Thursday, 24 October 2013

Feather conservation

(Feather being dried with cool air from hairdryer after cleaning.)

I am fortunate in my job that I am able to apply for training if it will contribute to my project and I saw a course being run on Feather Conservation by Allyson Rae hosted by the Horniman Museum. As I am working on a project involving bird skins I thought it might useful to know about the problems that can be experienced by feathers in a collection and what steps can be taken.

Most museums have the issue that some of their collection has accumulated dirt on the surface, also some objects may have had poor storage in the past or been handled in a way that has caused damage.  In some cases damage may be irreversible but a Conservator will know how to cope with various issues faced by a collection and how to prevent them or fix them. At the beginning of the course we were given a bent, ruffled, dirty feather and after some training it was surprising at how good it looked after treatment.

By Kirsty Garrod, Biology Curatorial Trainee

Monday, 21 October 2013

Yorkshire: Identitites and Insights

In January we will be launching our Snapshot of Yorkshire exhibition. The exhibition is going to be looking at Yorkshire as a county, how people identify with the county, and of course we want to celebrate everything that is good about it. So that we can include as wide a range of subjects as possible, we’ve been asking people to complete our Yorkshire survey. We are then going to be looking at all the responses to see what people think about their Yorkshire, and to try and give a broad impression of what people think. If you fancy giving us your opinion, you can join in here:

Over the next few months I’m hoping to publish a few blog posts looking at some of the data a bit more closely. From looking at which TV programmes people associate with Yorkshire to finding out what Yorkshire dialect is still being used by people on a regular basis, there will be lots to choose from. And of course, you can come along to the exhibition from January 25th 2014 to find out more!

If you are a budding photographer, you may also be interested in our Snapshot of Yorkshire photography competition - for more information please visit: The winning photographs will be on display at Abbey House throughout 2014 as part of the wider Snapshot of Yorkshire exhibition.

Just to round off, here are a couple of nice quotes about Yorkshire identity that we have already had in response to the survey:

One response on the character of Yorkshire folk: “Traditionally they're seen as dour, old-fashioned, hardy people. That's true to an extent, but Yorkshire people are also upfront, with a dry sense of humour and a relaxed attitude to life.” – Elizabeth Williams, Yorkshire Survey respondent, 2013.

And to finish, a quote on whether you have to be born in Yorkshire to identify as a Yorkshire person: “Anyone who makes themselves at home here, and loves the place should be welcome to describe themselves as Yorkshire.” – Angela Maller, Yorkshire Survey respondent, 2013.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Why museums will send objects out on loan

Many museums and collections are willing to send objects out on loan and there are a number of reasons why they are happy to do this.

Museums want their collections to be accessed, they want people to be inspired and educated and one of the best ways of doing that is by people actually seeing the objects that are being cared for by the museum. The Discovery Centre houses over a million objects and it would be impossible for all of them to be displayed. Having people visit the collection increases access but another way is by loaning some of those objects to other institutions. Museums provide a network all over the country to care for our cultural artefacts and provide resources to the public. Not everyone will store the same thing or have the same resources, so it is important that they support each other in the loaning of objects, enriching what they can provide for people. This facilitates outreach as someone might be willing to go to a local museum but might not be able to travel long distances to see another - sending objects away for a time gives a portion of the collections a wider audience. This can then contribute to a broader understanding of art, history and science, informing people on a limitless number of subjects and how they can relate to their everyday lives - or learning about things that are just plain interesting!

We also want our collection used for research, to help facilitate the progression of knowledge. We sometimes get researchers and students from institutes gathering information from the objects in our collection to contribute to their work. Just this week our Curator of Archaeology posted a blog about the fragment of an Egyptian carved stela that we had had in the collection for many years but did not have much information on. A researcher had referenced it in a paper in 2007 and from that small mention we recently had someone contact us asking for more images. Once they saw what we had they were able to provide much more details on where and when the object was from and what it was a part of. This information will now be added to the label in the gallery, providing more interpretation for the public.

