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.

key2

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.

Michael

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.

20170619_153411
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.

20170619_160559

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.

Michael.

20170619_154025

Let’s Hear It For Volunteers!

Hello, Michael here once again.

This week (1-7 June 2017) is Volunteers Week, a national celebration of the important contribution made by dedicated and caring people from all walks of life. Obviously volunteers work across many areas of society, but I’m going to focus on the ones that support Ipswich Museum.

As part of The Training Museum programme, I have recently begun work on a project that involves digitising part of the works on paper collection. This is a dream job for me as I’m a great lover of paintings, drawings and prints. I also get to work with two volunteers, which is something new. Over the course of the project, I will be organising how we do things in what will hopefully become a well-oiled machine.

Works on paper

Tat and Joan are two lovely people, with a great interest in Colchester + Ipswich Museums and their collections. They are very efficient and have quickly settled into the process of documenting and scanning pictures.

I can see they get a great deal of satisfaction from helping to raise awareness and understanding of our vast collection and so do I. Firstly, we record measurements, titles, artists, accession numbers and locations. When this done, we scan each picture at a very high resolution (600 dpi is Museum Standard). Having worked as an illustrator for thirty years, I am exceedingly envious of the large and impressive scanner we are using.

Works on paper digitising

Our work will be put into the MODES collections database at the museum and eventually be uploaded to the Art UK website, which will make these pictures available for all to see for the first time. This is one of my favourite websites, so it is great to be contributing to it.

I have witnessed first hand Tat and Joan getting up close to the collection, handling and measuring beautiful prints and drawings. I enjoy the atmosphere of calm focus in the room. Then there is the sense of achievement and satisfaction as we complete each box of prints. The volunteers make a huge contribution to this project. If we multiply this out across the museum and then throughout society, we see what a valuable asset volunteers are to all of us.

This week, Christchurch Mansion hosted a celebration event for our volunteers. It was a small way of saying thank you for all their hard work and support.

Michael

Another Eastern Angle

Hello, Michael here again.

As part of our traineeship, I recently worked on a placement at Firstsite, a contemporary art space in Colchester. One of the benefits of an external placement is that you get to see how a different cultural organisation operates. It was an interesting experience, which helped me think about the different challenges faced by each venue, as well as the similarities.

20170423_151840

Both the museums and Firstsite need to engage with their visitors. They want to encourage them to come in, involve themselves with the exhibits and sometimes respond to the objects. This could be in the form of a workshop focusing on a certain display, a tour, trail or quiz. Both places aim to make visitors feel welcome and part of what they do. Both venues are part of the local community.

It has been interesting to see the differences too. Ipswich Museum and Christchurch Mansion place great importance on the conservation and care of their collections. Light levels are carefully monitored, temperature is regularly assessed and a deep sense prevails that fragile objects must be preserved for future generations.

The focus seems slightly different in a contemporary art gallery as the work is often newly made. With the BP Portrait Award at Firstsite for example, the emphasis is on presenting works in the most sympathetic light, creating an environment that enhances the pictures and intensifies our experience of them. They may not be shielded from daylight in the same way as a Tudor portrait or Victorian watercolour on paper, but they require a different form of sensitivity in their display.

Curators of contemporary art can think differently. It has been fascinating to see how they are almost a different species to the museum curator. My placement has given me an opportunity to stand on both sides of the fence and interestingly, I have found that the grass is a rich shade of green wherever you are.

20160925_142038

Michael

Follow the Nose!

Michael here once again with tales from Ipswich Museum.

One of the roles of our Visitor Services Team is to keep the museum clean and tidy. We do some work before the doors open in the morning, but we also keep an eye on things during the day. Tissues are dropped, maps get shredded, whilst toys, costumes and cushions get thrown about. Nothing terrible, though vomiting schoolchildren can be more of a challenge!

Anglo Saxon Brooch

As I keep an eye on things, I have become increasingly aware of nose prints on glass. Finger and hand prints are always to be found on the display cases, but nose prints are different. Nose prints are a sign of genuine interest. They represent a need to get closer to the object. A visitor wants to look much harder to understand what is in front of them. In this situation they become oblivious to glass, it’s transparency creates a sense of ‘out of sight, out of mind’…which is when they hit the glass.

Usually there is a round, oily mark from the tip of the nose. Occasionally we find a more pronounced shape, which takes in the bridge, tip and nostrils. This implies a more intense level of focus. Now and then, I come across the highest level of absorption, which contains a full nose print combined with a section of forehead. This must be painful. I have heard “ouches” in the gallery followed by laughter or embarrassed denial.

