Student Work Placement: The Keep Archive

MA Curating Collections and Heritage student Emily Warwick tells us about her current placement at the Mass Observation archive at the Keep in Brighton.

As part of my Professional Placements in Collections and Heritage module on the MA Curating Collections and Heritage, in semester two I was given the opportunity to volunteer for 150 hours. As I was applying to roles, I knew that a placement in archives was a pathway I was eager to pursue and gain valuable experience in. As a result, I was fortunate to secure a placement within The Mass Observation team, based at The Keep Archives in Falmer.

My role within this professional placement has varied quite a lot and as a result has provided me me first-hand experience of what it is like to work within an archive which is so focused on the benefits of community engagement. The Mass Observation programme was founded in 1937 by Tom Harrison, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings with the idea of recording and preserving the lives and thoughts of ordinary, everyday people across Britain. The original work continued until the early 1950s, until the project was revived in 1981. Today, there is a contemporary writing panel which is made up of writers from across the UK who answer questions presented to them in the form of seasonal directives. Questions range quite substantially, and written directives have included themes such as Currency (Summer 1981), You & The NHS (Spring 1997), Travelling (Spring 2000) and Climate change (Summer 2011).

Alongside the directives, the 12th May project allows anyone from around the UK to submit a day diary of everything they did in the morning to when they went to bed at night on this day. As a part of the project this year I attended an open day at Downs Jr School in Hove organised by ‘Take Shelter’, an organisation that have restored the WWII air raid shelter on the school’s grounds, and open it to the public, including as part of the Brighton Fringe festival. The Mass Observation team and I handed out diary pages to members of the public to fill in and send back to the archive, writing everything they got up to at the air raid shelter. It was really interesting to see what people were excited to write about as many people were surprised that their narratives would be included within a public archive. In preparation for the event I gathered examples from within the collection and this ranged from school groups, community groups as well as entries from prisons. In recent weeks, I have been able to catalogue some of this material as well as new entries which have been received via both post and email to the archive. Moreover, as part of the 12th May diary event I ran my own diary workshop with my Girlguiding Brownie pack which I regularly volunteer with. At the event we decorated our own sticker diaries as well as writing about everything we did on 12th May. We made the diaries as colourful as we could, with some girls opting to do theirs in the form of drawing and colouring alongside some writing.

Image showing the Mass Observation stall at Take Shelter

Image showing the Mass Observation stall at Take Shelter

As a part of this placement, I have also had the chance to transcribe some of the Covid 19 collection from 2020. These stories provide an emotive insight into the thoughts and feelings of people nationally during the difficult lockdown period. As a major event, the opinions of writers vary quite a lot as some people had entirely different experiences to others. Ultimately, transcribing and digitising these collections allows more people to read the directives without necessarily needing to visit the physical archive, which is much more accessible for many people, and this is why it is such important work to do.

Overall, I would highly recommend the placement module to anyone wishing to pursue a career in archives and museums as the experience I have gained is invaluable. The team at Mass Observation have been so welcoming and supportive throughout my time with them. They have really opened my eyes to the significance of community engagement within archives and the importance of using the materials we have to facilitate learning. I know that the experience this opportunity has given me will aid me in my career going forward.

MA Curating Alumna Grace Redpath reflects on her role as Learning Manager promoting the history of the ironstone industry on the North East Coast

Grace Redpath is Learning Manager at Land of Iron in East Cleveland, and also a graduate of the Curating Collections and Heritage master’s programme. In this blog post, she reflects on her current professional priorities, and how the discussions and texts she encountered on the MA Curating helped sharpen her aims for the sector.

At present, I am the Learning Manager at Land of Iron. An independent museum located in the seaside Village of Skinningrove, East Cleveland, UK, we act to preserve and promote the history of the ironstone industry that once made this region the heart of steel production on the North East coast.

In the three years since graduating, my work has primarily focused on industrial heritage. Industrial heritage is unapologetically working class with intangible aspects that feed their way into all sorts of areas of everyday life. It is political and holds so much pride. Yet, at the same time, at a surface level, it is incredibly masculine, with a very fixed audience/user base.

