Friday, 27 February 2015

A bird in the hand... - Photographing the Leeds Bird Skins Collection

Pink Cockatoo ​skin, photographed by Sara Porter

Our bird skin collection has all been fully rehomed and documented. Now that the Skin Deep project has finished, the bird skins are all arranged in drawers, so are much more accessible to view and handle than their previous home in boxes.

Patterns and plumage - photographing the bird skin collection

My work this morning was some of the nicest in a while! My task was to choose around a hundred bird skins to be photographed by Sara Porter for a new display panel in our Leeds Museum Discovery Centre store. I was looking for a range of colours and patterns, so all I had to do was take a peep in each drawer, picking out my favourite in each. I chose birds which covered all the colours of the rainbow, and more besides, as well as some which have amazing patterning on their plumage.

I have seen the majority of our bird skin collection, but I was still taken aback by the beauty of these birds, as well as coming across some amazing specimens I hadn’t seen before. I really am privileged to be able to see the amazing plumage of these species close up. I thought to myself of the phrase ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’. Obviously this is supposed to be a metaphor, but it got me thinking…

Why do museums preserve specimens?

One of the things that museums can offer visitors, researchers, and indeed staff like me, is the chance to see some of the immense biodiversity we share our planet with, up close. Seeing a specimen in a museum can be very useful to give a sense of size, and enables us to look closely at details we might miss when watching a living specimen in the wild. For instance, some of our butterfly collection have patterns which you would not be able to view closely if you saw a live butterfly flitting through a rainforest.

Speckled Tanager skin, photographed by Sara Porter
Museum collections are a valuable resource for research, scientific and otherwise, and for inspiring visitors. Personally, I find it sad that many animals were killed in the past for museum collections. However, since they were, I am glad that we can use them to benefit surviving biodiversity, and to add value to our lives. And it is vital that we do.

Highlights of the collection

Taking the ‘bird in the hand’ adage literally, I couldn’t disagree with it more. It has been amazing looking closely at the plumage of beautiful (and beautifully named) birds such as Speckled Tanager, Splendid Sunbird and King Paradise Bird. But I would love to see a distant glimpse of any of these birds in their natural habitat. Imagine the sun reflecting off iridescent wings, or the movement of long tail plumes during flight. I can try to imagine, because I have seen these birds’ skins today. And that makes museums brilliant.

Natural history collections offer us the chance to see some of the world’s biodiversity under one roof. But it would be a very sad world if all we could do were to imagine living birds from museum skin collections. Nothing can replace the experience of seeing nature, living, in the wild, complete with smells and sound and feeling.
By Rebecca Machin, Curator of Natural Sciences
Follow Rebecca on Twitter @Curator_Rebecca

Thursday, 19 February 2015

A Tale of 1,001 Fabrics - the Hepworths Collection

Gentlemen of a certain age (OK, then, over 50) are more than likely to have owned a suit which was made in Leeds, once the capital of the British clothing industry. Leeds boasted many clothing manufacturers, large and small, including the likes of Sumrie, Browns, Berwin & Berwin, John Collier, the Fifty Shilling Tailor, Burtons and Hepworths.

Burton’s factory in Harehills was the largest of its kind in the world, boasting the world’s largest sewing room, photographs of which are still awe inspiring. Hepworths, founded in Leeds in 1864 and now transformed into Next plc, was famous for many reasons, including its monstrous HQ building on Claypit Lane and the first association of a famous designer (in this case, Hardy Amies) with a High Street tailor/retailer.  In the battle of one-upmanship, Amies was a trump card.

Inside the Burton's Factory sewing room.

Hepworths is part of Leeds’ heritage and, not unnaturally, Leeds City Museums and the magnificent Discovery Centre have lots of Hepworth-based material. These include the in-house newspaper, the ‘Hepworth Mercury’, which printed news about employees and about the company itself. Did you know that Hepworths provided uniforms for all sorts of groups, including Olympic athletes and Leeds Rugby League football club?

Volunteering with the Textiles collection

Several of my relatives worked in the Leeds clothing industry, so textiles must be in my genes (and jeans).  It seemed natural that my working life should relate to the industry and I ended up as head of the Textile department at Huddersfield University. When I retired, I looked at doing some voluntary work in order to make use of whatever expertise I have. So, I arrived at Leeds Discovery Centre under the tender care of Natalie Raw, Curator of Textiles and Fashion, and have been involved in digitising parts of the clothing collection ever since, from 18th century women’s dresses to 20th century men’s waistcoats.

So when Natalie mentioned that there was a box of Hepworths menswear fabric swatches to look at, dating from the 1960s/70s, I jumped at the chance. These have been sent to Armley Mills Industrial Museum for visitors literally to get a feel for Leeds made fabrics. The rest are in my gentle hands being catalogued.

My textile design students at Huddersfield came up with weird and wonderful colour combinations, but even they would be amazed at what I have come across. There are fabrics the colours of which don’t so much shout at you but yell at the tops of their voices. Some are absolutely hideous (to a 2014 fashionista like me!) but must have had some sort of market then. Some are beautifully subtle (how did they sneak in?).

There are the top of the range fabrics (Golden Heritage, usually pure wool) and the ‘bog standard’ range, often containing polyester.  Some of the fabrics might even be in vogue today (although for men much younger than me): the bright red jacketing and bright yellow trousering would certainly appeal to some.  Overall, it provides a fascinating review of a bygone age and an endless source of inspiration for me.

