the fabric part of each patch using a makeup sponge. Once I had carried out the surface cleaning, I was taught how to humidify the patches in order to release some of the creases. However, this wasn’t a very effective method, so we moved to using a vacuum table. Using the vacuum table, I was taught how to remove the creases from the papers and the fabrics, as well as how to use Japanese tissue paper to create supports for the paper patch templates to prevent them from becoming further damaged.

 

   

Before and after of two of the patches I conserved on the vacuum table using Japanese Tissue Supports

I am incredibly grateful to have worked on such a large variety of projects whilst on my placement at Zenzie Tinker Conservation as it has helped me to better understand the wide variety of conservation techniques that help make it possible for objects to go on display.

The Conflictorium: A radical museum experience

‘The wall of conflicts’ display at the Conflictorium, 2018, image by Shubhsadhwani, licensed under the Creative Commons

MA Curating Collections and Heritage student Preksha Kothari reviews the Conflictorium in Ahmedabad, praising its politically engaged role in Indian political life.

Time and again, conflict and dissent have been viewed through the lens of caution, and commonly, as concepts that are dangerous to society. The museum setting is often uncomfortable in addressing notions of politics and activism. However, a unique museum in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India has sprung up with these very ideas at its core.

Nestled in an old suburb of Ahmedabad, the Conflictorium is the brainchild of Avni Sethi and is supported by three social organisations, Janvikas, the Centre for Social Justice and Navsarjan. Housed in the Gool Lodge, the museum strives to be a place where one can be introspective and come face to face with conflict in the inner self and their environment. The museum encourages its audiences to engage with and express discord rather than ignore it.

The Conflictorium attempts to trace the violent history of the state of Gujarat, which in popular memory is often perceived as a peace-loving region. The 2002 Gujarat riots, which are considered the bloodiest clash between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India, are seen as an anomaly. However, Sethi aims to bring people into confrontation with the oppressive and brutal past of the state and show how it has been largely ignored in Indian society. The museum sits in the vicinity of places of worship for different religious faiths and is located close to residents of underrepresented communities. One glance at the Gool Lodge and it is clear that the museum team has deliberately not gentrified the space and kept it open to everyone. This is in tandem with the core belief of the Conflictorium. The exhibits are not kept in vitrines and rope barriers are not present either. This allows visitors to touch each object and craft their own conversation with it.

The museum comprises both permanent and temporary displays. The permanent exhibits include the ‘Conflict Timeline’, ‘Empathy Alley’, and ‘Moral Compass’ among others. The Conflict Timeline portrays the history of clashes since the making of Gujarat. The Empathy Alley contains silhouettes of important political and cultural figures in the making of the country, including M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, representing how different ideologies were expressed in pre- and post-independent India. Moral Compass is a room where an authentic copy of the Indian Constitution is placed, openly accessible to any visitor. While the world’s longest-written constitution is often mistaken for a religious text, the museum hopes to make people aware of their rights through Moral Compass and make them conscious citizens.

Apart from these displays, there are poignant community exhibits that invite audiences to participate while visiting the museum. The Memory Lab acts as a path for visitors to leave their deepest feelings inside empty glass jars, offering a safe space where they can write without judgment. The Sorry Tree is a sacred fig, called peepul ka ped in Hindi. It is located in the museum premise and visitors can hang “I am sorry” notes on the branches, based on the belief that forgiveness is a powerful feeling. Recently, the museum has hosted temporary exhibitions such as “Death and Disease,” which explores the issues of the caste system in India with an allegory to the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides exhibitions, the museum invites artists, poets and writers to host talks and workshops on themes ranging from gender binaries to forests and wildlife.

What started as a college project for Avni Sethi has transformed into an internationally recognised institution that is spearheading a movement for society. Sethi was awarded the Jane Lombard Prize for Art and Social Justice 2020-2022 by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. Also, the Conflictorium recently opened another space in the city of Raipur, serving as a medium for difficult conversations to be had in that city. Here’s to hoping that the many more such Conflictoriums find their inception in different parts of India, and maybe the world.