Abbey House objects inspire artists (part 2)

Here are a few more art works from regulars at the Abbey House Adult Art Group:

Victorian watering can, by Trish Bondi

Tea urn, about 1830, Abbey House Museum
Tea urn, by John Shaw
Tea urn, about 1830, Abbey House Museum
Watering can, about 1880, Abbey House Museum

Abbey House objects inspire artists

The Adult Art Group at Abbey House have been seeking inspiration from the museum's varied and curious collections for many a year. Once a month, under the skilled guidance of local artist Gilly Stephenson, the group meets at the museum and are presented with a selection of objects drawn from the Abbey House displays to stir their creative joices. Here is some of work the group has produced recently:

Clockwork pig toy, by Schuco, Germany 1930s, Abbey House Museum
Staffordshire teapot, by Jane Hobson

Clockwork pig toy, by David Peters

Staffordshire teapot, by Angela James

Staffordshire teapot, Abbey House displays

Friday, 11 October 2013

Two ancient Chinese wall painting fragments and a modern copy

Leeds Museums and Galleries has two very old fragments of Chinese wall paintings from sacred caves in the collections. The oldest, shown above, was donated in 1931, by the artist Frank Brangwyn.

This is part of a larger religious painting, from a Buddhist shrine. In a letter from R.L. Binyon at the British Museum to Brangwyn, dated 19 Sep 1931 he says "The figures appear to be part of a large composition in which saints would be grouped around a central Buddha or Bodhisattva.  The principal figure may represent an empress or great lady.  The object she is holding was generally used as a symbolic screen against the dazzling presence of the Emperor". Binyon dated this painting to the Ming dynasty, between 1368 and 1500

Wall paintings are found at many sites in northern China, most famously near Dunhuang City in Gansu province, which is on the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road. Dunhuang was once as important for international business trade and cultural exchange as Shanghai and Hong Kong are now. In Chinese ‘Dun’ means huge and ‘huang’ means prosperity.
Location of Gansu province and Dunhuang City in China. From Wikipedia.

From the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), when Emperor Wu (156-87BC) appointed Zhang Qian as a pioneer traveller to the West (the equivalent of Central Asia now), the Silk Road began to develop. In the following Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589), Sui Dynasty (581-618), and Tang Dynasty (618-907) the route grew further, communicating with even more traders and peoples. The cave paintings around Dunhuang capture the exchange of art styles and beliefs, as the West and East met. 

According to current research, there are around 700 caves close to Dunhuang and about 492 have paintings inside. If the total length of these paintings was added together it would measure around 45 kilometres, and this is why some people called them ‘The library on the wall’.

‘The library’ preserves the art, the religion and society of the time.  The paintings and sculptures of Buddha show how highly he was respected as a god, and the cloud-like smoke symbolises people’s desire to fly, to get closer to god. The decoration and clothing in the portraits of worshippers and others show us their changings manners and life styles, because of the mixture of cultures. One can also see changes in the technology of tools for farming, manufactures, architecture and war. Images of musical instruments and dancers hint at the development of music and dance performances. Vibrant living animals and classic flower patterns tell us the fables of the time, but also the pattern of ancient species. Folk culture is also recorded in festival-like scenes.

Western research on the silk road began, rather notoriously, with the work of Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) who travelled to Central Asia four times between 1900-1931. From these trips he brought back a huge quantity of precious manuscripts, paintings and artefacts, which are now mainly housed in the British Library, British Museum and National Museum in New Delhi. While the British mainly regarded him as a great adventurer, who allowed westerners to look more closely at Asian cultures, many Chinese researchers think of him more negatively. From 2002-2006 a major international research collaboration called the ‘International Dunhuang Project (IDP)’  collected and digitised the large corpus of manuscripts and painting fragments, to all enable more extensive research and make an ‘Online Silk Road’. For further information about this International Dunhuang project, please visit:

Looking through images of Dunhuang wall paintings there are a few of religious scenes which are similar to the first Leeds fragment, see above. Unfortunately this Leeds’ fragment is now rather dark, and has suffered major cracking across its surface. Its seems to be secured onto a leather backing, but we cannot be sure of this until a more detailed examination by a conservator is undertaken. One website image very clearly shows a woman holding a similar sceptre.

