British Museum Knowledge Exchange: part three

Blythe House. By Docben via Wikimedia Commons

Background

During November 2021, Caroline Brick, who co-ordinates the Hebridean Connections digital community archive at Museum nan Eilean, spent a week at the British Museum in London as part of its Knowledge Exchange programme. This professional programme is funded by the Vivmar Foundation and forms part of British Museum’s National Programmes activities, which brings together collections, best practice and expertise. The Knowledge Exchange programme aims to develop skills, relationships and insights across the heritage sector.

Caroline writes:

The first couple of days of my Knowledge Exchange were jam-packed with interesting consultations, and I was starting to build up a picture of the departments, activities and plans of the British Museum. My third day was to involve a complete change of scene!

Day at Blythe House with the Storage and Display team

The British Museum’s main public site at Bloomsbury is world famous, and enormous – especially for someone like me who is more used to the small scale of Museum nan Eilean. But only approximately 80,000 of its eight million (!) objects are on display in Bloomsbury; most of the remainder of the collection is held at its storage facility in Olympia where it is kept for preservation and research purposes. So I hopped on the Piccadilly line to take me to Blythe House, where I would spend the day with the Storage and Display team. Blythe House is an early twentieth century building in the Edwardian Baroque style – beautiful red brick with a glazed brick interior; it had originally been the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank. Due to security considerations, I was not able to take any photos inside the building – but hopefully my descriptions will paint evocative word pictures. Some of the non-secure areas and exteriors of the building have been used for film locations, for productions such as 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It is certainly a beautiful and striking setting; some of the rooms have even been named by staff after actors who have filmed there!

The British Museum Archaeological Research Collection (BM_ARC)

Elaine Hunter, the Museum’s Collection Storage Project Manager, explained the vision behind this major undertaking. Blythe House had been acquired by the Government in 1979 as a storage facility for the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Science Museum. However, in 2015 the Government announced the sale of Blythe House and the funding of alternative facilities. The British Museum has therefore commissioned the establishment of a new combined storage and research facility, the British Museum Archaeological Research Collection (BM_ARC). The new complex will be located outside Reading, and is being developed in partnership with the University of Reading. Not only will it be purpose-built and therefore fit for purpose, but it will additionally offer benefits such as study areas, a logistics centre for touring exhibitions, and opportunities for local community involvement. Its emphasis on improved public access accords with the British Museum’s long-term masterplan, the Rosetta Project, which seeks to review the care, organisation and interpretation of its objects, whilst improving inclusivity and decolonising its collections. In readiness for the move from Olympia to Reading in 2023, an extensive programme of review, recataloguing and packing of objects is in progress.

Archaeological assemblages; curatorial and collection management

Beccy Scott, the British Museum’s BM_ARC Project Curator, provided me with an overview of the history of archaeology and concepts of prehistory. The three-age system (of the stone, bronze, and iron ages) was developed by mid-nineteenth century Danish antiquarians, as a chronologically-informed methodological concept. It built upon ideas of naturalism and primitivism of earlier Romanticism and was subsequently informed by developments in underwater excavations of, for example, alpine lake dwellings. Early archaeologists aimed to facilitate, via their discoveries, unmediated relationships between audiences and objects, by liftin interpretative scholarly veils. Beccy illustrated her history by showing me some fantastic examples from the archaeological assemblages, such as jewellery and tools – and made them come to life be pointing out nuances in construction by which different usages could be inferred. Some examples of Iron Age jewellery can be seen via the British Museum’s own blog.

Beccy than passed me over to her colleague Becky Vickers, Archaeological Assemblages Project Curator. Beccy was also a participant in the British Museum’s Knowledge Exchange – she visited Museum nan Eilean. If she had half as interesting time at my home museum as I did at the British Museum, she will have had a brilliant experience! Beccy told me about the assemblages she is working on: they are from Mucking in Essex, which is a multiphase site ranging from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages, and which was originally excavated during the 1960s and 1970s. Not only were the Mucking finds themselves interesting, but so was their documentation. This had been digitised during the late 1970s and early 1980s – but unfortunately, although this was a fascinating early adoption of this technology, the format had been superceded and is now inaccessible. Fortunately, printouts have survived – as well as lessons in awareness of digital obsolescence.

I next met Cara Coggan, Collections Manager for Storage and Moves.  Cara explained issues arising from cataloguing the large numbers of objects in archaeological assemblages: the workflow is not well accommodated by MuseumIndex+, the Museum’s collections management system. Therefore, existing assemblage records, requiring revision as part of the pre-relocation audit, are downloaded from Museumindex+, updated globally (for instance, with details of the grid reference of the find site) in a spreadsheet, and then uploaded back into the system. The documentation audit aims for data consistency and a hierarchy of description, to include details of the archaeological site, the material of the object, the find site grid reference, and an object’s registration number. This consistency of approach will aid future object retrieval and research. Practical considerations in repacking are also part of the audit: objects are repacked into boxes clearly labelled with their registration number and site origin, plus indication of weight (for health and safety compliance – so that museum staff avoid getting bad backs!). Alice Foreman, Assistant Collections Manager of Storage and Moves, also explained how the British Museum’s Archaeological Working Group includes both conservators and curators – to consider new methodologies informed by both preservation and documentation.