Caring for Historic Dress Collections at Worthing Museum

MA History of Design and Material Culture student Chelsea Mountney describes how her current work with the historic dress collection at Worthing Museum draws upon the skills and ideas she developed during her MA, including the module ‘Caring for Collections and their Users’.

“Oh, my goodness” I screeched as I leaned in closer to smell this bodice from a woman’s black taffeta outfit from the 1910s, pictured above. “Can you smell that? What do you think that is?” I was informed by the ever-knowledgeable PhD student, Jo Lance, that the unusual smell was probably the scent of wood smoke that was lingering on the cloth, as homes were, of course, commonly heated with open fires.

This was my first afternoon volunteering at Worthing Museum and I had already been reminded of how crucial physical objects are in divulging history. My first task as a new volunteer was, in my eyes, possibly the best job in the entire world, to repack women’s costume for storage in their new dress archive. This kind of work, as many fashion historians will also agree, is a blissful opportunity to access and handle many items.

I had considered throughout my studies how invaluable embodied knowledge can be to the dress historian and leaned on Hilary Davidson’s work, the Embodied Turn during my MA in Design History and Material Culture. These were my first moments of getting to handle delicate or complex pieces, like the scented black outfit, and work out how they needed repacking for their future care. In the first image you can see that the delicate mesh collar needed an acid free tissue paper support. Each different garment supplied a new lesson in handling and packing. What unfortunately isn’t pictured, is that inside the sleeves were arm pit pads, small patches that were often inserted into historic clothing to protect the garment from sweat prior to the invention of deodorant. These were sadly disintegrating.

Look at the beautiful label which was hanging off the skirt section of the outfit, which of course provides another exciting line of enquiry. And as PhD student Jo pointed out, the outfit appeared to have been unpicked and adapted, the stylistic elements lending itself to an outfit from the previous century. It’s exciting details like these which are an utter privilege to witness up close and remind us how Material Culture study is an exhilarating way to decipher the past.

Photograph of 1917 Black Taffeta Day Dress, Label. Worthing Museum 4302 1-2. 11/11/22. Author’s Personal Collection.

This experience made me feel incredibly grateful for the handling workshops I undertook at Brighton Museum as part of the Caring for Collections and their Users Module, a core module for the MA Curating Collections and Heritage. This mixture of both object-based work and practical and theoretical study provided a rounded background in both the academic and the practical. On the module, we read industry-led incentives from the Museums Association and discovered scholarship on museums and heritage that help contextualise this world, like George Hein’s book, Learning in the Museum. We had sessions on Integrated Pest Management, and learnt what on earth accession numbers actually mean! Importantly, handling workshops taught us how to make a simple acid-free tissue paper pouffe, a crucial part of the packing process of course! All these insights allowed me to approach my newfound volunteering position with confidence.

As you can imagine, a fantastic bonus of volunteering with the dress collection at Worthing Museum is how much it has inspired further study, from researching different historical dressmaking techniques (remaking as methodology is one of my areas of special interest), to trying to better understand the varying forms of production during a specific period, or simply looking up other examples in this collection and beyond to better understand clothing cultures of a certain style. But sometimes there is just the simple joy of discovering a garment you have never seen before like the incredible 1920s crochet dress.

Photograph of gold coloured 1920s crochet dress. Worthing Museum 1976/277/1. 11/11/22. Author’s Personal Collection.

I am only a few weeks into this experience, and I already feel so inspired, not only to see what else this position has in store, but it has confirmed how I wish to work further in this environment, and to contribute to research in fashion and dress in this material manner.

TheMuseumsLab 2022: MA Curating Graduate Experience

MA Curating Collections and Heritage alumni Tony Kalume reports on how his dissertation was a springboard for attending TheMuseumsLab’s prestigious international programme, including a residency in Stuttgart

TheMuseumsLab 2022 Fellowship: What is it?

TheMuseumsLab is a platform for joint learning, exchange and continuing education on the future of museums in both Africa and Europe. The programme has the aim to provide knowledge and competencies, to foster new ideas and approaches as well as to establish close and lasting networks between future shapers of museum concepts on both sides. The programme consists of three one-week seminar modules (online and onsite in Berlin and Cape Town) lead by prominent African and European experts, a two-week residency at a renowned European partner institution and a co-working phase.

