This blog follows my placement with Research & Cultural Collections at the University of Birmingham in January 2014, where I will undertake a range of collections management projects to further develop my skills in research, cataloguing, exhibition and preventive conservation.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Final reflections

It’s hard to believe that it’s already my last day in Birmingham! My time here has been really enjoyable and I'm so thankful for the experience and to everyone who helped make it happen. I was made to feel very welcome from the moment I arrived, and while it’s been sad to say goodbye to all the lovely people I've worked with here, I've also had time to reflect on just how much I've managed to do and learn in only 4 weeks.

A token of my gratitude: TimTams

(Photographs by Jenny Lance)
I've been fortunate to work closely with extremely professional and knowledgeable curators, conservators, collections assistants, researchers, educators, administrators and photographers across the diverse collections here at the University of Birmingham. Along the way, I've been able to compare and appreciate how these collections are managed by Research & Cultural Collections, Cadbury Research Library, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts and Winterbourne House & Garden, to meet the specific objectives of what are very different and unique institutions.

The placement has been undoubtedly “hands-on” with an impressive program tailored by the staff at RCC to match my interests and background. I've been able to strengthen and gain confidence in my existing skills – documenting and conserving objects in preparation for exhibition, providing preservation advice, helping with the packing and re-installation of artworks, researching in archives and receiving training in professional museum photography. Even more valuable has been the challenge of working in areas in which I’d had no previous experience, such as curating an online exhibition and assisting in the delivery of educational programs for school students. This has opened my mind to the ways in which collections can be used and interpreted, and to possibilities beyond my chosen field of study.

Like the University of Melbourne, the collections at the University of Birmingham are large, varied and endlessly fascinating. After one month here I feel like I've only just scratched the surface! It has been a privilege to work first-hand with such extraordinary material. It goes without saying that the collections are a unique resource for students and staff. As a visitor to Birmingham, I've also discovered that the collections can tell a fascinating story that is about more than just the University experience, but encompasses the history, people and development of the city. As at the University of Melbourne, the collections here are an invaluable resource to the broader community.

I'm extremely grateful for the experience of the last four weeks and will look forward to welcoming the next recipient of the Museums & Collections Award to Melbourne in 2014!


And I forgot to mention...

Research & Cultural Collections organised an exciting and very full program of activities for me. Some of the other things I've been up to while in ‘Brum’:
  • Attended a preview screening of Tearing up History: a fascinating documentary about iconoclasm during the French Revolution by Dr Richard Clay, an academic at the University of Birmingham. With my background in political studies and current studies in conservation, it is certainly a topic that combines many of my interests and an area I’d like to explore further.
  • Climbed the stairs of the newly opened Library of Birmingham and took in the fantastic view of the city from the rooftop – 9 floors up!

  • Attended a wonderful performance of Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’ by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with other students from the Cultural Intern Scheme at the magnificent Symphony Hall.

  • Visited the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists Gallery and the contemporary IKON Gallery, ate delicious Indian ‘balti’ dishes, trekked around Licky Hills and had a drink at the ‘smallest pub in Birmingham’ with the very hospitable previous Award recipients, Chloe Lund and Katy Wade.
Dinner with some of the team from Number 32.
From left, Back: Clare Mullett, Sue Franklin
Front: Chloe Lund, myself, Sarah Beattie (Barber Institute of Fine Arts), Anna Young, Clare Marlow, Nadia Amal

A (student) conservator turned curator

One of the more challenging projects I was tasked with while in Birmingham was to curate an online exhibition based on material from the Lady Barber Archive housed at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The archive contains a sizeable amount of photographic and written material relating to the Barbers’ many interests throughout their lifetime – including agriculture, equestrianism, travel, art collecting, fashion and gardening – much of which has not been previously exhibited. Having come to the material with almost no background knowledge of the Barbers, nor any experience in curating an exhibition, it was a revealing process to search through the material and piece together images in order to tell an interesting and accurate story. I decided to narrow my focus to explore Lady Barber’s interest in gardening and along the way learnt some fun facts about the ‘gardening craze’ that gripped 19th century England. It turns out to have been a theme with some of my other projects here. At Winterbourne House & Garden I've been researching members of the Nettlefold family, who were also keen gardeners around the turn of the century. At Winterbourne, the garden itself forms an integral part of the collection – and gives a whole new (and very literal) meaning to the idea of a “living museum”.

