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.
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.
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.