The project was developed by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and the Masters Programme in Museum Management and Communication at the University of Applied Sciences (HTW) Berlin, in close cooperation with the African consultancy group The Advisors.

How is it organised?

Current issues and concepts in museum management, social impact and responsibility, localisation of content, as well as practical aspects of museums as institutions in the 21st century, are divided into three modules:

  • Module 1     Entangled Histories and the Future of Cultural Memories online event
  • Module 2     Collections and Research Residencies in German Museums
  • Module 3     Communication and Strategic Management Cape Town South Africa

Why was I accepted?

I had submitted the synopsis of my MA Curating Collections and Heritage dissertation on 3D Printing as an acceleration for decolonisation to the organisers of MuseumsLab and they were delighted to accept my application. During my fellowship I visited several museums in Berlin and had a two-week residency in Stuttgart courtesy of the Linden Museum.

 

At the Linden Museum I managed to do a presentation on my 3D project and got access to the vaults storing artefacts from Africa. I noticed a lot of mistakes in the catalogues and inventory which was mostly written in German. I had to have them translated, and if I was to return, I would bid for a grant to pay for an interpreter or translator. The Director was keen to see the objects expressed in their unique form by conducting appropriate rituals and performances around them.

The Future

I was keen to emphasise that two weeks is not enough to research the collection. There is a need to get funding for a residential curator from the various African Museums in our cohort to gain access to the collections vault. I will be looking at potential funding options for collaborative work between German museums and UK heritage institutions, as each country has made progress in its own right, but there is a lack of partnership and exchange of information, knowledge and skills. I am also keen to see how we can use 3D printing in museums all over the world to enhance collections and make them readily available to members of the community, especially those who are visually impaired.

We also expect inroads towards restitution and repatriation of contested objects that are sacred and for some human remains that need to go to communities of Origin for burial. My argument is that museums should share intellectual property rights for making replicas so that the copies remain in Western museums and the originals can be shipped back to communities of origin.

Professional Placement in Collections and Heritage: The Fashioning Our World Project at the Salisbury Museum

MA Curating Collections and Heritage student Jenny Mearns reflects on her placement with the Fashion Collection at Salisbury Museum

As part of the Professional Placements in Collections and Heritage module on the Curating Collections and Heritage MA, I decided to undertake my work placement at the Salisbury Museum in Wiltshire. I am particularly interested in historic dress and textiles, so ideally, wanted to undertake my placement working with a fashion or dress collection. As serendipity would have it, at the time of organising my placement the Salisbury Museum was about to launch the Fashioning Our World Project.

Running from April 2022 – April 2024, the project aims to uncover historic stories of sustainability within the museum’s fashion collection to inspire future generations (specifically young people) to think differently about the fashion system, to treasure what they already have rather than perpetuating the unsustainable cycle of fast fashion.

Initially, I was tasked with investigating the fashion collection to find garments that evidenced sustainable fashion practices, such as mends, repairs, re-purposing, or alteration. This was a huge task, as the fashion collection holds over 3,500 items. I began my search by looking through supporting documentation, such as accession cards and the collections database. This proved to be challenging, as past museum practices historically privileged ‘perfect’ garments and objects, so whilst repairs, mends, alterations, and repurposing were certainly present in the collection, often such information was omitted from supporting documentation. At times, certain phrases on accession cards such as ‘messed about with’ provided hints as to the alterations and hidden stories of sustainability that may be present.

Once I had identified a garment that showed promising signs of sustainable fashion practices, I then physically located and carefully unpacked the garment from the fashion storerooms for further investigation. I have been incredibly lucky in my placement to be able to spend many hours with historical garments, noting signs of wear and use that could so easily otherwise be overlooked. Some included subtle alterations, such as the sleeves of a wedding gown that have been enlarged to exaggerate a fashionable silhouette of the 1850s, while others were more radical, such as a man’s eighteenth-century waistcoat which had been repurposed into a woman’s bodice front over 100 years later. Spending time with the fashion collection has unlocked these fascinating stories of sustainability and ingenuity.

Image 2: Fabric remnants and unpicked fabric pieces from an 1880s dress made by Mrs James of 2 Hanover Square London.