As Learning Manager I use the theoretical and ethical debates learnt whilst studying MA Curating Collections and Heritage to think critically about the topic of heritage and challenge traditional narratives of museology. Needless to say, I think about Tony Bennett’s classic text on The Birth of the Museum on a daily basis, putting his work on power and hierarchy in museums into conversation with my interest in including those who are all too often excluded from traditional historical narratives and those who don’t necessarily engage with heritage.

A trip to see the exhibition Forever Amber at the Laing in Newcastle was the catalyst for me undertaking postgraduate study. A retrospective of the work of the city’s Amber Collective, these photographs were a snapshot of a bygone era in the North East. Capturing the period during, and Post industrialisation, the gallery’s walls felt tender with the images of people and places that wouldn’t usually be displayed in such a space. Traditionally adorned with 18th and 19th century oil paintings, the representation felt like a light relief. It got me thinking, maybe these documents could be capital H History too?

In East Cleveland, very little tangible evidence of ironstone mining and steel production remains. A highly divisive topic, the overnight demolition of the Dorman Long Tower and subsequent demolition of Redcar Blast Furnace has led to a collective amnesia about the region’s not too distant past. However, sitting on the site of the former Loftus Ironstone mine (and the first in East Cleveland), Land of Iron’s team of dedicated volunteers and 6 paid members of staff, welcome visitors all year long. Although extraction of Ironstone ended at Loftus mine in 1958, the museum is still classed an Active Mine, with visitors being given a tour of the mines’ ventilation shaft and haulage drift entrance. They can also view our permanent exhibition space about life in the Iron Valley, and temporary exhibition in the Tom Leonard Gallery, which is at present, is displaying previously unseen images by Graham Smith and former Amber Collective member Chris Killip’s Skinningrove series. 

My work primarily involves working with school groups, with our most popular workshop offer being the Ironstone Mining Experience. Teaching young children about the history of their area is rewarding, as local history is a key part of the Primary curriculum, but I am keen to use the collections to maintain relevance with young audiences in an economically deprived area. My most recent ventures have seen me explore STEM opportunities by becoming a STEM Ambassador, and embarking on a fledgling Folk Dance Education programme with the assistance of a donation of Longswords from the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which shall see the intangible dance, once performed by Ironstone miners, revised in the area. I am also keen to have more young people join our board of trustees so the board seeks to serve a broader range of the museums stakeholders.

Reflecting Back, Moving Forward: A brief tale of attaining PhD funding

Lisa Hinkins is a graduate of our BA History of Art and Design and MA Curating Collections and Heritage programmes. She was recently awarded prestigious AHRC Techne funding for a new PhD to be entitled, Where are all the Lesbians? In search of Lesbian Lives in Museums. In this blog post, Lisa reflects on her time at the University of Brighton so far.

It is a privilege to announce my new PhD project. I was asked to write on how it was built on my time at the University of Brighton (UoB) as an undergraduate and graduate student. So, I am in a reflective, sentimental mood. Where do I start?

I just re-read my first HOAD blog, published in March 2016 describing my very first enriching experiences after signing up with UoB’s Active Student Volunteering Service. It catapulted me back to September 2015, a very nervous 43-year-old who after 23 years had left a life of work to return to university. Yes, it wasn’t my first rodeo – I had dropped out of a Graphic Design degree in the early 1990s at Portsmouth after six months. As I walked through the UoB doors though, I knew this was my second chance to steer my own career path. I had to fight my inner fears and draw on all my past experiences to help me make the most of this opportunity.

I actually got through my first year with pretty good grades and I made some friends. I also got my very first paying role in the Museum Sector as a Gallery Explainer with Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust (RPMT). I attended life-drawing sessions and volunteered at Fabrica, a local contemporary art gallery, while also volunteering with Photoworks, a leading platform for photographers. These wonderful opportunities were made available due to the professional and nurturing staff off the University of Brighton. They helped open my eyes to new prospects, widening my networks and developing my potential.

During the last two years my of undergraduate degree, the module programmes allowed me freedom to pursue areas of art and design relating to the LGBTQ+ community and Roma Gypsy history. Weaved with internal work development placements with World Art at RPMT, I gained a wealth of skills and knowledge, giving me more confidence to develop my own research paths.