Archaeological archives

Having been shown amazing examples of archaeological assemblages and how they are audited, documented and packaged, I then spent some time with Elissa Menzel, Project Curator for Archaeological Assemblages. Elissa is auditing documents generated by excavation processes during curatorial fieldwork. She explained that a crucial distinction is made between working documents such as field notes, and subsequent works relating to excavations, such as conference papers about a site. Only the former will accompany assemblages to their eventual new home at the British Museum Archaeological Research Collection; all other archives will join the central Bloomsbury collection (which I subsequently visited later in the week). The fieldwork archives are crucial for adding context and further information to the assemblages themselves. To this end, cataloguing is undertaken to professional standards (using the General International Standard Archival Description), and accreditation from the UK’s Archives & Records Association is aspired to. This was a very good example of how the allied professions of archaeology and archives come together to best tell the story of individual objects.

Non-collection curatorial and large objects

My next meeting was with Henry Flynn, Project Curator for Collection Documentation. Henry confirmed how the relocation audit is providing an opportunity to harmonise collections data. For instance, assignment of object registration numbers had previously devolved to discrete curatorial departments. With the aim of fully integrating museum-wide object data into one collections management system, this meant that there is the problem of the legacy of duplicate registration numbers – so the audit involves the assignment of new unique identifiers.

Henry was cataloguing casts dating from the early nineteenth century; he provided a fascinating account of the history and cultural inheritances of plaster casts from this era. Subsequent to increased interest in classical antiquity deriving from the rise of grand tour culture, demand grew for copies of antiquarian artefacts. This market was fuelled both by the new museums, and by wealthy private collectors. The replica industry enabled contemporary knowledge exchange, and has also benefitted twenty-first century scholarship: casts made of antiquities two hundred years ago preserve and record the state of objects which have since deteriorated, thereby providing surrogates of lost versions. Henry also described the detective work involved in matching poor quality existing catalogue records with objects. A catalogue entry had mystifyingly mentioned a cast of a “horse lump”! By examining published images of the Parthenon frieze, Henry had been able to deduce that the catalogue referred to a particular section of the relief featuring horses. This then led to a discussion of whether artificially intelligent pattern-matching software might in the future be employed to undertake this kind of sleuthing.  I’d previously been interested in these kinds of applications with regard to the evolution of optical character recognition (of print) into handwritten text recognition within archival contexts – so it was interesting to ponder how allied fields might make use of similar technologies.

Henry’s colleague, Gregor Wittrick, Project Curator for Collection Documentation, also showcased the practicalities of relocating large objects such as friezes and statues to their new home at the British Museum Archaeological Research Collection. Special crates are custom-made for individual objects and will also serve as permanent storage for them in their new home; the literally colossal scale of these undertakings was hugely impressive.

Textiles

My final consultation of the day was with Tim Stanton, Assistant Collection Manager, Storage and Moves. In contrast with some of the other collections held at Blythe House, the textiles collections whose audit he was overseeing was already pretty well catalogued. However, definitions of what constitutes a textile can sometimes be challenging; previous concepts of derivation from organic materials have been confused by the twentieth century invention of synthetic fabrics – the collection therefore includes, for example, some recent t-shirts with political slogans. Tim showed me some stunningly beautiful examples from the ethnographic textile collection. These included a barkcloth mask from Panama which incorporates both a boar skull and tusk, and which was ornamented with crimson seeds originally thought to be from the deadly abrin plant – fortunately this proved to be a misidentification. Next came a magnificent Ethiopian royal jacket: made from purple velvet, silver thread ornamentation, and fur trim from a (poignantly) extinct lion, this garment posed conservation challenges due to its mix of materials. Condition state was one of the pieces of data captured during cataloguing – specialist fields to describe textiles included ones for hazards (such, as already considered, poisons!) and multiple dimensions (such as the length of a garment both with and without its fringe). These were nice examples of how the collections management system is adapted for different curatorial departments. We also considered vocabulary used for cataloguing textiles – whether very specialist terminology for rare textiles could be meaningful for lay audiences via the museum’s online public interface – and if they could be sensibly augmented by more generalist descriptions. Finally, Tim showed me textile fragments from Paracas in Peru:

These were originally the decorative hems of mummy shrouds and had been torn off to sell to tourists. Fortunately, the same dry and dark conditions which had facilitated mummification had also preserved these truly amazing embroideries – although being over 2,000 years old, their vibrancy and fine detail was breath taking. The textiles depict flying shamans, and are of such significance that they were featured in the BBC’s seminal series, A History of the World in 100 Objects. I felt immensely privileged to round off my day at Blythe House with a viewing of these globally significant treasures.

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