History Centre

Thinking of doing a work placement? My experience with CMAS

on Wednesday, 29 August 2018. Posted in Conservation, History Centre

I can’t believe that the first year of university is over! It goes so fast and with so much information it can be a bit overwhelming, but trust me, all that hard work and studying will pay off. The Conservation of Objects in Museums and Archaeology undergraduate course at Cardiff introduced me to a whole new world of practical science, as well as in-depth theory, of conservation materials and specialised equipment, such as x-ray and air abrasion machines. By the end of the year I felt pretty confident with the concept of conservation but was still nervous on how to actually apply the theory with real, archaeological objects; in a true work environment.  This is where a work placement comes in. My first-year placement was at the Wiltshire and Swindon History centre, as part of the Conservation & Museum Advisory Service (CMAS), a commercial business which deals with issues both in museums and in public collections.

Although it can seem daunting at first, this experience is essential for developing those practical skills and applying the theory with real, archaeological objects, as well as understanding the treatment of different materials and the ethical choices conservators must make; focusing on what’s best for the object and adjusting treatment plans with the client’s wishes accordingly. Keep in mind that work experience is for your benefit, so don’t panic when you have millions of doubts and questions because the people you work with are there to help you (even if you ask questions every 5 mins).

So anyway, onto the actual conservation, hooray!

First things first, you will need to assess the object just by looking at it and writing up a condition report, which simply states any observable issues with the object. The majority of my time was spent working with a Roman ceramic oil lamp in the shape of a foot! Quite a fun object from Chippenham Museum, but as you can see there is a bit of a messy application of adhesive around the centre of the lamp where it has broken in two and was re-joined.  There were also scratches, dust and cobwebs on the inside, layers of red dirt/soil on the surface as well as white flaking corrosion (see figures 1-4).

Before treatment:

Figures 1-4

Ok, so the lamp required a good clean and that adhesive definitely needed to come off. Ultimately, the decision was to completely remove the adhesive and undo the join so that I could re-attach the two pieces with a better, cleaner join.  In order to remove the adhesive, I needed to work out what solvent it was soluble in. For this, I took small samples of the adhesive from the lamp by slicing off some of the softer areas with a scalpel, under a microscope.  I then put the samples into a petri dish and tested them with different solvents (see figures 5 & 6).

Testing solvents on the adhesive:

Figures 5-6

After about 30 minutes, I could see which solvent made the adhesive go soft and rubbery. The process of removing the adhesive required quite a lot of patience as the it didn’t want to budge; a scalpel was used to remove larger chunks of the adhesive and a poultice was placed around the join. A poultice was a way of creating a solvent environment to help loosen the adhesive and separate the two pieces. 
 *Just to give you an idea of the tools used in this process, I’ve taken a couple of photos for reference.

Figure 7 From left to right – pin vice, plastic tweezers, scalpel, wooden stick and cotton wool

Figure 8

In conservation, we usually make or own cotton swabs by using a bamboo stick or cocktail sticks (depending on what you’re working on) instead of regular, pre-made cotton swabs.  Making your own means that when the cotton gets dirty it can be easily replaced and the size of the swab can be varied so you can get into the small nooks and crannies that need a good clean. It also means that we aren’t throwing away millions of cotton swabs and being more environmentally friendly.

After many tries, the poultice wasn’t loosening the adhesive, so I went in with the scalpel and pin vice to try and dig out some adhesive in the join. Another poultice was then left on for a couple of hours. When it was removed I was able to gently pry apart the two pieces (finally!) and clean the new surfaces (see figure 9).

The Fabric of Life

on Tuesday, 03 April 2018. Posted in History Centre, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Tales

V & A Museum T.23-2007

Sometimes here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, a researcher turns up with an enquiry that really captures your imagination. This happened to me last year when Cathy Fitzgerald arrived to research material for Moving Pictures, a BBC Radio 4 production inviting you to discover new details in old masterpieces:- http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswf9g
This link will allow you to listen to the programme produced and review the image of this wonderful coverlet that the V & A hold in their textile collections.

The coverlet was acquired from Kerry Taylor Auctions with the support of the Contributing and Life Members of the Friends of the V & A and was made in Wiltshire in 1820 by a lady called Ann West.
Kerry Taylor of Kerry Taylor Auctions, specialists in textiles,  describes the moment of arrival when a gentleman delivered it covered and wrapped in a large flannelette sheet, which when unpacked revealed this large 2.5m square bed cover; a real ‘tour de force’, colourful, vibrant and packed with pictorial images that draw you in and begin to tell a story.

