My name is Amy Walsh and I'm the 2014 University of Melbourne recipient of the Universitas 21 International Museums and Collections Award. I'll be blogging about my experience working with the cultural collections at the University of Birmingham during January and February of 2015.
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!
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!
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 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!
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!