Elisabeth Bletsoe tells us about the concept of visible storage and how it ties in with one of our latest projects at the museum.
“Visible storage” is becoming a trendy new concept in many museums around the world, where public access is maximised and collections are revealed that are otherwise hidden from view. Most museums have only a small percentage of their artefacts on display which makes consideration of storage space and the internal conditions in which they are kept very significant. As time goes on, curators have to take into account increase in their collections as well as technology and filing systems that become obsolete.
A balance must be maintained between collections care and the need to keep visitors coming through the doors, so inventive ways of encouraging the public constantly need to be found. Visible storage is one new method of preserving collections in safe and visually stimulating environments, providing a behind-the-scenes window while maintaining conservation control. It is also a way of “democratising” the collections, making them available to all.
At Sherborne Museum, our book collection was kept behind closed doors in the small hall at the foot of the stairs; some of the volunteers themselves were not even aware of its existence. The space itself was not particularly aesthetically pleasing, with an old storage heater and a clumsy lectern for the signing-in book constantly in the way. Despite the display of 17th century spoons, it seemed to be an area to hurry through to somewhere else. We decided to reveal the book collection with some glass doors.
Elaine Taylor, our registrar, had a contact in Jamie of J. Smith Woodwork, a craftsman able to work with both wood and glass (see http://www.jsmithwoodwork.co.uk). Another volunteer, Celia Frear, reorganised and dusted the collection and also sourced professional spacers, labels and pamphlet holders. I had the heater and lectern removed and applied for a grant from the Dorset Museums Association as well as asking a local firm, Valmeira Glass, for sponsorship to which they generously agreed.
The hall space has evolved from being a wasted area into one in which it is now pleasant to linger; we have about 600 titles relating to Sherborne and Dorset to browse through and reflect upon. Although the books are not available to take away from the Museum, they can be borrowed, under supervision, for research in our workrooms on request.
In this latest post, our curator, Elisabeth Bletsoe, reveals more about one of her favourite items in the museum collections.
One of my favourite items in the museum is the tegula, or roof tile, featuring a dog’s pawprint which you can see in the Roman case in the Gibb Gallery on the ground floor. It is surprising how many similar tiles have been recovered by archaeologists, for example at Roman sites in Leicester, York, the Isle of Wight, Canterbury and London, not only showing dog prints but also those of cats, sheep, foxes, goats, birds and rodents (as well as human thumb and finger prints). When a 2000 year old tile bearing the pawprints of a dog was unveiled from a Corieltauvi town house from the Blackfriars area of Leicester one correspondent commented that it must have been difficult being a Roman tile manufacturer putting up with “constant animal incursions”. The clay tiles would have been left on the ground in the open air to partially dry before being hardened off in a kiln during which time they were vulnerable to the wanderings of various creatures. It is possible, however, that the accidental marking was not perceived as a nuisance.
In the summer, a visitor approached me after seeing our tile and remarked that in Sicily, where he had a villa, pieces of dried clay with pawprints were considered lucky and were hung up from the eaves as a charm. Saltillo tiles made from clay from the riverbeds in Coahuila, Mexico, that meet with similar accidents, are also considered good luck; these tiles are isolated and placed in very visible areas on the building. In Central France, pawprints are deliberately added to the tiles and it is apparently very unlucky not to have at least one in the roof. Pawprints can be considered good luck affirmations when included in charm bracelets and they are currently popular as tattoos, symbolising the way forward or perhaps the power, swiftness or strength of the chosen animal. Dog prints in particular symbolise fidelity and friendship. I like to think that we have our own little piece of luck contained in our museum case!
In this week’s post, our data entry officer, Celia, shares her experiences of her work behind the scenes at Sherborne Museum.
The very first time I walked into Sherborne Museum it was to ask about volunteering.
I had recently moved to Sherborne after years of moving around the country with my job, and usually to places that I hadn’t chosen myself. When retirement loomed, and with no roots anywhere in particular, my husband and I decided it was time that we got to choose where to live. On the way home from a holiday in the West Country, we stopped over in Sherborne, a town we had never been to before, and our decision was made. We felt we could settle here! We are now living in a village a short distance from town and are very happy with the decision we made. With some time to spare, and wanting to find practical ways of learning more about the town and the area, I thought of volunteering at the museum.
As a contrast to my previous full-time job, I now wanted something ‘behind the scenes’ where I could work free from schedules or deadlines. Working on the accessions team suits me perfectly; I normally do one morning a week, and more when I have the opportunity. I assist with logging new artefacts and maintaining the records of existing ones. There is a database which holds comprehensive details of everything that has been donated or is on loan, with its location in the museum. Alongside the day-to-day record-keeping, we’ve just started carrying out an audit of all the museum’s artefacts – a mammoth task that will keep us busy for the foreseeable future! Although everything is logged on the database, we also keep the original paper records, so we need to make sure that everything ties up and that items are properly recorded. The database allows us to search by keyword for anything that’s in the museum, and it’s really important that it is accurate so that we can search for items – to get their location, or to learn more about them. I’m fascinated by the enormous range of artefacts that the museum holds: photographs and newspaper cuttings recording Sherborne’s history, archaeological remains, clothing, toys and dolls, books, as well as important items of social history – and not everything is old; items from this century also have a historic value.
As I’m discovering, life as a volunteer at the museum is never dull, with new artefacts being donated (or discovered) all the time, new jobs and responsibilities to take on, and the opportunity to take further training through the network of Dorset museums.
In this first post, our curator, Elisabeth Bletsoe, introduces the blog and tells us a little about her role at the museum.
Sherborne Museum is at the heart of the local community, occupying a Grade II listed building in what was the former gatehouse and almonry of the Abbey. Through the conservation and display of artefacts and photographic archives, we aim to tell the story of Sherborne’s rich heritage in a manner designed to inform, entertain and inspire. We work closely with local schools, libraries and groups to provide services that promote a passion for life-long learning and cater to a variety of needs. Highlights of our collections include our medieval wall painting, a digital touch-screen version of the fabulously illuminated Sherborne Missal, a Victorian dolls’ house and the Wilson botanical art collection.
As the curator, I am responsible for the care of our wonderful collections and the day-to-day management of the Museum, ensuring that the artefacts and archives are passed down in good condition for future generations. I am particularly keen on getting children excited about local history and provide a special corner for them in every gallery where they can play and dress up and relate to the exhibitions through a series of activities. My particular interests are the botanical watercolours, local cider-making traditions and folklore, so watch out for future posts about these subjects; as well as from my team, who will be writing about such things as costumes, photographs, archaeology and general daily life in the museum, which is liberally sprinkled with biscuits and punctuated by cake!
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