Winterbourne House & Garden (during warmer months!) Image source:

Based on my close handling of the material in the Lady Barber Archives, I was also asked to compile a report detailing some basic preservation recommendations to improve the storage of photographs.

I will be excited to see the exhibition when it ‘goes live’ on the Barber website in the coming weeks! In the meantime, the 'Art of Anatomy' is now on display.

The completed installation at the Cadbury Research Library (Photographs: Jenny Lance).

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Telling a story

Over the past four weeks, I have had the opportunity to observe and participate in several educational workshops run by the Learning & Access team at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. One of the (many!) benefits of the Museums & Collections Award is that it takes recipients outside of their comfort zone to develop skills in areas in which they have no prior experience.

 I was involved in two clay-modelling workshops aimed at primary school-aged students and a writing workshop with secondary school students in their final year. As an area in which I’d had no involvement before, I found the educational programs to be a very different way of interpreting and engaging with collections – and a lot of fun! It was fascinating to observe how different age groups responded to the same objects, and to note the similarities and differences in the delivery of workshops and the reception from the students. Common across the sessions I attended, the workshop leader would tell a story about the collection, using a particular painting or sculpture as a ‘hook’ to spark the students’ interest. Items from the collection would then provide the creative stimulus for students to produce a work of art or piece of writing.
As a conservation student, I often find it interesting to reflect on why we might value a particular object and decide that it deserves to be cared for and preserved. Invariably it is because an object can tell a story about a significant historical period, person, place or event. An object may have very little material value, but it is the intangible value and meaning that we place on objects, and our ability to communicate that significance, which ultimately determines if and how we care for them.
A favourite with the kids: A Rhinoceros Called Miss Clara, bronze, about 1750. Image from:
One of many stories from the Barber collection:
'Miss Clara' was an Indian rhino whose mother was killed by poachers. As a baby she was adopted by a Dutch sea captain who took her back to the Netherlands in 1741. He happily kept her in his house until she grew too big and then toured her extensively across Europe. There she was a sensation, eagerly viewed by the public and paraded in front of royalty.
Funnily enough, I spied a certain 'celebrity rhino' in one of the images I mounted for the 'Art of Anatomy' exhibition a few weeks back...
Albinus, Tables of the Skeleton and Muscles, (1749). Image source: Cadbury Research Library

Final week: Eduardo Paolozzi

It’s hard to believe that I’m already nearing the end of my placement – with so many diverse and interesting projects and collections to study, the weeks have certainly flown by.

Today I assisted Clare Marlow (Research & Cultural Collections) with the packing and re-installation of a series of prints by Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005), an artist with very strong ties to the University of Birmingham. Fascinated by technology, science and pop culture, Paolozzi was a prolific sculptor, printmaker, collector and teacher throughout his life. In 1996, Paolozzi became an Honorary Graduate and gave the University several series of prints and his final large-scale sculpture Faraday (2000), now an icon of the University campus.

Eduardo Paolozzi Faraday (2000). Image source:
Moonstrips Empire News (1967) is a series of one hundred colourful screenprints consisting of random texts and images installed at the entrance to the Law Library. They create a warm and inviting space – a Pop Art explosion covering the walls, staircases and even the ceiling! Several works were de-installed to be documented and professionally photographed by Patrick Dandy in the studio at RCC. I carefully re-packed the works so they could be safely transported back to the Law Library. I was curious to see how re-installation would be managed with such an unusual arrangement – but it was nothing that a step-ladder and a tin of paint for touch-ups couldn’t fix!