Discover more about Leeds tailoring

If Leeds tailoring is your thing, do visit the magnificent tailoring gallery at Armley Mills, which is about the history of Leeds tailoring. And if you like delving, exploring and being amazed, join the army of volunteers at the Discovery Centre (Find out how to volunteer for Leeds Museums and Galleries)!

By John Pearson, Dress and Textiles Volunteer

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Memoria exhibition at Armley Mills

Jan delves into the history of Armley Mills
I was packing envelopes in the dining area at Armley Mills. The place was empty except for a family sitting 5 tables away, snacking and chatting. “You should tell them.” “Why would anyone be interested? I only lasted half a day. I couldn’t take the noise.” I started eavesdropping…

As a teacher, I’d learned to tune out low level conversation so it was pure chance I picked up on the very person I was looking for - my first success in locating the elusive former employees of Armley Mills. Sandra’s daughter was looking at one of our flyers: “Did you or someone you know work at Armley Mills?” I had to interrupt. “Excuse me, did you just say you worked here at the mills?” Success at last. I had a name and a phone number to pass on.

The Memoria Project
Memoria is an exciting, innovative project combining the arts with local history. We’re a team of 5 volunteers led by Hannah, Assistant Curator, with local artist David Bridges. We have the task of locating as many people as we can who were associated with Armley Mills and uncover their history. Unfortunately, somewhere between the mill's closure in the early Sixties and its acquisition by Leeds City Council a few years later, all employment records vanished. 

So, we have distributed leaflets, put up posters, trawled social media, cold-called local residential homes, tried to reach teachers in local schools, visited local organisations… all in the hope that we can locate more people with a story to tell. Stories David can translate into ethereal porcelain and light, ready for exhibition in September.

Memories of Armley Mills
We have 2 cardboard boxes of surviving documents – a fascinating assortment of photographs, accounts and correspondence covering the first half of the last century. Two of us sifted through with carefully gloved hands, looking at invoices, petty cash expenditure and photographs in the hope of tracking down any useful name. We learned of the flood. We read about spigots and valves and machine maintenance. We speculated about the shareholders and directors and their use of petty cash but we didn’t find any hint of anyone who might still survive to tell their tale, apart from the Tempest family, who David is already working with.

Laura and I sat in the dining area, warming our hands on our coffee mugs, surrounded by the buzz of excited children attending the Victorian School. Another idea! Why not ask the children if they have elderly relatives or neighbours who worked at the mill? I created a leaflet to give to the children from local schools who visit the mill. Several hundred have now been distributed. Surely one child will take it home and ask the right questions of the right people. Surely one great grandparent will come forward.

The search continues!
It’s such a shame people don’t recognise that their everyday lives are an important part of our social and industrial history and deserve to be recorded. 

For more information about the Memoria project, read David Bridges’ blog, or see the Past Exhibitions at Leeds Industrial Museum.

Could you share your memories of Armley Mills or Leeds' Industrial Past? Get in touch with the team at Armley Mills.

By Jan Brown, Volunteer, Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Mirror Image Museum - Creating an exhibition at St James's Hospital

Over the past several months, I have been organising an exhibition for the Bexley Wing of St James’ Hospital, Leeds. Each year an exhibition is organised for the cancer ward at the hospital by a curatorial trainee, with a different theme that is open enough to draw from the entire museum collection. My theme is symmetry and, on 2nd February we installed ‘Mirror Image Museum’ – a collection of symmetrical objects and photographs incorporating natural, social and industrial history.

Step 1: Choosing the objects

Once the theme of symmetry had been chosen, I asked each curator to send me a list of objects that they would like featured in the exhibition. Over 100 objects were suggested, ranging from porcelain dishes to glass cinematic prisms – the natural history objects I chose myself. I selected those I felt best suited the exhibition, either due to aesthetics, interest or practicality. 

Step 2: Condition checking and photography

Each object chosen for the exhibition was forwarded to Emma, our conservator, to be condition checked. After Emma had cleared each object for use (or rejected some due to the bright environment of the hospital being unsuitable – light damages objects over time) I arranged for a professional photographer, Sara Porter, to take photos of the objects that could not be displayed physically. 

Step 3: Writing labels and planning the space

I requested label text from each curator and started writing up the natural history text. As the physical objects were still in quarantine at this point, I used Sketch Up to create a 3D model of the exhibition space (pictured left) – a great help for planning and ensuring things fit where I wanted them before getting my hands on the real things!

After the label text had been sent to graphic designer Steve Mann for production, finally I gave the top surface of the cases a fresh coat of paint and applied the magnetic wrap around covers Ruth, Exhibitions Curator, had ordered to give them a more professional look. 

Step 4: Installing the objects

Fellow trainee Adam gave me a hand setting up a ‘trial run’, laying out all of the objects in the cases to ensure that there were no nasty surprises on the day! Thanks to this the installation went very quickly and smoothly when Ruth and I set the cases up in the Bexley Wing. 

Seeing months of planning come to fruition was greatly satisfying, as was seeing the interest of passing visitors. I hope that ‘Mirror Image Museum’ entertains visitors and staff at the Bexley Wing during the three months of the exhibition.

By Glenn Roadley, Natural Sciences Curatorial Trainee
On Twitter @batdrawer1