Week Two highlight – Research and Cultural Collections

My second week was a busy one too, particularly at my home base in the Research and Cultural Collections department.

I continued work on my collection survey of the University Heritage storage area and was also introduced to a new project, for which I will curate a small online exhibition of works in RCC’s collection by John Walker. Not only is Walker a prominent Birmingham artist but he was also Dean of the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne from 1982 to 1985! It will be interesting to explore his connection with Australia, which has significantly influenced his work.

John Walker, The Blue Cloud, polyptych, panel 4 of 15, 1996, oil on canvas. The University of Birmingham.

My week has also been filled with a number of wonderful activities, all organised by the RCC. During the week I joined in on some training sessions with participants of the Cultural Internship Scheme. This program offers six-month paid placements with various cultural institutions in Birmingham to recently graduated University of Birmingham students. Securing one of these internships is highly competitive but rightly so, as they offer comprehensive training and professional development opportunities in the cultural sector. I took part in sessions exploring exhibition planning and development, exhibition interpretation and the use of museum objects as tools for learning and communication. I also joined my fellow interns on an evening trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which had been set against the beautiful backdrop of a local manor house just prior to the First World War. It was very special to see a Shakespeare play performed in the famous playwright’s hometown!

The beautiful set for the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Love's Labour's Lost. Set at Charlecote Park in nearby Warwick. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The beautiful set for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, using Charlecote Park in nearby Warwick as a backdrop. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The set for Love's Labour's Lost. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The set for Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

The 21st of January marked Museum Selfie Day. In order to showcase the University’s collections to RCC’s online and social media community, Clare Marlow, Anna Young, Nadia Awal and I got to go on an adventure around campus and take selfie style photos with various sculptures. It might sound like we were just out having fun (which it was!) but social media engagement is now a vital part of community outreach for museums and galleries, something that RCC are employing with great effectiveness. Click on the following links to have a look at RCC’s website, blog site and Flickr gallery. They are also on Facebook and Instagram.

Behind the scenes! Holding the selfie stick and trying to hide behind the sculpture as Clare takes the photo. Photograph by Nadia Awal.
The finished product! Bernard Sindall, Girl in a Hat, 1972, bronze. The University of Birmingham. Photograph by Clare Marlow.

My week ended on a very special note. I was lucky enough to visit local couple Mike and Theresa Simkin and to see Mike’s beautiful collection of magic lanterns and other visual illusion paraphernalia. Mike has been collecting lanterns since 1969 and often used the slides in his drawing and painting classes. His collection tells the story of pre-cinema entertainment and the development of the moving image, with a significant focus on local Birmingham makers and lantern performances held in the city. You can see a video about Mike and his wonderful collection below.

Week Two highlight – Winterbourne Botanic Garden

Today I learnt about a cultural collection of a very different kind… I was taken on a tour of Winterbourne’s extensive plant collections, which were truly amazing. I had never really thought of a botanic garden in the same way as a museum or gallery but in hindsight, the comparison is very sensible; both kinds of collections function as tools for research and education, create varied displays throughout the year (a plant sure puts on a good show when it flowers!) and require sensitively controlled environmental factors.

The climate controlled Arid House. It almost felt like going home when I stepped inside! Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The climate controlled Arid House. It almost felt like going home when I stepped inside! Photograph by Amy Walsh.

The garden was designed in 1903 by Margaret Nettlefold, who drew inspiration from the work of influential horticulturalist and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. It is a rare remaining example of an Edwardian garden. One of the reasons the final owner John Nicholson purchased Winterbourne was because it already had an established and mature garden with a reputable horticultural collection. He too was an avid gardener and he expanded many of its collections.

The orchid hothouse. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The orchid hothouse. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The tiny Alpine House, containing some very sweet little flowers. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The tiny Alpine House, containing some very sweet little flowers. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

Winterbourne now contains plants from around the world, including from Asia-Pacific, the Americas and alpine regions. The garden itself is Grade II listed and also holds the National Council for Conservation of Plants and Gardens Anthemis, Iris unguicularis and European Rose collections. Winterbourne also occasionally acquires collections from private owners, including a recent donation of a vast number of cacti. The horticultural staff conduct a year-round propagation program for many of the species, which not only ensures backup plants are available for those currently in place in the garden but also helps make the program self-sufficient when excess are sold to the public.

I've never seen so many cacti in one place! Photograph by Amy Walsh.
I’ve never seen so many cacti in one place! Photograph by Amy Walsh.

Although the neighbouring school now occupies some of Winterbourne’s original lands, it is still easy to see why its garden remains so precious to both the university and the wider community.

