Hidden gems

Hi, it’s Esme again for one last belated post,

During my time at Colchester + Ipswich Museums I worked on a major collections project, which involved moving objects. As we spent time working with them, we were able to wonder at the wonderful and complex collections in front of us. There were many hidden gems, so I thought I’d share a few of the interesting finds I encountered… and those that I remembered to photograph.


I very carefully helped to refresh some of the packaging, using materials such as acid free tissue. By using this, we can protect objects while they are in storage. For example, if an object is heavy, we would support the whole surface in order to relieve areas of stress. This would prevent any further damage happening and preserve our incredible collections for others in the future.


Re-labeling was also an important job. This label for a North Sea Oyster shell from Brightlingsea was in a fragile state due to age and will require paper conservation. For new labels we used specialist pens that have an inert ink, which wouldn’t damage or react with the objects.


I worked on a draw of lead samples, which was incredibly heavy! Lead is very toxic so I had to wear nitrile gloves and make sure not to scratch my itchy nose (or accidentally lick any of the specimens!). Some of the samples I encountered were quite plain, but others were more detailed with crystals scattered over surfaces…

The sample on the left was giant and made up of barite crystals covering lead galena (a lead based ore). It may not be a native mineral to Colchester, but it is relevant to our collections, as ancient people such as the Romans would have smelted this rock to obtain lead; an important metal that was used to make water pipes!

From a first glance it was difficult to imagine where and how such objects would have been found. These kind of details are recorded by museums on a collections database. Each object is assigned a number and the location is logged. It’s then possible to recall more detailed information. Often, people undertaking research may need to study a specific part of a collection. In the meantime, the museum staff will be looking after it.


Large and delicate coral structures (about as big as a dinner plate to give you some idea) are also part of the natural science collections at Colchester Museums and proved challenging to repack. Each object was individually assessed and extra care taken when handling. The corals got repacked into suitably sized boxes, where their surfaces are protected by inert packaging and their weight better supported.

If you would like to join see more top finds from the collections at Colchester, then head over to @ColMuseums and @EssexFlo. They regularly share objects from the stores, so keep checking in to see what the team uncover!


The Uploading Life

Michael here again with one last blast!

The highlight of my time at Colchester + Ipswich Museums has been digitising part of the works on paper collection in Ipswich. It has proved to be an absorbing project, which has involved delving deeply into the artwork storage boxes at Christchurch Mansion. I have worked with two fantastic and dedicated volunteers over the past three months and we have discovered some wonderful treasures along the way.

The process began with scanning and documenting the drawings, prints and watercolours. The collection includes some fabulous artists and it has been a great privilege to study up close these wonderful artworks. We have digitised 496 pictures from a wide range of artists, including George Frost, John Sell Cotman, John Crome, Philip Wilson Steer and Thomas Churchyard. All are highly regarded East Anglian artists with an international reputation. We noted the work’s condition, measurements and any marks, labels or notes on the reverse, as well as gathering any other relevant information from the files.

We then moved to the offices at Ipswich Museum and began the process of uploading the files to the Art UK website. This has been a particularly exciting element of the project for me. I am delighted to be helping make available online some rarely seen parts of the collection.

Art UK was formerly known as BBC Your Paintings and is an extraordinary resource for art lovers, as it features all the oil paintings in every British public collection. Their new venture is to feature all the works on paper and, as I regularly use the website myself, it is a great thrill to find myself contributing to this. We have uploaded over 300 pictures, which will be appearing on the website in the next few weeks and I feel proud to have been a part of it.

George Frost
George Frost


A life of their own

Hi, Esme again,

Sharing a few more photos that I have stumbled across while sifting for images for the Colchester + Ipswich Museums website.

The photos and objects that have stood out are the ones that have a little bit of personality.  I found these images of a seal being moved by the team at Ipswich Museum amusing. It is a taxidermy seal, but it is hard to tell! I was also drawn to them as the seal is totally out of context.


Ipswich Museum has a wide variety of collections from around the world. Just writing this post has made me realise how much less familiar I am them in comparison to Colchester Castle. Below is an image from the Egyptian collections. Was the Ancient Egyptian that this was made for quite mischievous?

2 Temple Place, Ipswich Museum

Looking through the photos, it made me realise how much we can attribute personality to objects. In museums our job is to tell the story of the object and something about it’s history. Sometimes this can be difficult, but in these examples, their expressions give them a life of their own.

If you have any captions for them please add them in the comments below!

Until next time,


My Trainee Journey – A reflection of (almost) a year in museums

Hello again

The end is nigh for my, and my remaining colleagues’ traineeship. It is rather scary, as it only feels like last month we had our induction week.

I have been on leaps and bound these last 11 months. I’ve achieved things I never thought I would, and learned every step of the way. From documenting African collections and Munnings’ sketchbooks, to project management around Autism accessibility, and not to mention all those fun work trips and conferences like Moving on Up and Transformers.

What I am keen to write about is my perception of museums in general, before and at the end of my traineeship. Everyone who works in museums, always says “you will never visit/look at a museum/exhibit in the same way again!” and this is certainly true. For example, when visiting my brother in Glasgow, I went on a trip to the Riverside Museum and I actually enjoyed it more than the art museums I used to always see and love.