It is firm proof that our collections can fascinate and absorb people. Museums today have a necessary obsession with data collection and visitor feedback. There is an important need to understand what aspects of our displays are of particular relevance to our local communities. Maybe nose prints can become part of this data collection process, where the highest density of oily, nose marks points to the highest level of visitor engagement. Maybe charts or tables can be created, like the ones football pundits on TV use in their post-match analysis, which show clusters of visitor movement and engagement based on nose print ratios.

I have photographed some of the key objects in Ipswich Museum that accumulate the most smears, so you can see for yourself what attracts the highest scrutiny. This is a statistically unproven representation of course.

In the meantime, it’s my job to remove nose prints with a damp glass cloth, helping the next visitor to see clearly and engage more deeply.

FN5

Michael

A Hundred Warm Welcomes

Hello, Michael here again.

I’ve just found out that this is the 100th blog post from The Training Museum Trainees! I know that pomp, ceremony and fireworks are required for this significant event, so I hope you are suitably uplifted by the end of it.

Whilst working at Ipswich Museums, I have been struck by the efforts of everyone here to make people welcome. It happens at all levels, from Visitor Services to the curatorial teams, from event and workshop organisers to the design and exhibitions team. I don’t think museums were always this open and friendly, but luckily times have changed.

As a boy growing up in the 1970s, I was very interested in drawing and painting. Most of my inspiration came from comics and cartoons. I was from a working class, immigrant family living in inner city Manchester. We weren’t the kind of people that went to museums or were even particularly aware that they existed. Our local school never made a visit to one.

I first noticed Manchester City Art Gallery when I was thirteen. I had walked past a few times on the way to the shops. Though I loved to paint and draw, I had no idea that I might be allowed to go into this building. I noticed that people went in and came out, and that there was a uniformed man at the door, who I assumed would not let me in. The building was very grand, looking like a classical temple with a huge flight of stone steps up to the front door. I stopped and looked several times, occasionally climbing those steps, but never making it through the entrance. The man in uniform glared at the scruffy boy stood outside looking in and I knew it was not a place for me.

W4

I didn’t give up. My interest in art was growing and I was an inquisitive little chap. I found The Whitworth Art Gallery whilst walking my dog Patch. It was a friendlier looking building with an entrance at ground level. Eventually my curiosity got too much. I tied Patch up to the railings and ventured through the door. Nobody stopped me. The guard looked and said nothing. I WAS IN! What I saw there fueled my passion for art and art history, shaping my choice of future career. From that point on, there was no stopping me. When I came out, I realised that Patch had been making a terrible noise all that time and had disturbed all the visitors to the gallery.

W5

I can safely say that museums and galleries have changed my life, which is why it is so wonderful to see how much effort Ipswich Museums put into encouraging people to enter. There is always a friendly smile when you arrive, along with an offer of help. The museum is free for everyone and genuinely attracts a wide range of people from all kinds of backgrounds. There are signs outside to coax you in, as well as encouragement to feel comfortable in the building. This is so important, as our museums and galleries belong to all of us. It’s great to be a small part of this warm welcome.

W10

Maybe the best way to celebrate this 100th blog post is to think of the hundreds and hundreds of warm welcomes that museums offer members of the public each and every day.

Michael

 

Drawing the Object

Hello everyone, Michael here.

There is a hidden treasure in Ipswich Museum! A group of objects that are rarely, if ever seen by the general public. These are the Accession Registers, a group of unique books cataloging each object that has come in. They have a very important function. They help curators, conservators and researchers understand exactly what we have, when it came into the collection, how and where from.

I feel very privileged to be handling these books as part of my  work on the Collections Information Programme. Ipswich Museums are currently updating and digitising all the information about their objects. This is a mammoth task when you consider that there are around 77,000! Some of my time is spent photographing objects or transferring information from index cards onto a spreadsheet. I’ve also been packing and unpacking items and recording where they are located.

glove2

Part of researching an object can involve looking it up in the Accession Register. These beautiful, decade by decade records are often hand written. They are full of carefully observed drawings and elegant hand-writing, and I have become a little obsessed with the simple beauty of the drawings. They are both elegant and functional. I love to draw. I find it the best way to really study what a thing looks like, so I find it fascinating to see how carefully these objects have been rendered. They seem to be mostly anonymous and the fact that they are hidden away in a book, inside a locked cupboard demonstrates the humility and dedication of the draughtsmen.

To me, they are quiet little masterpieces. I love the warmth and humanity that is conveyed in the simplicity of the black ink lines. They make me think of all the dedicated curators and museum illustrators that have come before me in this building. The examples I have used are from the 1920 register, but there are many, many more.

That’s all for now. I need to get back to those Accession Registers…

Michael

needles