In 2018 I was part of the inaugural cohort for the MA Curating Collections and Heritage led by Dr Claire Wintle. This innovative Masters combines academic study with vocational professional development. We received insightful seminars from a variety of professionals within the Museum sector, alongside hands on sessions with staff from RPMT.

The decision to study for my MA part-time enabled me have time to continue volunteering with Fabrica and Photoworks, as well as paid work with RPMT. I was able to attend the Gayness in Queer Times Conference held at UoB in the summer of 2019, participating as a speaker on lesbian representation in museums. It also meant I could volunteer as a community co-curator for Queer the Pier exhibition currently on display at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

Gayness in Queer Times Conference Summer 2019

This was an incredible experience where I could use my skills to create displays about historic lesbians with connections to Brighton. Using the prism of a pier volunteers from the local LGBTQ+ community created a unique exhibition telling stories of queerness in the city. While carrying out research it came apparent that there was a paucity of original material objects representing lesbian lives. One such woman was Brighton born Harriet Elphinstone-Dick, who achieved one of the greatest swimming feats in 1875. She swam in rough water from Shoreham Harbour to the West Pier in 2 hours and 43 minutes. To illustrate her story of defying Victorian societal expectations as a lesbian woman, I created a design for an automaton machine inspired by the Palace Pier’s dolphin racing game.

Harriet Elphinstone-Dick automaton in Queer the Pier exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery

I also collaborated with internationally acclaimed Roma artist Delaine Le Bas, academic Dr Lucie Fremlova and LGBQT+ Roma artists in re-claiming the problematic ‘Gipsy’ Fortune Telling Machine held in RMPT’s collection. In an act of Queer decolonisation, we created a display in Queer the Pier that dispensed beautifully designed fortune telling cards by Delaine, alongside a text panel featuring a photograph by the Roma artists working with Lucie. I also edited a takeaway Zine to accompany the display which included personal stories and further photography by the artists.

My work with this team and my innovative automaton led to one of the most exciting prospects in my professional career. I was approached by UoB to develop a PhD proposal…., then the Covid pandemic hit us all.

Strangely or not, I thrived through the ups and downs of that period. I completed my MA dissertation, further developed my own artistic practice, delivered 23 weeks of Zoom Family Pub Quizzes, and partook in two on-line Free University Brighton (FUB) courses. In between this I worked on many drafts of my PhD proposal with support from UoB lecturers.

From 2021 I have guest lectured for the BA(Hons) History of Art and Visual Culture on Brighton LGBTQ+ Cultural History for first year students. The three-hour sessions have incorporated field trips to The Ledward Centre, The Old Police Cells Museum and the Queer the Pier exhibition.

My lecturing work, volunteering and work experience led to another gain another paid role with RPMT as a Museum Educator, which I carry out in conjunction with my roles as a Visitor Services Officer and Gallery Explainer. I also had an invaluable experience as an Archive Assistant working with Rachel Ng, a fellow alumni, on the Chelsea School of Physical Education Archive for the UoB School of Sports and Health Science.

working for the Goal Power! Women’s Football 1894-2022 exhibition held at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery Summer 2022. I am dressed in the dark blue as Victorian footballer Nettie Honeyball in my role as a Museum Educator.

The combination of academic study, paid roles and volunteering built a strong CV for enhancing my application for AHRC Techne funding. It has taken a few years, but with an amazing university team backing me and support from RPMT, I was awarded Collaborative Doctoral AHRC Techne funding in April. From October I shall be moving forward with this exciting project with the University of Brighton and Royal Pavilion & Museum Trust. The project: Where are all the Lesbians? In search of Lesbian Lives in Museums will investigate how RPMT represents lesbian historic lives and identities. It will unpack relations between heteronormative patriarchal histories and museums allowing scholars, professionals, and communities to challenge established social constructs.

I am very excited for this project and cannot wait to start working with my university supervisors.

There are so many people that I am indebted to – RPMT’s Executive Board along with the UoB Doctoral College. My heartfelt thanks go to the UoB School of Humanities and Social Science lecturers who have not only guided me through the PhD application process but supported me from the moment I stepped through these university doors as an undergraduate.

MA Curating Alumna 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 Alumna 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.

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.

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.