Patrick Dandy photographing a Paolozzi print. (Photograph by Jenny Lance)

Eduardo Paolozzi, Moonstrips Empire News (1967). (Photograph by Jenny Lance)

Packing the Paolozzi prints. (Photographs by Jenny Lance)
Re-installation in the Law Library

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Third week: Brain washing

This week has allowed me to focus on two ongoing, and very different projects in much greater depth. At the Barber Institute of Fine Arts I have been undertaking research for an online exhibition of material from Lady Barber’s archives. Additionally, at the Wilson Conservation Studio I have been carrying out basic conservation treatments to a series of medical waxes.

As previously mentioned, the anatomical wax models were created by Friedrich Ziegler during the late 19th century and were used as teaching tools in the Medical School. From a sizable collection, four of the waxes have been selected for the exhibition curated by Professor Alice Roberts, ‘The Art of Anatomy’, on display at the Cadbury Research Library from 3 February – 18 June 2014.

The Cadbury Research Library Flickr stream featuring images from the exhibition can be viewed here:
After a thorough search through the conservation literature on the composition of wax models and the various treatment methods available, a suitable approach was devised in consultation with Clare Marlow (Research & Cultural Collections), Sarah Kilroy and Marie Sviergula (Wilson Conservation Studio). The wax surfaces were initially dry-cleaned with a vacuum and a soft, sable-hair brush. After testing, the models were then wet-cleaned with cotton swabs and an appropriate solvent in a fume hood to remove the ingrained dirt.

A long process, but one with a very satisfying end result!
'Brain washing' in the fume hood at the Wilson Conservation Studio (Photograph: Sarah Kilroy)

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Digitisation and documentation

Another crucial aspect of collections management that I was able to reflect on this week – digitisation refers to the conversion of an object, image or data into an electronic format. It is an issue that most cultural institutions are now faced with, or are at least beginning to encounter. However, the type of collections, resources, staff and technology available to cultural institutions invariably means that each will handle the task of digitisation differently.

The varied approaches to digitisation within the University of Birmingham alone highlights this. At the Cadbury Research Library, a high-quality scanner is utilised to quickly digitise large quantities of mostly flat, paper-based material. This method also allows for the capture of intricate details, for example the fine cross-hatched lines in an intaglio print, which could be studied to identify an engraving or etching. A different method is required at Research & Cultural Collections (RCC), which is mostly composed of three-dimensional objects. A professional camera and photo-editing software, studio lights and backdrop are used by a dedicated staff member, Patrick Dandy (Museum Photographer). During the week I joined 3 other students in a photography training session at RCC. Patrick took us through the standards and settings required to capture high-quality images of collection items, ‘as they really are’. We then had the opportunity to practise what we’d learnt, each setting up and photographing an object using the equipment at RCC. It was an extremely practical, informative and rewarding session.

Focus on Curating photography training session at RCC, 23 January 2014 (Photograph by Nadia Awal)
 But why go to all this trouble? A key reason is that digitisation improves the use and access to collections. With a high-quality image linked to an online catalogue, a researcher on the other side of the world has the ability to study an object in great detail. However, cultural institutions also need to make images available online in a way that is also objective, informative, inspiring and user-friendly.

Digitisation can also be an important tool in the preservation of collections. A digital record of an object can reduce the need to handle it. High quality images are also a key aspect of the documentation of collection items – for instance, when an object is first acquired by a museum or gallery, before and after it is displayed in an exhibition or goes on loan to another institution, and during conservation treatments – to record any changes to the stability or appearance of an object.
Condition reporting in the conservation lab
During the week, I also assisted Clare Marlow (RCC) and Sarah Kilroy (Wilson Conservation Studio) with the selection, transportation and condition reporting of four anatomical wax models from the Medical School Collection.  The teaching models were created by Friedrich Ziegler during the late 19th century and will be featured in the upcoming ‘Art of Anatomy’ exhibition at the Cadbury Research Library. As is standard in conservation practice, before commencing any treatment I had to compile a detailed summary of the appearance, method of production, and condition (aesthetic and structural) of the wax models. It will be my job to clean them in the coming weeks!
Test cleaning a late 19th century wax model of a gibbon foetus, created by Friedrich Ziegler