Oxford Away Day

Last week our Documentation and Collections Management teams went on an away day to Oxford, to have a look at some of the storage at the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums in order to see if they have utilised any storage solutions that we can learn from for our own collections. We were givena tour of the Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art at the Ashmolean Museum, which opened in 2009 after extensive redevelopment. Their study centre allows visitors and researchers access to the collections, which are housed in very impressive  and shiny storage areas. We were all quite jealous of their honeycomb-shaped scroll cabinet and shiny sliding racks for housing panels!

In contrast, the stores at the Pitt Rivers are older and more along the make-do-and-mend lines that I’m used to from the small museums in which I’ve worked. But it was still all of excellent quality, and they had very clever padded mounts for textile samples that were very much coveted by our team.

After our tours, we had some time to explore each museums, as well as the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which was obviously the highlight of my day! I will need to make another trip to Oxford sometime this summer, though, because we only had time to see little snippets of each museum, and they were all wonderful. Here are a few of my highlights:

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Documentation Assistants in Space

…Storage space, that is. And my title is actually now Documentation/Collections Assistant. Which is a small but important distinction, as it marks the end of a long, desk-bound year, and the beginning of a three-year project in which I will actually get out of my office and finally see some objects! I’m so excited. So far I’ve only seen photos of most of the objects I’ve worked on, because my job has purely been data-tidying for the Collections Online project, the (mostly) impressive-looking results of which are available here. I’m particulaly proud of the Natural History records, because I worked bloody hard on them, as did our lovely curators, and we got them finished in a very short space of time (the 294 records for the Cooper Collection of skeletal mammal material were done in a week flat). I even enjoyed the three laborious days I spent poring over historical maps of Christchurch, Dorset, in order to ascertain the provenance of the various specimens in the Hart Bird Collection (a beautiful collection of bird taxidermy dioramas constructed by the eminent taxidermist Edward Hart in the 19th and early 20th century).

Now I get to sally forth into the collections for work on the ACE-funded Ethnography Re-Envisioned collections review. I even got to choose some steel-toecapped boots for myself last week (safety first), which I’ve never needed before because I’ve rarely had the opportunity to handle objects. The project is in its very early stages…we are currently compiling a comprehensive location list for all of our storage areas to ensure that they are all entered in our collections management database, and in a consistent format. This has to be done before we can really begin on the review, as we need to be able to produce object lists by their location in the store.

The next stage will be to cross-reference the database records with the original accession registers to make sure that we have all the available data for our objects (and that it is all correct), and THEN we will finally begin working with the objects themselves – measuring, marking, photographing, etc., hopefully with the help of some curators to check the identification and provenance of objects. Which is something I am obviously incapable of doing, as I’m a natural historian with a very limited knowledge of ethnography (i.e. none at all)! All the same, I am looking forward to exploring the ethnography collections of the Horniman, as we have some really fascinating objects which you don’t need to know anything about to appreciate for their beauty (or occasionally hideousness!) and the skill of their construction.

As an off-topic aside, while running (figuratively – never run in a museum, kids) around the building this week listing locations on my spreadsheet, I took my camera with me to capture some of the natural history areas that I’ve not really had a chance to see before, such as the spirit store and the taxidermy collection. Here are some of my favourites…

Museum of the Week #4.2

In contrast to Animal Inside Out, Brains at the Wellcome Collection is a very academic exhibition. The text is smaller, more extensive, and more technical. But they can get away with this because they don’t have to cater for children – Brains is aimed at those aged 14 or over, and they hand out cards at the entrance warning viewers that the exhibition contains sensitive and potentially disturbing materials (not only are there real human brains in jars, but there are also videos featuring surgery). Apparently they have had a few fainters, which may explain why two of the video screens weren’t working when I visited – there are notices on the screens saying they are out of order, but I suspect they may have been taken off because they were too upsetting for some members of the audience.

I don’t have problems with fainting, so I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition. The historical information on the study of brains, and how our knowledge of the working of the brain has developed over time, was fascinating – and I was particularly pleased to see some 19th century wax teaching models of brains from the collection of Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum (just because I used to work there and I have an abiding love for their collections!). The academic tone is softened by a section at the end of the exhibition discussing brain donation and harvesting, which is rather more emotive, as it includes photo portraits of people who have donated their brains to the Brain Research Trust (one of whom has subsequently died), and papers from a Nazi concentration camp in which the brains of children were harvested for research without the parents’ knowledge of consent. A model of Einstein’s brain is also included, along with a microscope slide section of his actual brain, although it is acknowledged in the text panel that Einstein did not want his brain to be removed after his death.

Unfortunately, I have spent so long writing (or not writing) this, that there are now only two days until the exhibition closes! But if you are in London and have time, I would strongly recommend it. I enjoyed it far more than I did Animal Inside Out; I found the academic tone of Brains engaging and the content fascinating, whereas I found myself feeling rather underwhelmed with the level of interpretation provided in Animal Inside Out, despite the superb production values and awe-inspiring specimens. But my preferences tend towards reading and facts, rather than just looking at things – Animal Inside Out provided lots to look at but little to read, while Brains was, to my mind, a much more successful exhibition because it offered both.