Week Four – My last week

I’m very sorry for the delay in my posts… I was ill during my last week in Birmingham and, sadly, a family member passed away at the end of my visit. The long trip back home to Australia, the funeral and commencing the second year of my Masters have all made these past few weeks very turbulent and busy.

The first three weeks of my placement absolutely flew by, as they were filled with so many things to do and learn, but it still seemed like a shock when my final week arrived! I think my busy schedule took its toll as, unfortunately, from Sunday to Tuesday of my fourth week I felt very “poorly”, as the English say, and had to take some time off from my placement. Sadly this meant I missed out on installing the Oliver Lodge exhibition with Marie from the Wilson Conservation Studio and a session working on my WWI pamphlet at Winterbourne House but, thankfully, I was able to catch up with everyone on the Friday.

Jan de Beer, 'Joseph and the Suitors', c.1515-1520, oil on oak. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
Jan de Beer, ‘Joseph and the Suitors’, c.1515-1520, oil on oak. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
Jan de Beer, 'The Nativity', c.1515 - 1520, oil on oak. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
Jan de Beer, ‘The Nativity’, c.1515-1520, oil on oak. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

In my last sessions at the Barber Institute of Fine Art, I completed a reference fact sheet on a work completed by Mannerist artist Jan de Beer between 1515 and 1520. The work is a double-sided panel painting, with one side depicting a nocturnal nativity scene and the other highlighting the moment when Joseph is chosen to be the Virgin’s husband. The panel recently returned from five years of conservation work so the Learning and Access team asked me to put together the document to facilitate future gallery talks on the work. It was fascinating to learn that the panel once likely formed part of a door on an altarpiece, which would have meant that an image was visible at all times, whether the doors were open or closed. The Nativity scene was almost certainly the interior side, as it depicts a ‘holier’ scene than that of Joseph and the suitors, therefore affording it a place closer to the altar.

Silver stater minted by the Persian satrap (governor) Mazaios. The obverse depicts Baaltars, the deity of the town of Tarsus, which is where the coin was minted. c.361-334 BCE.
Silver stater minted by the Persian satrap (governor) Mazaios. Obverse: Baaltars, the deity of the town of Tarsus, which is where the coin was minted. Reverse: a lion attacking a bull. c.361-334 BCE. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
Silver tetradrachm minted by Antigonus III Doson, king of Macedon. Obverse: wreathed head of Poseidon, facing right. Reverse: Apollo seated on the prow of a ship, facing left. Inscription reads ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΓΟΝΟΥ (of the king Antigonus). c.229-221 BCE.
Silver tetradrachm minted by Antigonus III Doson, king of Macedon. Obverse: wreathed head of Poseidon, facing right. Reverse: Apollo seated on the prow of a ship, facing left. Inscription reads ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΓΟΝΟΥ (‘of the king Antigonus’). c.229-221 BCE. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

I was also lucky enough to do some more work with the Barber’s Greek coins in my final week. While I was unable to finish documenting all of the coins, it was certainly a start and I hope my work will make Jonathan’s task ever so slightly lighter. In a day of digital transactions, it’s easy to become desensitized to the imagery on coinage. However, working with the Barber’s ancient coins really made me appreciate how these tiny metal tokens could tell stories and distribute information. Whether they associated the issuing ruler with a god or mythical hero, celebrated their victory or simply depicted symbols of power (as is particularly the case with the lion and stag above), these coins acted as a highly effective form of visual communication and propaganda in what would have been a mostly illiterate society. So, the next time you have some coins in your pocket, think about their history and just how important they were in ancient times!

It was an absolute pleasure working with Jen and Alex from the Learning and Access team and coin curator Jonathan at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts during my placement. Needless to say, I got a bit teary when they gave me a beautiful card and some delicious chocolates on my last day!

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Surveying items in the Heritage collection storeroom at Redmarley. Photograph by Anna Young.
Having a look at some of the diverse objects in the University of Birmingham's Heritage collection. Photograph by Anna Young.
Having a look at some of the diverse objects in the University of Birmingham’s Heritage collection. Photograph by Anna Young.

Another project I completed in my final week was my survey of Research and Cultural Collection’s Heritage store. By the end of the project, I had checked and documented the details of close to 450 objects, seeing whether any had been moved from their recorded locations and identifying those requiring accessioning. This task certainly made me appreciate the importance of conducting such surveys, as I was able to gain greater understanding of the collection as a whole and prioritise collection management needs. In the case of the Heritage store, accessioning its remaining items is certainly at the top of the list, as this will allow them to be used in teaching and to go on display. Although I identified a vast number of unaccessioned items, my survey will give RCC’s Clare Marlow a better idea of what needs to be documented and where to find it and, hopefully, make the task a little bit easier! This was a very rewarding project to undertake and I’m glad I could complete it within the timeframe.

Front cover of the 'Building Stones Detective Trail' pamphlet. Text by Julie (Lapworth volunteer), design by Amy Walsh.
Front cover of the ‘Building Stones Detective Trail’ pamphlet. Text by Julie (Lapworth volunteer), design by Amy Walsh.