It is wool appliqué and patchwork, with embroidery worked into the surface and is a valuable primary source in a pictorial sense giving a snapshot of life in Wiltshire around 1820, focusing on the everyday and depicting various trades, professions and social events that were part of day to day life.

The images and especially the centre panel depict biblical references, such as the Garden of Eden, David and Goliath and Moses being hidden in the bulrushes. The outer images give a taste of rural Wiltshire life, so have a closer look to see what you can find.

The reason for Cathy’s visit to the history centre was to research Ann West herself. There is a possibility that she may have come from Chippenham as a Milliner’s and Drapers is listed in Pigot’s Directory of 1830 and 1842 in the name of Ann West, but this connection cannot be confirmed. There is also a possibility that she came from the Warminster area, but again, nothing has yet been confirmed. However, the cloth she chose to use is absolutely typical of West of England textiles and lends itself perfectly to this type of appliqué work.
We hold some good examples of cloth pattern books from the Collier family and Crosby and White of Bitham Mill, Westbury, and these show exactly the types of fabric used in the coverlet; strong woollen cloths, typical of the West of England and produced in a wide selection of colours. These would have been dyed with natural materials as chemical dyestuffs were not in use until synthetic dyes were developed in the mid-19th century, specifically William Perkin’s mauveine in 1856. The coverlet is also hand sewn; sewing machines c1820 were still in the early stages of development and not generally in domestic use until mid-19th century. You can begin to imagine the time it would have taken to produce such a piece.

WSHC 719/1 Collier cloth book 1774-1787

What can the quilt tell us about life at this time in Wiltshire?

Celebrating 70... and a boy called Heritage

on Tuesday, 07 November 2017. Posted in Archaeology, Archives, Conservation, History Centre

Archives and archivists, artists, archers and archaeologists – all were on hand to make our annual open day an event to remember.
In fact it was a triple celebration when we welcomed the public to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.
Celebrating a decade in the “new” building would have been excuse enough for us to organise a special birthday open day, but 2017 is also the 70th anniversary of the county-wide archive being established, so we were really keen to pull out all the stops. The icing on the cake – there’s always cake at the History Centre – was the official presentation of our Archive Service Accreditation from The National Archives (TNA).

Heritage Cake - you can never have too much cake!

So at 10am on 28th October we opened our doors to the Family Fun Day and a host of activities designed to show off the wide-ranging work we do at the History Centre.
The stars of the show were a selection from the 70 favourite archives that have been featured on our website this year. It was difficult for staff and volunteers to choose their favourite archives – especially as it takes almost eight miles of shelving to house the archive collection – but all had a certain wow-factor. The display featured Kings, Queens and Presidents; artists and architects; nurses, soldiers and engineers; magnificent illuminated manuscripts and simpler texts. All had a story to tell and visitors on the day were fascinated to discover some of the gems of the collection.

A selection from the 70 favourite archives - and a wandering highwayman.

There were displays and activities showcasing all the work that takes place in the History Centre and this year for the first time our colleagues from the Copy Certificates team put on a display explaining their job. The team provides certified copies of birth, marriage and death certificates but it’s not always modern day certificates that they handle. They were able to show some of the more unusual girls and boys names from more than a hundred years ago – Lemon Maud and a boy called Heritage!

Behind the scenes with the conservators

Looking Back To Our First Day

on Tuesday, 31 October 2017. Posted in Archives, History Centre

Thursday 31st October 2007 we opened the doors to the new Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.

Six months had passed since we closed the doors for the last time at the Record Office in Trowbridge. In that time we had moved 30,000 boxes of archives making 91 lorry loads from Trowbridge to Chippenham and safely installing Wiltshire’s archives into the new purpose built facility.


It was a real mixed bag of documents that went out, with members of the Wiltshire Family History Society coming in to look at Parish Registers and Bishop’s Transcripts. Officers from the Rights Of Way Department based at County Hall were here first thing to look at the County Council’s files for rights of way. Naturally there was interest in the local area with several maps of Chippenham being produced.

We produced 85 records (5 Wills, 3 Parish Registers, 2 Bishop’s Transcripts 66 documents and 9 maps) and welcomed 230 visitors to the new office on that first day. 

