Cocktail Party, 4 October 2003 BRLSI Collections 10 Years On

Before the revived institution could operate from 16-18 Queen Square major repairs were required, which would not be completed till 1995, but this did not stop the work of the collections volunteers.

In 1993 Bob Whitaker (first chair of the Collections Sub-committee) organised the movement of the collections to parts of the building where they would be safe from the impending building work. Among the volunteers was Jack Bullock, one of the few members of the revived institution who had visited the institution at its original location on Terrace Walk.

While building work was carried out in 1994, a team of volunteers began the task of accessioning the 7000 or so volumes in the library, giving each volume a unique reference number. The number was also recorded on the card index inherited from the library authority. This mammoth task was completed in 1995. By January 1995 all the building work had been carried out and the collections were transferred to the basement area.

In 1996 Linda Wigley (Development Manager) mounted a ‘Taster’ exhibition using items from the collection selected by the volunteers. On one side of the ground floor room Linda tried to recreate the atmosphere of the original institution using some of the old cabinets and display units. The other side was laid out more like a modern museum and included two purpose-built display units. The former display included ‘period’ lighting and ‘museum red’ walls, the latter strip lighting and white walls. For some reason this arrangement has remained to this day.

During 1996 Sheila Metcalf and Trudy Wallace were busy transcribing four volumes of the Jenyns Correspondence, hundreds of letters sent to the Rev. Leonard Jenyns by scientists and other learned men of the nineteenth century. These important archives have since been registered with the National Register of Archives.

During 1996 the funding for Linda’s salary, provided by South West Museums Council and the local authority, had run out, and instead Paul Elkin was employed as part-time Curator. Brenda Vicary-Finch took over Linda’s administrative duties and Jane Coates was appointed official Archivist. Dr. Jenny Gunning took over the chair of the Collections Sub-committee.

My involvement as a volunteer began in 1997 and under Paul’s direction the volunteers began unpacking, inspecting and sorting the museum collections. This was a huge task and was not completed until 2000. We are all indebted to the dedicated work by volunteers during this period: -

Sali Dening, Letitia Holt and Dawn Hodgson helped Jane to accession the Archives, a task in which they are still engaged, apart from Dawn, who left the team to do more specialist work studying the human remains.

Don Lovell, later helped by Muriel Anderson and myself and more recently by Rosemarie Davies and Peggy Freeman began a computer catalogue of the Library. Whilst this was going on, George Greatwood compiled a subject index on cards, by reference to every book on the shelf. George’s dedication was quite extraordinary, and we are very grateful for his efforts. His subject index has been invaluable.

Being an amateur botanist, I was keen to sort out the Herbarium. Most of the herbarium sheets had been stored in parcels tied with string and with the help of Cas Serafin these were transferred to boxes to give some protection from insect attack. At the same time a card index was created and later a grant was obtained to allow Christopher Broome’s herbarium to be catalogued on computer. This was a joint project with Bristol City Museum and as a result they provided us with a ready-made database for cataloguing the natural history collections.

In the Geology Store, Ruth Abbott and Peggy Freeman did an audit check of the Moore collection, and Ruth, with a little help from Stephen Brearley and myself transferred data from the card index to computer. More recently, Adrian Brain has catalogued the Lonsdale collection.

The Minerals, originally in a chaotic state with specimens separated from their descriptive bases, was tackled by Sue Cowdry, mineralogist extraordinaire. After several years of dedicated work she has managed to reunite at least two thirds of the specimens with their original bases. Sue’s data has since been transferred to a computer catalogue designed for us by two students from Wiltshire College, Trowbridge.

Tony Cowdry, Sue’s husband, joined Denise Cusick in sorting the Natural History and Ethnological material. Tony re-housed the egg collection and cleaned and re-housed the seashells, while Rear Admiral Tracy cleaned and catalogued the Jenyns collection of land and freshwater shells. As a result of their efforts it is now possible to get at any item in these collections, whereas, previously they had been piled from floor to ceiling and mostly inaccessible.

During this time a large percentage of Paul Elkin’s time was spent erecting shelving and providing suitable storage cabinets that were brought back every so often from storage. A lot of planning was required to enable all this work to be done in such a restricted space.

By 2000 Jenny Gunning was Chair of Trustees and I had taken the chair of the Collections Sub-committee. Much of the sorting was now done and the collections were all accessible. The emphasis was now on cataloguing. Several PCs were now in use and Paul and Carol Birkeland-Green began building image catalogues using a scanner and their own expertise in image processing. Emma Frater began the task of cataloguing the photograph collection, starting with the Lockey collection of early views around Bath and Judy Bowles began a study of the oceanic artefacts.

While this was going on John Lewis, helped by Evelyn Lewis and Christina Bramble, began restorative work on the Jenyns Library, many of the leather bound volumes requiring treatment to make the leather more supple. Cleaning and minor repairs were also carried out. John has since been joined by Judy Partridge, Tim Gulliford and others. Ordinary members are also helping restore the Library to its former glory by supporting John’s Adopt-a-Book scheme, whereby members sponsor the repair or rebinding of their chosen volumes by professional bookbinders.

A collaboration with Bath and Camerton Archaeological Society, begun in 2001, whereby Nick Griffiths, who is a professional illustrator, trains their members in the art of archaeological drawing, and we are provided with detailed descriptions and drawings of our collections.

In autumn 2001 Paul Elkin left us for East Anglia to be closer to his family, but agreed to act as curatorial adviser until we managed to find a new curator. By way of compensation the Collections Sub-committee was joined in 2002 by Martin Leyland who had museums experience. Martin, who had previously designed a database for Durham Castle museum, designed one to enable us to record the ethnological and other artefacts. Denise Cusick and Jude Harris begin the task of cataloguing the material that Paul and Carol Birkeland-Green had scanned.

Brian MacElney of the Museum of East Asian Art has been helping us improve the documentation accompanying our Oriental items, many of which had been wrongly described. Chinese students from Bath University have been translating inscriptions on these objects. Now almost all of the photographs have been catalogued and Cataloguing of the prints and drawings has begun with help from Andrée Peacock and Stuart Foley.

In autumn 2002 we obtained provisional registration under Phase 2 of the Museums Registration Scheme, and we are just about to submit our first annual progress report.

The most recent task that volunteers have been engaged in is the production of the modest exhibition on display this evening and illustrating ten years of BRLSI history. This has been compiled from archive items generated since the institution was re-launched, including newspaper cuttings collected by Brenda Vicary-Finch, photographs taken by Bob Draper, Brenda, Jean Brushfield, Trudy Wallace, Evelyn Lewis and others. This demonstrates the significance of archives and provides me with a good opportunity to remind members of Jane Coates’ wish to retire as Archivist. The job of Archivist can be very rewarding. The archives hold many clues to help answer questions related to the history of this institution and its collections. Is there anyone out there who will rise to the challenge?

Robert Randall, Chairman, Collections Sub-Committee