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Preserving the past
Objects of historic and artistic importance are all very well, but skillful presentation is essential to boosting their appeal. Not every museum can afford to have specialists on their own staff, which is where the Oxfordshire Museums Service comes in.
And in these straitened times with public sector funding cuts, external work is helping sustain the service based at its resource centre in Standlake.
Sarah Morton, head of the technical services unit, said: “We have always worked for our partner museums, those at Abingdon and Banbury and the Museum of Oxford — they buy in our services and we also provide training for their staff and volunteers.
“Volunteers have a lot of enthusiasm but not necessarily a background in museum conservation. We are offering these other museums help in looking after their collections.
“Now we are extending our services and providing support for smaller museums — such as the Vale and Downland Museum in Wantage.
“We want to be able to retain as many specialist skills here as possible. I specialise in archaeology, and others in our team are specialists in social history and textiles. We have two conservationists, two exhibition officers and a specialist in framing conservation for works of art.”
The majority of the work undertaken is for other Oxfordshire museums with occasionally help given to others in neighbouring counties.
“We also work for archeological units, perhaps on newly-excavated materials that may need to be examined,” Ms Morton added.
“It could also turn out the material is so important that it ends up in our archives here.”
Curatorial services, object mounting, display case manufacture, package and storage, collection audits and condition surveys are all aspects of the conservation services.
While general advice can be given to members of the public, this does not include information on antiques or valuations.
“We are willing to give people advice about conservation if they ask for it,” said Ms Morton.
“People can contact us. And if we don’t have the specialist knowledge they need or if their object is not something we work on here, we can point them in the direction of somebody else who does.”
The technical service unit has recently been helping with an exhibition on the life of King Alfred for the Vale and Downland Museum.
“We have some of the objects in store here,” said Ms Morton.
“The Wantage museum pays for the conservation work we do and for our advice on the installation. They also cover the costs of staff travel and the use of our equipment and technical skills.
“This helps us towards retaining all our individual specialist skills — one person would not be able to cover all the specialisms.”
Miss Morton has been using her own expertise over the past year on an object which has created considerable public interest — the Anglo-Saxon brooch found at West Hanney, during a metal-detection rally.
Decorated with garnet and gold inlays, the brooch is thought to belong to the 25-year-old woman whose remains were discovered nearby and indicates she was of high social status.
“This is a good example of a specialist job, and why we are so keen to retain these skills for working on our collections,” she said.
Following a successful fundraising, the seventh century brooch has now been secured for the Oxfordshire Museum collections following extensive work. Ms Morton explained: “It was quite unstable, and in need of cleaning and conservation,” said Miss Morton.
“Sections which had become loose had to be re-adhered and the missing jewels replaced.
“People will be able to see how much it has changed since it first came out of the ground. This has been time-consuming and complex work.”
West Hanney residents saw it when a one-day exhibition was held in the parish church. It is also to be displayed at various museums throughout the county.
The project brought a new dimension to the work of the Standlake unit as, for the first time, staff worked with scientists at Cranfield University in Shrivenham where a computed tomography (CT) scan of the brooch was made.
The Standlake team has two other major projects this year. One is the new displays at Abingdon Museum, due to be open in time for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration weekend in June.
“It is a huge re-arrangement of the displays involving conservation, mounting and refitting of the galleries,” said Ms Morton.
“We have been advising on materials for the refitting.”
Following this, there will be the opening of the two new galleries at the Museum of Oxford which is moving to new accommodation in Oxford Town Hall. These are now being prepared.
“The objects from the collections are being reinstalled and re-hung,” said Ms Morton.
“The walls here are so high that it has not just been a case of going up a ladder. We have needed a tower to carry out the work.
“With both these exhibitions opening this summer, it will be a really exciting time.”
And that is not all — there is another new venture at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock.
Among its smallest objects are items such as rings, a gold Iron Age coin and a Roman brooch — some of which were metal-detecting finds.
Special lighting has been installed in the case for these small treasures and a process had enabled holograms of the objects to be made which can be viewed through 3D glasses.
Ms Morton said: “It is fantastic to be able to have a really good look at the objects. It is definitely worth going to see.”