We are very pleased to have received this piece from Peter Saunders, Director of Salisbury and South Wilts Museum for thirty years and Curator Emeritus. And one of us – a Volunteer!
A few personal reflections by Peter Saunders
Father’s Day fell this year on June 21, a day often claimed by the Summer Solstice, but I’m not inclined to celebrate that day as it’s always a reminder of the day my daughter died. However, this year was different as it carried landmark significance for me: it was on that day in 1970, 50 years ago, that my association with Salisbury Museum began. I arrived in Salisbury to take up appointment as Assistant Curator and the following day was welcomed by the chairman, Cyril Trotman (whose deafness only became apparent when I realised he’d not heard a word I’d said) in the absence of the Curator, Hugh Shortt, who was hospitalized having a leg amputated – not an auspicious beginning! Later, incidentally, when we were joined by a one-legged finance officer, he would joke that there couldn’t be many museums with two members of staff with only two legs to stand on!
It was an interesting first five years: it saw slow progress towards locating suitable premises to enable the Museum to relocate within the city, given a spur by the acquisition of the Wessex collection from the Museum of General Pitt-Rivers at Farnham in Dorset, the first collection as opposed to individual objects to be accepted by The Treasury in lieu of death duties. Salisbury, too, was providing good reason not to choose career advancement elsewhere: here I met my future wife and after Hugh Shortt’s death in 1975 I became the Museum’s Curator, only the fifth since 1860! Subsequently the post was retitled Director. After retirement in 2007, having been the longest ever continuously-serving head of the institution, I failed to escape entirely, becoming its first Curator Emeritus, offering collection support and advice in an honorary capacity – and so here today as a volunteer.
Museums are defined by their collections and during my time running Salisbury’s there were many acquisition highlights. A continuous flow of archaeological objects of all periods boosted the Museum’s claim to Designated status, confirming its collections as being of national significance: it was particularly gratifying that the British Museum was later to show its confidence in Salisbury by forgoing its prerogative right to the Amesbury Archer finds, the largest collection of artefacts from an early Bronze Age burial, including the earliest known gold objects ever found in England. Beyond the Museum’s archaeological renown, it was an especial delight to have been able to strengthen its art-based collections: pictures, for example, by JMW Turner watercolours of Stonehenge and of Salisbury from Old Sarum; ceramics, by the Brixie Jarvis Wedgwood collection; and costume, by for example the 1812 uniform of Captain John Swayne (the first costume in the country to attract a National Art Collection Fund grant).
Moving the Museum from its cramped, decaying quarters in St Ann Street in 1981 was the greatest challenge I faced over the years: in the 1970s plans had been drawn up to occupy the Town Mill and part of the Maltings but this venture proved impractical and The Close beckoned. It was a daunting task: raising funds before the advent of the National Lottery and with minimal staff, looking back, I’m not sure how we did it. I particularly recall the relief we felt when the final objects made it safely across the city to the King’s House in 1981 and the largest exhibit, the Salisbury Giant, together with the Downton fire-engine were installed (a wall had to be taken down and rebuilt that day to allow their access). It was the Giant’s and Hob Nob’s last breath of fresh air – I had last taken them to the Guildhall Square in 1977 for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, where yours truly manipulated Hob Nob in a merry dance. Some 30 years later I well remember being filmed – claustrophobically – inside the Giant to demonstrate his construction and mode of carrying! They join the medieval walrus ivory chess king from the ‘Drainage’ collection as being among my most favoured objects.
Relocation of the Museum allowed galleries to be designed, professionally for the first time, by leading museum designers Robin Wade and Pat Read, both a joy to work with and who created galleries that won awards, notably a Museum of the Year award in 1985. It also enabled many temporary exhibitions to be held, Cats being the most memorable to me for its extraordinarily wide appeal and the popularity of its related events, were enlivened by the likes of Johnny Morris, Bernard Cribbens and Beryl Reid. The Father and Son: Engraved glass by Laurence and Simon Whistler exhibition, too, stood out for me – magical.
