6 Dec 2017

The Collection Support Trainee Diaries:
Part 2

Hello again everyone! I’m back with part two of my Trainee Diaries. It’s been a few months since you last heard from me and there’s been many-a changes in that time. Mainly that my placement here at Birmingham Museums has now come to an end and while I’m very excited for my next steps, it’s not without sadness that I look back on my time here. I’ve loved it so much and I’m sorry to be leaving the great people and objects I’ve had the pleasure to work with. It doesn’t seem very fair that I should keep all the wonderful things I’ve learnt to myself. So, I thought for my parting blog, it would be nice to share some of the fantastic objects I’ve come across while doing various tasks here at the Museum Collections Centre and some things working with all these objects have taught me. Enjoy!

Botany sheet

First on my list is this Herbarium sheet of an Orchis latifolia plant, or, a Marsh palmate orchid. This sheet is from a Herbarium, a catalogue of preserved plant specimens, created by William Ick. Ick was a 19th century botanist who compiled an award winning herbarium of plants in the Birmingham area in 1836. Botanists are people who study the science of plants. They compiled these catalogues by mounting dried plants and their various parts onto a sheet of paper, often noting information about the specimen on the sheet. This practice helped conserve and document numerous plant species and means we now have records of plant types that are no longer found in the UK.

Herbarium sheets in the collection were the first objects at the Museum Collections Centre I worked with, on my very first day! It was with these sheets that I first learnt basic collections care skills. Particularly in relation to handling objects. Everyone has to start somewhere and with further training and lots more experience dealing with objects for various reasons, I’m now a pro at handling collection objects. Feel free to call me Emma MacSuperhands if you please, I don’t mind. 

Button making machine

Next up we have this very remarkable Linen Button Making Machine, manufactured in 1914. It was made by Buttons Ltd, a local button manufacturing company based in Aston that has now closed. This machine was used for the automatic production of, you guessed it, linen buttons. 

The production of buttons was one of many trades that came about in industrial towns like Birmingham when UK manufacturing grew. Mainly because of innovative changes the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th Century brought about. Particularly in relation to factory work, machinery, engineering and transport. 

The growth in UK manufacturing occurred in a lot of industries. This included the textile industry where a wider range of clothing and materials were produced. Over time, UK manufacturing and industries continued to grow, pushed along by national and international product demand, continuous innovation and an abundance of resources. And just like that, the need for buttons also increased as the textile industry expanded. But these buttons needed to be light, durable, washable and non-damaging to the textiles they were placed on, gosh darn it! Hence not only the need of linen buttons, but also an automatic machine like this one that could assemble linen and sheet brass into buttons at a rate of about 25 buttons per hour. 

However this only lasted for a time. The combination of various factors such as inefficient production rates (I mean 25 buttons an hour isn’t THAT impressive), newer technologies and materials coming into use (plastic buttons did all the linen button could do) and cheaper labour being available in other parts of the world, meant that by 1965 the linen button making machine retired, as it could no longer compete. This was also seen in many other industries and there was an overall decline in the UK manufacture of goods.

But fear not, we’ve safely guarded this object, which you can take a peep at on one of the Open Afternoons that happen at the Museum Collections Centre on the last Friday of every month. So if you can, book a place, come along and keep your eyes peeled for it! (Find out more about the Open Afternoons and how to book a place by visiting the What's On page).

If you’re wondering what this object taught me by the way, by looking into its history I have developed better research skills. Which means I can also record more information about the object on our database. Information people might find useful to know in the future, so, yayyyy!

Kohl pot

Last, but not least, is this delightful cosmetics jar from Ancient Egypt. It’s one of many in our collection and dates from the Middle Kingdom which was circa 2050 BC and 1800 BC. That’s around 4050 to 3800 years ago. Made from stone, this little pot was produced during a time when various aspects of Ancient Egyptian life was greatly revised and flourished, leading to the Middle Kingdom also being known as the Golden Age. 

The jar could have been used to hold Kohl, a popular ancient Egypt cosmetic worn around the eyes. Today we use Kohl pencils as a cosmetic. Ancient Egyptian use of Kohl has even been cited as the original inspiration for the smoky eye trend worn today. 

This cosmetic jar is one of thousands and thousands of other cosmetic jars. Some produced in the Old Kingdom that came before it’s time and some in the New Kingdom that came after it. That is because some practices in life and culture are constant and necessary. Just like the need to look fabulous. Or the need for museums to have continuous documentation of where and what objects are. Any practical information that could save someone stumbling across it and wondering why there’s a funny piece of stone here.

It’s survived this long, through all our fads and trends. Had I and others before me not learnt the importance of documentation in museum practice, then this little kohl pot may not have stuck around long enough for us to know that looking fierce never goes out of fashion. 

Anyways, that’s all from me folks. I can’t thank everyone at Birmingham Museums Trust enough for all the wonderful things they’ve taught me. I’ve learnt so much and done so much in my short time here and will carry these skills and practices with me forever. It’s a bittersweet farewell from me and I hope you liked the blog. I’ll probably find a way to sneak back in somehow, but ciao for now! 

P.S. Writing this blog taught me that it’s important we share as much of the collection in as many ways as possible. Everyone should get the chance to enjoy the collection, even if it is in a store, because, why not?