Image 3: A women’s bodice front repurposed in the 1880s from an eighteenth-century male waistcoat.

 

Image 4: Interior of an 1850s wedding bodice, enlarged at the side seam by an insertion of a fabric panel alteration.

In addition to investigating the fashion collection, during my placement I also had the opportunity to expand on my presentation skills, delivering a presentation to members of the Southern Counties Costume Society. This enabled me to build up my confidence in public speaking and, surprisingly, I discovered I enjoyed it!

I was also tasked with compiling a set of guidelines for other museums to reference when searching within their own collections for stories of sustainability, and evidence of repairs, mends and repurposing. This document has now been shared with the Wessex Museums Partnership, and is subsequently being used by collections volunteers.

I thoroughly enjoyed my placement, and gained many practical skills, as well as development on a personal level. Even though my placement is now complete, I continue to volunteer at the museum on the Fashioning Our World project, as I feel very attached to the project and thoroughly enjoy working with the collections.

 

Image 5: A repurposed eighteenth-century pocket.

Cyanotyping the Family Snaps

Jayne Knight, doctoral candidate in the history of photography, offers inspirational tips on how to keep researching while staying at home.

As a PhD student researching popular photography at the National Science and Media Museum, I have been finding ways to stay connected to my research from home while the collections I am researching are closed. Seeking the silver lining during the enforced lockdown, I have been making the most of the glorious sunshine in the garden by cyanotyping. This has involved digging out the family snaps to give them a new lease of life.

Fig.1. Members of my famiy in indigo blue. Photograph by Jayne Knight, images taken from family negatives.

Cyanotyping has always been a hobby of mine. As a process discovered by scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1842, I have been continually inspired by the beautifully detailed indigo blue prints of Anna Atkins. Using light to impress botanical specimens and negatives on chemically treated paper retains its charm, time after time. Inspired by my current research into the history of the snapshot photograph, I decided to dig out the cyanotype chemicals and do something with a box of negatives.

Some time ago I gasped in horror at the prospect of a precious box of old photographic negatives being disposed of. My Grandad claimed they had “no further use.” While he has done a wonderful job preserving the family snaps – aged 96 he can still recall the story behind many of them – as a photo historian, I wanted to breathe new life into the negatives.

Fig.2. The box of negatives. Photograph by Jayne Knight.

Assorted in age, size and condition, the negatives are indiscriminately kept in their original processing envelopes, still revealing many details of their material history (Fig.2). Some negatives were printed and ended up in the family photo albums but others seem never to have been printed at all despite being designed for reproduction. One box, containing thousands of negatives, presents bountiful opportunities for cyanotype printing.

Many of the negatives were from the interwar period, when industry giants such as Kodak successfully put cameras in the hands of many. Typical Kodak customers, my Nan’s family took their ‘Brownie’ camera to the seaside, on family holidays, and captured weddings, fun in the garden and wartime farewells. It was a selection of these interwar negatives that I chose to print.

Fig.3. The negatives exposing on chemically sensitised paper. Photograph by Jayne Knight.

Assembling my negatives on chemically-prepared paper, I secured them in a frame. Placing them out in the sun, I watched them expose (Fig.3). Rinsing off the prints in a tray, the emergence of the positive image filled me with joy. Hanging them to dry, the image strengthens in colour, becoming fixed for permanence (Fig.4).

Fig.4. Just exposed and hung to dry. A selection of snaps of my Nan, Grandad, Aunt and my Dad as a child. Photography by Jayne Knight, images taken from family negatives.

In many cases it is the first time that the images have been seen as a positive print. Details unnoticed in the negative come to light. Tonal qualities, in shades of indigo, give the print depth . Printing the positive image brings me closer to the moment captured by the photographer. Fashions, seaside locations and long lost relatives come to life. This will not be the last of the negatives’ revival. When lockdown is lifted, I will take the cyanotype prints to my Grandad to find out the stories behind them and to remind him that an old negative will always have a use.

I am fortunate that my area of research, popular photography, is embedded into everyday life. Photography exists in the home, from family photo albums and shoe boxes of prints and negatives to thousands of digital files and social media inputs. Inspiration is plentiful.