Week Two highlight – Wilson Conservation Studio

This week I spent a full day assisting Marie in the Wilson Conservation Studio. She is in the midst of preparing material from the Cadbury Research Library collections for display in the building’s foyer. This small exhibition will focus on Sir Oliver Lodge, a physicist and the first Principal of the University of Birmingham. However, even though the object list is relatively short, extensive work is still required to ready them for display. For those interested, this post will have a look at some of the paper conservation methods and skills I’m learning in the studio.

My workspace in the lab. What a dream! Photograph by Amy Walsh.
My workspace in the lab. What a dream! Photograph by Amy Walsh.

A number of letters are to be included in the display, many of which have previously been taped into books for storage (not by a conservator!), and it has been my task to prepare some of them. Each letter was carefully cut out of its folio and cleaned with smoke sponge. In order to remove the degraded and unsightly tape, a special gel called Laponite was applied directly to its surface. The gel, which contains water, acts as a poultice. This allows for the controlled release of moisture, which softens the tape’s adhesive without saturating the paper underneath. Once the tape and any remaining adhesive had been carefully removed, it was very important to clean the area to make sure no residual Laponite remained. Funnily enough, the most effective cleaning solution for this is saliva, due to its enzymes! So when your Nan licks her finger and tries to scrub some dirt off your face, she’s actually using an accepted conservation cleaning method! After lightly swabbing the area with saliva, I repeated the same method with water. Once all remains of the tape and its adhesive were removed, each letter was gently humidified in the ‘greenhouse’ Perspex case and then placed in the large press to flatten out any stubborn crinkles. It was wonderful to see these treatments through from start to finish, and to learn some valuable technical skills.

Before: Laponite applied to the tape's surface. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Before: Laponite applied to the tape’s surface. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
After: Tape removed, prior to clearing the Laponite. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
After: Tape removed, prior to clearing the Laponite. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

Another beneficial experience was learning how to cut custom mounts for works on paper. I drew diagrams of the work and the mount I required and then carefully calculated the dimensions (I don’t always trust my maths abilities, hence the visual aids). After cutting the piece of card to size on a large guillotine-style machine, I then used a specialised cutter with an angled blade to cut the window out and create the bevelled edge.

Creating mounts for two photographs. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Creating mounts for two photographs. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

Exhibition preparation is often a significant element of a conservator’s job, so being able to gain practical experience in this area is invaluable. Additionally, as I’m specialising in objects conservation in my course, I have enjoyed learning more about paper conservation and extending my skill set. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to doing more work next week!

Let it snow!

It snowed here in Birmingham last week! It may have only been a little but I was very impressed, even if the locals weren’t… As my mum so aptly pointed out, it really did look like a dusting of icing sugar the next morning!

Flurries of snow flakes falling in Harborne. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Flurries of snow flakes falling in Harborne. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The pretty view from my window the next morning. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The pretty view from my window the next morning. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The front lawn. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The front lawn. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

This was a pretty special event for an Australian who hasn’t seen snow in nearly 15 years! Here’s hoping more falls before I leave!

Week One – Introductions

The first week of my placement is over and, my goodness, what a busy week it has been!

On Monday morning I met Clare Mullett, the University Curator, and the rest of the Research and Cultural Collections team at Redmarley. Clare Marlow, the Curatorial and Collections Care Assistant, gave me a tour of the building and its numerous collection storage areas. This was after a cup of tea, of course! One of my projects with RCC will be to conduct a survey of their University Heritage Collection and to make storage recommendations. In the afternoon, I also got to meet the two artists in residence at RCC, Matt Westbrook and Antonio Roberts. It was fascinating to hear them talk about how they engage with and interpret both the collections and the history of the University in their work.

Over the next few days I was introduced to the diverse collections on campus and met the people I will be working with for the remainder of my placement.

As I am studying conservation, I am very excited to be doing some work in the Wilson Conservation Studio, which is based in the Cadbury Research Library. I met paper conservator Marie Sviergula, who showed me the Library’s impeccably housed collection and its exceptional storage facilities. It was also very interesting to learn about their disaster management plans and environmental controls. As I am specialising in objects conservation, I am grateful for the chance to gain experience in the treatment of paper, as this will allow me to broaden my knowledge and skill set. Marie encouraged me to be hands on straight away, getting me to help her carefully wash some recently acquired (but very stained) watercolour works depicting gruesome skin diseases!