Reference website:  

The second smaller fragment in Leeds was probably donated by Sir Alvary and Lady Gascoigne, when they presented Lotherton Hall to Leeds in 1968. It is much lighter in colour and shows a woman with a halo who may be a Buddhist arhat or saint.
A new gift to Leeds, initially presented by the director of the Chinese National Coal Mining Museum to Margaret Faull, director of the UK National Coal Mining Museum, in 2010-2011, and then passed on to us in June 2011, is a printed copy of a detail of a wall painting, which compliments the earlier fragments very well. 

The high quality printing has been done using a collotype print of a digital laser scan. Key for us is the similarity in the raised headdress or crown decoration on this copy, and the crown details of the lead lady in the 1931 Brangwyn gift.  You can see an image of the real version of the complete painting this detail belongs to at

Do come and see these three wall paintings at Lotherton Hall.

By Estelle Wu and Antonia Lovelace

Seven Views near Canton (Guangzhou) on show again at Lotherton Hall

Amongst the generous bequest to Leeds from Sir Alvary and Lady Gascoigne are this group of seven oil paintings, received in 1971. They are all show scenes from the Canton region, and they are all in similar oval frames, with outside dimensions of 280mm height and 236mm width. In 2007, when David Beevers from the Royal Pavilion in Brighton visited Leeds during research for their Chinese Whispers exhibition, he saw these paintings and helped us by asking Patrick Conner for his opinion. Patrick is a Chinese paintings expert at the firm of Martyn Gregory in London. His comments have been really useful as we prepared for the current Chinese Paintings exhibition at Lotherton Hall. He wrote:

'They are all (as you know) Cantonese 'export' paintings of c. 1850, in a style often associated with an artist known to Westerners as Namcheong. The temple scenes do not represent any particular temple, so far as anyone has ever discovered, but the pagoda is at Whampoa (modern Huangbu), a dozen miles from the city of Canton (Guangzhou) : it would have been very familiar to the crews of the Western ships who were obliged to anchor alongside Whampoa Island for several months at a time!.. The remarkable thing about the group is not the paintings but the frames. From the colour of the gilding and the sharp carving of flowers etc they look as if they could be Chinese too, in which case I've never seen anything quite like them. If they are Cantonese, they will be light (Chinese pine), and the Chinese carpentry should be obvious from the back.'

Jenny Hack, our paintings conservator at Leeds, had already investigated one of the paintings, and revealed its canvas support. Ian Fraser, the furniture conservator, was also intrigued by the wooden frames. He agrees that they are Oriental, but maybe Japanese rather than Chinese. We do hope to analyse the wood scientifically in the future.  
An essay by Peter C. Perdue in the MIT Visualizing Culture series, available online, allows us to compare several other Whampoa pagoda paintings with the two at Leeds. The essay is entitled the ‘Rise and Fall of the Canton Trade System – II, Macau and Whampoa Anchorage’ and is available at The closest painting in style to ours is one credited as “The Nine-Stage Pagoda at Whampoa Anchorage”, unknown Chinese artist, ca. 1830–50, [cwBTW_1830-50_Whampoa].
Looking closely at the paintings you can almost read the characters on the red festival banners hanging either side of the door in this work. Maybe the sampan owners have come to help with a major celebration.

We have also noticed that the triple moon windows in the memorial gate in this painting, are echoed in a modern way in the architecture plans for the new Guangzhou Art Museum.

In the Leeds collections we have a large model junk that would match up well with one of the paintings.  

It is currently on show in the 'Fate and Fickle Fortune' exhibiton at Abbey House, for visitors to admire the lucky eyes on the prows. Another key item  in the Leeds collections, reflecting the importance of the Canton trade, is this 18th century punch bowl featuring the European trade factories of Canton, very similar to the one at the Peabody Museum, Essex. The Leeds bowl (LEEAG.CE.1967.24.29), is painted in fine grisaille detail, with a view of the East India Company ship, Pitt, in the centre. 

Hopefully more images of these Chinese export trade items will be available on our own collections website next year, as we are undergoing a major revamp at the moment.

