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.

 

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.

Working with Queer Looks

 

Second year Fashion and Dress History student Eleanor Medhurst discusses her work with Brighton Museum’s Queer Looks Project

The Queer Looks Young Project Team discussing themes

The Queer Looks Young Project Team discussing themes for the exhibition

I found out about Queer Looks by a sponsored post on Facebook, which is a strange way to encounter something that has had such a positive impact on my life. As a Fashion and Dress History student, and as someone in the LGBT+ community, I was instantly drawn to the project. Queer Looks at Brighton Museum is a display opening this summer featuring outfits and stories from members of the LGBT+ community in Brighton and Sussex. I’ve been part of the Young Project Team, meaning that I have helped to reach out to members of the community, conduct oral history interviews with them, and consider which outfits might be best to put on display. Dress is, in my eyes at least, the most personalised aspect of design history. Through looking at dress we can read individual histories; the stories that we can discover through the outfits of Queer Looks tell us of the struggles facing individual people within the LGBT+ community, the struggles of the community as a whole, and – as I think it is most important to look at the positives – the pride, creativity, and resistance that can be expressed through clothing.

Jason, an interviewee for the project

Jason, an interviewee for Queer Looks

There’s been something so validating about creating this space for queer history and queer fashion to exist within the Museum. It’s been even more important that it’s been through the lens of our team, a group of young queer people, and through direct oral history interviews where members of the community have told their story, on their own terms. Often when queer history is told it is as a side note. This project, however, celebrates queer fashion not as fashion that happens to be worn or designed by a queer person, but as fashion and style that exists in its queerness. I exist as a hyper-feminine gay woman and that is told through my clothing. Jason, an interviewee, owned his pink velvet hotpants-and-waistcoat set specifically to wear to gay clubs in the ‘90s. The stories that our clothes tell are intrinsically linked with our identities and our place as members of the LGBT+ community reacting to a heteronormative society. They are a vitally important part of fashion and design history as a mass reaction to its heterosexual canon.

Deciding which stories to tell in Queer Looks has been a difficult issue. The display will only be able to hold around 20 outfits, but of course there are far more than 20 unique looks and stories that want to be seen and heard. The key was to think as inclusively as possible – a true history and representation of queer people’s looks would not be possible without a varied representation.

The Queer Looks Young Project Team deciding who to include

The Queer Looks Young Project Team deciding who to include in the display

Many people perceive fashion and the LGBT+ community to be something that is flamboyant, or fabulous. Whilst this is often true, we are also a community of real people living real lives and it was important to present a history that is tangible, as queer fashion is something that exists all around us. We have tried our utmost to interview people with amazing style, but who also are a true reflection of the LGBT+ community. Amazing clothes are not all that is worthy of being kept in museums – they also need an accurate representation of the diversity of the people who the clothes belonged to.

Queer Looks is opening this summer, along with an additional microsite (to exhibit the outfits and stories unable to fit in the fashion gallery), but we’ll be putting on events celebrating queer fashion at the museum in the run-up to the opening of the display. One of these is on Saturday 3rd March for International Women’s Day. Keep an eye on the Brighton Museum Blog and the Instagram if you want to stay up to date.

Becoming a curator

 

Graduate Iona Farrell describes how passion, persistence and hard work paid off in her quest to find a museum job

Image 1: 1950s sateen and lastex swimsuit by duCros from the Plume collection

Image 1: 1950s sateen and lastex swimsuit by duCros from the Plume collection, Southend Museum (image by author)

I graduated in 2016 from Brighton’s BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History degree and am now Assistant Curator of Social History at Southend Museum, where I work with the social and local history collection as well as the extensive costume archive. Highlights of the collection include the EKCO radio archive and the Plume swimsuit archive, the largest collection of swimwear in the country.

Brighton provided me with the starting step to pursue a career in museums. What I most enjoyed was how tutors encouraged primary research through visiting archives and using the University’s Dress History Teaching Collection. This approach has proved useful within my current role, where I am often handling artefacts. In a recent donation to the museum I used my undergraduate training to explore a beautiful silk chiffon dress. The garment’s delicate stitching showed the handiwork of a skilled dressmaker, whilst a tiny tear on the fragile hem pointed to a heel catching in the fabric, perhaps when the wearer was dancing. Details like this will inform how the garment is stored, as well as providing a ‘biography’ of an object crucial for creating an exhibition narrative.

Throughout my time at university I loved uncovering stories like these and spent many an hour at St Peter’s House Library using its extensive periodical and microfiche archive. One of my favourite projects was researching the clientele of 1920s couture, which meant poring over the Vogue archive. At times like these I knew I had chosen the right degree! For all current students, I really recommend making the most of these brilliant resources and, being a current Masters student, I must admit I miss the well-stocked shelves of St Peter’s!

Image 2: 1930s guides to Southend from the archive, Southend Museum (image by author)

Image 2: 1930s guides to Southend from the archive, Southend Museum (image by author)

In my second year I started research for my dissertation, which explored the performance and liminality of 1950s swimsuit pageants. I was keen to ground my writing in archival research and this led me to Southend Museum’s swimwear archive. Being from Southend, it was fantastic to discover the wealth of the collections and this inspired me to start volunteering. A major project I undertook as a volunteer was cataloguing over 500 swimsuits from the Plume collection. Along the way I assisted in exhibition installations and co-curated an exhibition on the history of toys, allowing me to build up a diverse range of skills. Volunteering seems to be a prerequisite for gaining paid work in Museums and local museums truly can provide brilliant opportunities for anyone intent on working in the sector.

After graduation I worked part-time for the University of Essex Library and started a Masters in Museum Studies, a distance-learning course, which has allowed me to continue to work. I must admit studying for a Masters, whilst being in employment and trying to gain entry into the museum sector was a challenge! As many have probably experienced, gaining work in museums can feel like an uphill struggle of endless online application forms. But I must stress that it will happen eventually! Always take whatever opportunities come your way, whether this means volunteering in your local museum like me, or gaining hands on experience within an archive: it’s all relevant experience and it’s fun.

Image 3: Inside the costume store, Southend Museums (image by author).

Image 3: Inside the costume store, Southend Museums (image by author).

By volunteering at Southend I was able to build up a large amount of experience and apply for the post of Assistant Curator. It’s fantastic to work now with such a wide-ranging collection and every day is different, whether this be accessioning donations, undertaking exhibition research, taking part in school visits or co-ordinating a touring exhibition. A major responsibility is undertaking the rationalisation of the social history collection, ensuring it is relevant and usable for generations to come. An upcoming project, Snapping the Stiletto will see museums across Essex collaborate to celebrate Essex women and dismantle the ‘Essex Girl’ stereotype. I am excited to build strong partnerships across Essex and the culminating touring exhibition and events across the county are something that people should look out for in the coming year.

It’s fantastic to be in an industry that is so creative, one that has the ability to tell so many stories and to inspire so many people. I am so glad that I applied to Brighton and grateful for the starting step it gave me.