For my last few sessions at the Lapworth Museum of Geology, I was lucky enough to work with another volunteer to help her visualise a pamphlet she created. Julie, a keen amateur geologist, put together a wonderful discovery trail to lead readers on a geological tour of some the different building stones used in Birmingham’s iconic monuments, which will coincide with the Lapworth’s joint exhibition with the Library of Birmingham. It was my task to turn her information and photos into an eye-catching document but I wanted to make sure Julie was comfortable with what I was doing. We sat down for a chat and she emphasised the importance of making the information very clear and easy to read. With this in mind, I chose a clear font, minimal colours and simple graphics, ensuring that her information and photos took pride of place. I certainly enjoyed learning about the geological history of these stones so I have no doubt others will too! It was a pleasure to collaborate with Julie and the task was an excellent exercise in visual design and teamwork.

Marie Curie's letter to Sir Oliver Lodge. This is the letter I helped prepare for the exhibition, which included tape removal, flattening and mounting. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
Marie Curie’s letter to Sir Oliver Lodge, on display in Oliver Lodge: Civic Science and Birmingham. This is the letter I helped prepare for the exhibition, which included tape removal, flattening and mounting. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have any scheduled activities on Friday so I used my time to catch up with those I missed while I was ill earlier on in the week. I shared a lovely afternoon tea with Marie Sviergula from the Wilson Conservation Studio and then headed to Muirhead Tower (home of the Cadbury Research Library and Wilson Studio) to view the fruits of our labour. Oliver Lodge: Civic Science and Birmingham looked very smart in the atrium’s red exhibition case. It was very special to be able to look at the works and pick out those I had helped prepare. You can view an expanded digital version of the exhibition here. I also dropped into Winterbourne House and Garden to thank my supervisors Lee Hale and Claire Woolard, hand over my WWI pamphlet and take a final look at the picturesque building and its grounds.

I tried a haggis scotch egg... Surprisingly delicious! Photograph by Amy Walsh.
We tried a haggis scotch egg… Surprisingly delicious! Photograph by Amy Walsh.

To celebrate the end of my placement, the lovely RCC team took me out for dinner on the Friday night. Clare Mullett, Anna Young, Clare Marlow, Nadia Awal and I shared a delicious meal at the Fighting Cocks pub in nearby Moseley and finished off the evening at the quirky Prince of Wales beer garden a little further up the road. These lovely ladies were so incredibly supportive throughout my placement and made the whole experience very special, so I got a bit teary when it was time to go! They kindly gave me some gifts to remember my time with them: a University of Birmingham jumper and a copy of The Mermaid and the Lion, a beautiful graphic novel by RCC’s previous artist in residence Sarah Silverwood.

While I was very sad to leave, I know I have made some wonderful friends and professional connections during my time in Birmingham and I am very much looking forward to visiting again soon!

Week Three – How time flies!

It’s very hard to believe that I am now well over halfway through my placement… I only have one week to go! My third week, however, has been varied and highly enjoyable.

Master of the Griselda Legend, Alexander the Great, c. 1494, oil and tempera on wood, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Alexander’s pose was a favourite amongst the kids! Image available here.
Jean-Françoise Detroy, Jason Taming the Bulls of Aeëtes, 1742, oil on canvas, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Image available here.

One activity that I particularly appreciated was observing a children’s workshop at the Barber Institute. A group of lovely kids from the nearby Blue Coat School were guided around the galleries and told stories of some of the myths and legends that appeared in the works. As they learnt about Apollo and Daphne, Alexander the Great, Hercules and Jason and the Argonauts, the storyteller encouraged the students to analyse the works and participate in re-enactments. After the gallery tour had finished we relocated to the workshop room, where the students used pipe cleaners and clay to make models of mythical or heroic figures. They had to think critically about what they had seen in the galleries and see whether they could translate their ideas into stable clay forms. Some of the results were a bit wobbly but I guess you could say that added to their charm! My own interest in galleries/museums was sparked when I visited Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria on a primary school trip, so I can only hope that similar inspiration happened during the workshop I observed.

Another interesting part of this week has been furthering my work on updating documentation for the Barber’s Greek coin collection. Although I came across coins frequently during my undergraduate degree, I know nothing of numismatics or its terminology. Add the fact that I don’t know ancient Greek to this equation and you can see that I’ve had a very steep learning curve indeed! Despite slow progress initially, I am becoming more familiar with terms used to describe features on the coins as well as faster at recognising mint marks and working my way through the transliteration of inscriptions. As I double-checked the information already included on the original record, I also contributed extra or omitted details in the hope that my added info will help someone distinguish the coin in question from another very similar one. Once it had been checked by Jonathan I transferred the information into an Excel spreadsheet, which will subsequently be uploaded to the University’s museum database Mimsy XG by IT staff. It’s a surprisingly complicated and long process but certainly a rewarding one; we’ve already picked up a number of errors and inconsistencies in the original documentation!

The Old Crown, Birmingham's oldest pub. Photograph by Amy Walsh.
The Old Crown, Birmingham’s oldest pub. Photograph by Amy Walsh.

My fantastic week was capped off on Friday with a visit to local gallery Eastside Projects with the RCC team for the opening of the Birmingham Show exhibition. Situated in the up-and-coming cultural area of Digbeth, the exhibition is underpinned by three questions: ‘What is the art of Birmingham?’, ‘Is there an accent to Birmingham’s art making?’ and ‘How is Birmingham useful for the production of art?’. Not being from the area (or even this country!), I wasn’t able to puzzle out all of these answers, but I was certainly struck by a sense of humour that permeated many of the works. It was also great to see a piece by RCC’s artist in residence Antonio Roberts included in the exhibition. We finished up the night with dinner and drinks at the nearby Old Crown, the oldest pub in Birmingham (c. 1368!). This was the perfect introduction to Birmingham’s contemporary cultural scene and a lovely night out.

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 – 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!

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.