The bright and very well resourced labs at the Wilson Conservation Studio. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The bright and very well resourced labs at the Wilson Conservation Studio. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Washing prints to reduce staining. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Washing paper works to reduce unwanted staining. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

I am very grateful for the fact that I get to spend considerable time at the beautiful Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Housed in a listed Art Deco building, the world-class collection holds more than 150 paintings by major European artists and a vast range of over 1000 works on paper. I met with Jen Ridding and Alex Jolly from the Learning and Access Office, who I will be helping to deliver student workshops. I will also be researching and producing a fact sheet on some recently conserved panel paintings (c. 1520) by Flemish artist Jan de Beer, which will aid the delivery of future gallery talks (read about the return of the work here).

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Image available here.

The Barber Institute also holds an exceptional coin collection, generally considered to be one of the best outside the British Museum. Working alongside curator Dr Jonathan Jarrett, I am lucky enough to be helping update the documentation for their Hellenistic coin collection. This will involve re-examining the coins, producing consistent documentation, taking high quality photographs and uploading the information to the museum’s current database.

A coin from the Barber Institute’s Hellenistic coin collection. Image available here.

While the Lapworth Museum of Geology is currently closed for refurbishments, I had the chance to sit in on a meeting between gallery designers Real Studios and the staff of the museum. It was fascinating to observe the ‘tug of war’ between the two sides, as they tried to come to an agreement on the best balance of aesthetic appearance and information, in order to satisfy both public and university visitors. It will be interesting to see how the layout develops over the coming weeks.

The Lapworth Museum of Geology. Image available here.

Finally, I visited Winterbourne House, a well-preserved example of an early 20th century Arts and Crafts style residence and garden. Built in 1903 by the preeminent Nettlefold family, the house was bequeathed to the University by in 1944. While initially used for teaching, the house has recently been sympathetically restored to an Edwardian appearance and tells the story of the Nettlefold family through permanent and temporary displays. During my time at Winterbourne, I will be producing a pamphlet for children and teenagers based on an upcoming exhibition focussing on WWI.

Winterbourne House. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Winterbourne House. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The children's room in Winterbourne House. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The children’s room in Winterbourne House. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The picturesque garden at Winterbourne House. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The picturesque garden at Winterbourne House. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

Throughout the week I have also participated in classes and volunteer training conducted by RCC staff. The campus’ cultural collections are showcased in a subject called Making culture: new ways of reading things, which is open to students from all faculties. The lectures and seminars explore issues around the collection, interpretation and display of material culture, and encourage interdisciplinary engagement and collaboration. I also took part in a session introducing volunteers to the principles of collection care and safe object handling.

These past few days have been filled with meeting people and introductory tours, so my post only really covers the collections and my projects in brief. I am looking forward to writing more in-depth posts as I delve into my own work in the coming weeks.

Hello from Birmingham!

I’m finally here and I’m very excited that I get to share my adventures and experiences with you over the coming weeks as I undertake my Museums and Collections Award placement at the University of Birmingham.

One of Birmingham's many canals. Photograph by Amy Walsh 2015.
One of Birmingham’s many canals. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

I arrived at the university campus station yesterday, pulling up alongside a picturesque canal. From there I walked along tree-lined driveways until I reached Pritchatts Road, where I’m staying in a lovely old house that has been converted into studio apartments. I also had a wander along nearby Harborne’s High Street, which is lined with shops and restaurants. The fact that several very inviting English pubs are so close to where I’m staying will be hard to resist…

7 Pritchatts Road, my home for the next four weeks. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
7 Pritchatts Road, my home for the next four weeks. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

I had to head into Birmingham proper today to pick up a few last minute things before starting my placement but I only had enough time to very briefly explore this wonderful city. I arrived at Birmingham’s main station and visited the iconic Bull Ring and Selfridges shopping centres. At the other end of New Street, in Victoria Square, was the city’s impressive town hall and Council House, which also houses part of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I’m really looking forward to seeing some more of the city’s cultural sites next weekend!

The Bull Ring's iconic bull sculpture, a favourite with the kids. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The Bull Ring’s iconic bull sculpture, a favourite with the kids. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Birmingham's town hall. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Birmingham’s town hall. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

The university campus itself is truly beautiful; green spaces abound and its many redbrick buildings revolve around the charming Old Joe (an affectionate name for the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower, the tallest freestanding clock tower in the world!). The University of Birmingham was founded in 1900 and has since become a leading tertiary education institution in the UK. Needless to say, I feel very lucky to be staying and working here for the next month!

"Old Joe". Photograph by Amy Walsh.
“Old Joe”. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

I’ll be heading down the road to Redmarley, the beautiful home of the Research and Cultural Collections department, at 10am tomorrow to start my placement, so you’ll hear from me again during the week!

Redmarley, home of the Research and Cultural Collections department. My late afternoon photo doesn't do this lovely building justice! Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Redmarley, home of the Research and Cultural Collections department. My late afternoon photo doesn’t do this lovely building justice! Photograph by Amy Walsh.