In the subsequent 10 years we have retrieved and returned quarter of a million documents, engaged 210,000 visitors and issued 14,900 new readers cards.

Here’s to the next 10 years.

Ian Hicks, Community History Advisor

Paste Paper Fun!

on Monday, 23 October 2017. Posted in Conservation, History Centre

Paste paper making is an historic craft technique used in bookbinding to make decorative papers for books.

They are fun and easy to make and suitable for all ages

You can come and join our workshop at our Family Fun Day on Sat 28th October at the WSHC in Chippenham, but if you can’t make it you can always have a go at home!

Materials needed:

• Corn starch paste*/ Wheat starch paste*/ wall paper paste (*see online for easy recipes)
• Acrylic tube paint/watercolours
• Paper (sugar paper is cheap and colourful and works really well)
• Some ideas for tools for mark-making:
    o Paint brushes
    o Plastic combs
    o Lollipop sticks
    o Fingers
    o Wooden spoon

What to do:

1. Mix some paint and paste together  (you want the consistency to be thick but preferably smooth without lumps)
2. Brush the paste and paint mixture onto the paper covering the whole surface
3. Create patterns by using a tool such as a comb or paintbrush (or anything else that can create a nice mark on the paper) by dragging or drawing across the surface
4. Leave to dry

Here are some that we made:

Sarah used a lollipop stick and the non-bristle end of a paintbrush to create this one
Gabby used a comb to create the subtle flower shape
Sophie used glitter paint on black sugar paper and a lollipop stick and comb to create the patterns
Beth dragged a comb across different stripes of colour
Sophie Coles, Assistant Conservator

My year in archives

on Saturday, 12 August 2017. Posted in Archives, History Centre

As my Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Skills for the Future: Transforming Archives’ traineeship draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on all the new, unique and exciting experiences I’ve encountered over the past 10 months, which have made this time so memorable. My personal focus has been on learning and acquiring valuable skills to carry forward into a future career – and in this sense the traineeship has more than served its purpose. The fact that I’ve been able to undertake the journey surrounded by such kind, interesting and supportive people has been a bonus!

I still clearly remember the day I started at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. Completely new to the world of archives and heritage, I was briefed by the previous trainee, Jess, who provided me with tables, spreadsheets, logs and lists that she had kindly prepared to help me manage my day to day activities. (Jess is very good at this sort of thing). Despite nodding calmly in response to her, my internal state was one of sheer anxiety – ‘There’s so much to cram in!’. In hindsight, the year has been nothing but smooth, engaging and fun… there was really nothing for me to have worried about.

If you’ve read my previous posts about coming to the traineeship and some of the interesting insights I’ve had along the way, you’ll get a sense of all I was up to in those early days. In truth, the time hasn’t become any less busy! From attending a training week at the National Archives of Scotland to visiting the City of London Police Museum, with pit-stops at various digitisation conferences, fundraising training days, and of course, the (world-famous) Museum and Heritage show at Kensington’s Olympia.

Closer to home, I’ve continued my training in traditional archive skills, looking at the typical  content and uses of education records, parish registers, manorial documents, wills and testaments, local government records, and even lunatic asylum records. Whilst learning about the latter with archivist Margaret Moles, I decided to conduct a small project, researching a name which had come up in a separate oral history interview I’d conducted. My interviewee had shared the story of his great aunt, who had suffered mental health issues in the 1920’s and was hospitalized at Roundway Mental Hospital, Devizes. Using what I’d learned, I traced the patient’s actual medical records from the time – with permission - and read about her day to day experiences at the hospital. I was able to learn about the nature of her condition, what her doctors had to say, and even glean some information about her relatives at that time. From there I sourced a book in our local studies library called ‘Down Pan’s Lane’, written by Philip Frank Steele, a historian fascinated by Roundway Hospital. This enabled me to get a sense of what life was like for patients at the time – from their food and sleep routines to gardening activities, and even the programme of entertainment laid on by medical staff! It was absolutely fascinating, and proved a valuable resource for putting this one lady’s personal story into a wider historical context.

Over the course of the year I have also had the privilege of contributing to several Heritage Lottery funded projects: Lacock Unlocked: Community Archive, Wiltshire at War: Community Stories, and Creative Wiltshire: Collecting Cultures. The latter two are ongoing and have attracted huge publicity – even drawing interest from BBC Radio Wiltshire. (Watch this space!).

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