I could write a whole thesis on this, but I’ll stick to my main points. The reason I particularly enjoyed the Riverside is because I now have a better understanding of museums, rather than JUST the collections, as I did before the traineeship.

Museums are more than simply physical buildings of historic objects, as I have learned through The Training Museum and from everyone of my colleagues at Ipswich, regardless of their role or position.

They are the centre of a community. The objects and history are the core of a museum, this I have no doubt, but they do not define it. Rather they are a strong case for having a presence in the community.

Without going off on one, I want to conclude by saying: next time you are visiting a museum and you see a Tudor Cap dating 1504, or a master class painting from the 20 century, remember that there is so much more going on around those objects, and museums are, and always will be, striving to change lives.

Phew! A bit of an article, but I hope you get my drift.

Until next time


[I dedicate to this post to every colleague in the last 12 months who has made this traineeship a success.]


The Keys to the Museum

Hello, Michael here again.

It’s been quite a task this past year getting to know the innumerable keys for the different museum buildings. Large ones, small ones, even tiny ones! Old keys, as well as new keys. Silver, gold and bronze keys. One has a bit of red tape, another has a B written on it. One has a triangular head, another looks like a helmet. No one knows what this other key is for.

The keyholes also pose a bit of a challenge. Some are difficult to manoeuvre, they need to be waggled or tugged in a certain way before the mechanism will respond. You need to get to know them. Others turn anti-clockwise. Some keyholes are very hard to get at and involve crouching or stretching to reach them. There are doors that push open, doors that pull out, screens that slide across or shutters that lift. Large historic locks with big black keys are my personal favourite. It is very satisfying to unlock the main door to Christchurch Mansion.

oman keys
Roman keys from Castle Hill Villa, Ipswich

The process of getting to know all the keys has gone hand in hand with understanding the job. It is a happy experience now to open up in the mornings. I know what key unlocks each door and the whole process glides along like a pleasing ritual that must be performed every day.


There are dangers however. The jangle of a large set of keys is very uplifting, but it’s also something to be wary of. Walking through the museum at closing time and jingling your keys can lead to an over-inflated sense of self-importance. ‘It’s time to go home!’ they tell the last few visitors in an officious manner as we roll towards 5pm. This feeling is quickly pricked when you realise you still haven’t quite got the hang of all the alarms and security settings (luckily the Duty Officer has) and that there is always plenty more to learn in this job.


A penny found

Hi, Esme here,

Just thought I would share this incredible photo with you. I stumbled across it while sifting for images for the Colchester + Ipswich Museums website, which is undergoing a revamp so visitors can better access our services.

The image may have been shared through our Museum social media in the past, but I thought that it was just too good not to share again and I am sure that Colchester cyclists today would find this image inspiring.

I can’t help but wonder how fast the race would have been. Due to photography at the time, surely they might have been more blurry if they were moving at great speed? Unlike the two in the distance, wobbling along and having a chat.

I did a little research into penny farthings and found a famous quote from American author Mark Twain, which he wrote while learning to ride (also known as an ordinary) that goes: “Learn to ride a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.” How brilliant that someone thought to record this race and that it has been kept safe, so we can peer into the incredibly dangerous world of penny farthing races!

Until next time!


Oh Happy Study Day!

Hello, Michael here again.

A day at the British Museum! What more could a Trainee want? Especially as the visit took us behind the scenes and introduced us to the mounting and storage methods used by the Collections Team for their vast trove of works on paper.

I have always been fascinated by drawing, painting and print-making. When I saw the British Museum had organised a Skills Sharing Day devoted to the care and presentation of these works, I was quick to book a place. I’m not usually a morning person, but on this occasion, I was very happy to be on the 6.18am train to London. I even arrived early in the fierce London heat, full of eager anticipation… and I wasn’t disappointed.

The morning was spent studying the different materials and methods used to mount and display works on paper. We learnt about conservation mount boards, their different types and weights and how The British Museum uses a French-made brand. We learnt about hinging and backboards, as well as melinex sheets to protect fragile surfaces. We also got to make two hinges from delicate Japanese paper, a V-hinge and a T-hinge, which hold and support the paper within the mount.

Box of Italian Renaissance drawings.

I have always been able to spot a British Museum mount for two reasons. The first is their elegant rounded corners and we were given a demonstration of their simple and effective corner cutter. The second is the distinctive stamped name and details that appear below the window aperture. Again, we were given an explanation of the manual typographic stamper, which requires a good eye, a steady hand and a brave heart to use. Following the practical work, we toured the hi-tech mounting room, containing huge computerised mount cutters, as well as traditional manual devices.

After lunch, we moved to The Prints and Drawings Study Room, an historic interior with a special atmosphere. Here we were shown several methods of storage used by the museum including conservation boxes, portfolios and folders. I was impressed by the way they had used a difficult Victorian space to accommodate a vast number of priceless works. Boxes marked Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rubens and Constable filled the old storage-shelved cupboards. Prints by Rembrandt, a drawing by Degas and the original print blocks engraved by Durer were all brought out for us to see. I knew I was in Heaven when I sat down to look through an original, hand-coloured copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake.


The day was full of fascinating insights into the way The British Museum operates and it was all delivered in a practical and helpful tone. It felt like one group of museum professionals helping others with sensible, down-to-earth advice, which is exactly what the day had been designed to be.

I felt very lucky to be a part of it.