Antonia Lovelace (Curator of World Cultures) and Estelle Wu (intern) 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Why we love researchers! New exciting information on an Egyptian stela fragment

A fragment of Egyptian carved stela in the Leeds Museums and Galleries archaeology collection (LEEDM.D.1960.81) has been on display in Leeds City Museum since it opened in 2008.  It is a wonderful object depicting kilted figures and hieroglyphs, but up until last week I could say very little about its origins or what the original inscribed stone was for.
But all that changed last week with one email.
The stela fragment in question, on display in Leeds City Museum
(c) Leeds Museums and Galleries

A researcher called Alexander Ilin-Tomich contacted me from the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow to ask if I could send him a picture of ‘an Egyptian Middle Kingdom stela’ in our collection, which has only been mentioned once in academic literature: in Malek Jaromir’s 2007 volume ‘Topographical bibliography of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts, reliefs, and paintings VIII: objects of provenance not known’.  I narrowed the options down and estimated that it must be this object LEEDM.D.1960.81.  Alexander confirmed it from the photograph,  and was then was able to tell me lots of information about this one fragment from his own research on Egyptian private memorial monuments.  We now know that: 
  • It is the lower left part of a memorial stela, so a stone for the deceased.  It was probably produced in Thebes, or perhaps Abydos, during late Dynasty 13 to Dynasty 16 (18th – 17th centuries BC).
  • The upper row of the fragment would have probably represented the owner of the stela. The chair leg that is still visible would have seated his wife.
  • The figures depicted at the bottom, making up the most of the surviving fragment, would be the owner’s dependents, colleagues or friends.  The two men on the right are military officials; the hieroglyphs beside them read “[commander] of the ruler’s crew Sebekhotep” and “commander of the ruler’s crew Antef”.
Alexander also sent me images of complete memorial stelae , which give an idea of the possible original layout of this object before it was broken.  This is all fantastic information which we would never have found out otherwise.
Image of an almost complete memorial stela in Moscow, provided by Alexander Ilin-Tomich
(c) The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts
This is why working with researchers is so vital to us in museums.  We provide the links between researchers and collections, and they share with us their knowledge and research results, which we then use to engage our audiences.  Now I can change the label in Leeds City Museum and interpret this object more fully, and update all of our records.  What was once an unidentified Egyptian stone fragment will now be brought to life.

Katherine Baxter
Curator of Archaeology
Leeds Museums and Galleries

Thursday, 3 October 2013

A beginners guide to putting on an exhibition

First - ask lots of questions. Everyone has been very helpful and I have made lots of lists.

Second - What do you want your exhibition to be about? Obviously, I'm working on the Skin Deep Project with the bird skin collection, so that narrows it down a little, but there are many subjects that could be explored that it's hard to pin down. I contacted the Learning & Access Officer and she said that at the moment schools are looking at: feeding, camouflage and extinct/endangered animals, which helps focus it a lot. I haven't decided which one I'm going to do yet, it will depend on what specimens I have, but it definitely narrows field a little.

Third - Setting up the case - First off, you have to consider the de-installation, what's in there at the moment? In that case we currently we have an exhibition on different types of seeds. These were loaned to us around 5 years ago and their owners have to be notified that we wish to return them, then the Conservator has to assess them to make sure that they are in the same condition now as they were when they arrived.

Fourth - Once I've decided what I want in there I have to choose how to display it. The case is tall, visible from all sides and currently has the seeds displayed on Perspex armatures that sick out from a central pillar in all directions. I will do something similar so once I have picked what specimens I want I have to get quotes from people that can make these special attachments. The objects need to be suspended in a way which shows them off to their best advantage whilst supporting them so that they don't get damaged over the long term, as they may very well be in there for the next 5 years. 

Fifth - What information should go with them? There are a lot of facts that you can supply with any object but the majority of visitors are not going to stand for half an hour in front of a huge display of text, they have a lot to see and not much time to see it. You have to provide nuggets of information which people of all ages will find interesting and accessible whilst also accentuating the specimens in the case. Fortunately we also have 'more information' sheets which we provide with each display, so I will be able to go into a little more detail for those people that are more curious.

Sixth - And finally! You have the specimens, you have the labels, you have the display, then you have to install it. As it's only one small case we will carry out a quick change in one day so there is as little disruption to the gallery as possible. The old display and seeds will be packed up in preparation to be put in the quarantine freezer (to kill any bugs that might have got in) and then all the new stuff will slot into place (hopefully).

Wish me luck! As mentioned in the title, I am a beginner, so this entry may well change as and when I learn that I've missed something out...