Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The mystery of the empty box...

A little while ago, Gemma blogged about the magic of old labels on objects. This got me thinking about another of the pleasures (and problems!) of the packing project we’re currently working on: empty boxes.

Empty boxes from the Glassby collection

It might be a bit of a truism that curators need to be good detectives, but there are few better examples than the empty box.

For instance, at the moment staff here are working in the Archaeology Store packing up the Glassby collection* of ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern amulets, scarabs, ushabtis (funerary figurines that were placed in tombs) and other assorted treasures.
In amongst these wonderful objects are a number of empty boxes labelled with exotic descriptions like ‘Amulet of Ptah Soker, an Egyptian God’ and ‘Figure of a Hippopotamus’.
There’s an inevitable sinking feeling that comes with finding these, as the realisation dawns that the hard work of tracking down the missing objects is about to begin. Thankfully, the answer usually turns out to be quite simple – here, some have been given new boxes while others were removed years ago so they could be put on display.
Modern collections management systems, with their ability to track the locations of objects, help no end, but ultimately they rely on the data we put in them. A curator still needs good instincts, patience and the ability to follow clues to solve the mystery of the empty box.

Egyptian amulet found by Flinders Petrie
The box above stands out in particular for me because of its reference to the famous archaeologist Flinders Petrie and it’s inevitable that the labels on some empty boxes are more intriguing (at first glance at least) than others. The best case I’ve heard was an ex-colleague who found a box that claimed to contain ‘glass negatives showing the Holy Grail’. Now, it might only have been photographs of the Holy Grail, but that would have been exciting enough, right? If only the box hadn’t been empty.
*William J.J. Glassby came to Bedford in 1912 to take up the position of land agent for the Polhill family at Howbury Hall in Renhold. Well known as a ‘seeker of curios’, he kept his collection at the Costin Street Mission Hall, where it was ‘always a source of great interest to visitors’.

Tom Perrett @tjperrett

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

We have saved the Settle!

Hello everyone,

we are very pleased to be able to announce that we have been successful in our attempt to acquire the beautiful zodiac settle, designed by Gothic Revival genius, William Burges.

Now, we have done several posts about this before with lots of background information about Burges, and about the settle. You can read our previous post here.

We are very pleased that the Daily Telegraph covered the story. You can read their coverage here. The settle is currently with our conservator. Sadly, it won't be on public exhibition until we reopen in 2012. However, it will form a central part of our new William Burges Gallery within the new Art Gallery & Museum, where it will be on display from 2012 onwards.

Most of all we would like to thank you all for your help and support in our campaign to save the settle. In particular we would like to thank our funders, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and the Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery who all made it possible for the settle to find a permanent home (and settle down) here in Bedford.

*Big Hugs*

Monday, February 14, 2011

Roses are red, violets are blue, today we present more Bawden for you

One of our favourite Bawden designs is a Valentines leaflet for Fortnum and Mason from 1956. Although the gifts advertised are a bit dated (not many women now receive a mink boutonniere from their beloveds or pearl handsewn hogskin gloves, both a very reasonable 5 guineas) the design and the poem are still charming.

My Valentine delights to tease me
Although he often tries to please me;
I’ve always found him quite unruly
Yet cannot help but love him truly
Were inconsolable apart…
What can I give to touch his heart?

My Valentine’s become a fixture,
She’s such a nice amusing mixture;
Though I’m her slave she’s not capricious;
Always looks and smells delicious;
I sometimes think the angels tend her…
St. Valentine – what can I send her?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What are you going to be doing whilst the museum is closed?

Hello all,

When ever we tell people that the museum is closed until the end of 2012, they frequently ask 'Wow! What are you going to be doing in all that time?' The answer, of course, is that we are going to be very busy getting ready for reopening. We're going to be keeping you up to date with everything going on here, and we would really like your comments, feedback and ideas to make sure that our new Art Gallery & Museum is the place for everyone to be in 2012.

Here is Tom Perrett, Head of Collections and Exhibitions talking about our plans for the next 18 months.

If you would like to hear more from Tom, and keep with all the redevelopment news, why not follow him on Twitter @tjperrett 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The beautiful things...

Dear readers,

As you know, we have been packing the museum collections and preparing to move them offsite so that redevelopment work can begin in earnest. One of the most rewarding aspects of this is that we get to see (and handle!) some of the remarkable objects in the museum stores. This morning I spent some time looking at the various remarkable urns and other pieces of assorted pottery in the archaeology collections. These things have been found locally (with some exceptions, of course, where would we be without exceptions?). I was especially drawn to the labelling on these objects. It is interesting to me that archaeologists put labels directly on objects.

Felmersham Churchyard: 4 feet deep
Coming from a Fine Art background, writing directly on an artefact seems fairly odd, and these artefacts have not only been written on, they have fragments of text cut out and stuck to them, and stenciling in two different colours. The reason for this labelling, is that for the archaeologist, the most important thing about the artefact is not what it looks like, but the information associated with it. What I like about it is the level of craftsmanship on these labels, they are a record of all the hands the artefact has been through, since it re-emerged into the world.

possibly from a cowheard
The text on this urn reads 'contained the remains possibly from a cowheard,
as the terminal of an ox goad was found with the cremation'
I think another reason that these labels struck me, was that they are so direct. As a digital and social web enthusiast, I seem to spend a lot of time linking things to things in the great big World-Wide Web. The cut and paste approach taken here seems very refreshing, and you can't say it doesn't work. That said, our Keeper of Archaeology, Liz Pieksma informs me that the remains in this urn are most likely 'not from a cowheard'.

A lot of the finds have the initials and names of the collector emblazened on them - Tom Perrett, Head of Collections and Exhibitions said 'to me this reflects the competition there was between antiquarian collectors to get their hands on the 'best bits'.'

a fine specimen
( a fine specimen ampulla 1st Century) from the Elliot Collection

Some of the finds that I saw in the archaeology store had barnacles on them. Surely these weren't found in Kempston, Felmersham or Biggleswade? Indeed they were not. They were found off the coast of Kent, at the site of a famous shipwreck, Pudding Pan Rock! The pieces in our collection are very similar to others in The British Museum collection, where I found this description of how they were found.

'Fishermen often dragged up Roman bowls, plates and cups in their nets when they fished near Pudding Pan Rock. Sometimes the fishermen’s families cooked and ate from the bowls, but often they sold them to antiquaries. Gustavus Brander (1720-87), a Trustee of the British Museum, once served dessert to fellow antiquaries from dishes found at Pudding Pan Rock.

There was much speculation about this pottery's origins in the 1770s and 1780s. In 1773 John Pownall went with a local fisherman to 'fish' for pottery and other artefacts in what was probably the first marine archaeological investigation to take place in Britain'

Roman pottery from Pudding Pan Rock
barnacle 2


I love how beautiful the textures and shapes of all these objects are. There are quite a few more photos on Flickr. Have a browse and let know what you think of all these things. I especially like how the little handled jars have their papers tucked under their arms, I think it gives them a lot of personality!