Publications, either popular monographs relating to the collections or in academic journals, were seen as a way of extending knowledge beyond the four walls of the Museum, particularly before the rise of the internet. A source of some pride are the four volumes of the Salisbury Museum Medieval Catalogue, published between 1990 and 2012 and, as far as I know, the only comprehensive catalogue of any provincial museum’s complete medieval collection. That so many scholars gave their time and expertise freely to help bring this to fruition is recognition of how nationally significant our medieval collection is and also a tribute to Hugh Shortt, who first conceived the project, and my late wife, Eleanor, who acted as its research assistant for some years.
Of course, I was blessed to have worked with many devoted staff, volunteers and well-wishers throughout those years, ranging from brilliant chairmen who guided the Museum through turbulent times, benefactors who made costly acquisitions possible, staff who worked throughout the night to meet a gallery opening deadline, through to an assistant who set fire the photographic studio and the volunteer who worked her socks off but couldn’t park her Mini without backing it across the lawn! To spare the modesty of the good and the blushes of the less well-behaved, it’s best if they all remain un-named.
And what has 50 years taught? That every object, however humble or precious, tells a story; that collections are never complete, the job never done; that museums are forever cash-poor; that curators are merely custodians passing on the tangible means by which the past may be interpreted by each new generation; that museums must move with the times; that directing them is a constant challenge. But there is no other profession I would rather have embarked upon. Curatorship satisfies one’s curiosity, desire to acquire things and brings delight in the sharing of knowledge It has provided opportunities to admire and handle so many rare treasures and to engage with a wonderful range of people: academics researching collections, children marvelling at holding a real prehistoric axe thousands of years old, the postman who dug up a medieval gold ring on his Salisbury allotment and was about to throw his ‘curtain-ring’ away, ministers of state and royalty, and especially the visitors, volunteers and members without whom the Museum would have been unable to thrive.
Reminiscing over such a breadth of time emphasises how the highs always more than outweigh the lows: major acquisitions, awards won, national recognition, even survival against the odds, have long proven that Salisbury Museum is able to punch above its weight, more than overcoming failed auction bids, thefts, floods, grant disappointments and loss of key personnel.
From the outside the museum has an abandoned and dead look about it.
The blinds being down cuts it off from the outside world, and the garden seems sad and neglected. How then are its’ inhabitants coping, shut up on their own at this strange time?
For now they are not answerable to the trustees, not suffering from greasy finger marks on their glass shelters, not posing for photographs or listening to visitors’ silly questions and the guides’ glib answers. There are no schoolchildren with notebooks and pencils, squawking like parakeets, and longing for their lunchtime sandwich and a chance to rush about under the accusing finger of Caesar Augustus. They are missing the stewards’ gossip as they meet in little groups and then disperse again. Perhaps all is quiet and serene as night falls, but perhaps not. . .
In the upper galleries the elegant ladies and gentlemen in their fine costumes are performing a stately dance in the King’s Room to the tinkling of the harpsichord and the lower notes of Benjamin Banks’ cello, while below the Giant is roaring. He has put a churchwarden pipe in his mouth, pinned as many pilgrim badges as he can find onto his red robe, and is riding the fire engine and railway engine at the same time. Meanwhile Hobnob is galloping up and down corridors, gnashing his eleven toothy nails, and narrowly missing the Highlander marching here and there offering snuff to all, with an “Och aye the noo. Ye’ll take a wee pinch?” The bustards are having none of it, and fluff their feathers and try to peck him, always a hazard to a man wearing the kilt.
In the Whistler corridor, Edith has got up from her day bed in the garden to go into the Daye House to fetch a glass of lemonade, made from lemonade crystals, there being no fresh lemons in 1942, for her darling Rex, who she thinks looks tired and hot. He has been sitting in the sun all day in his army uniform painting her portrait.
The Wessex Gallery is in chaos. The skeletons are jangling their bones in a danse macabre on the Downton mosaic, to heavy metal music clashing from the Wardour Hoard Band with the Neolithic flints chipping in. The Bronze Age dog is snapping at their heels, but whose heels? The wild dancing has jumbled up their limbs and Amesbury finds he is dancing on Shrewton’s legs, and Stonehenge is waving Monkton up Wimborne’s arms around. The children are into everything, and rattling the leg shackles at the dog, who would bite them if he had anything but stumps of teeth left, so can only attempt a nasty suck. The Roman saucepans are simpering and clattering, and wishing their Pompeiian sister would cease saying how much worse things were than this pandemic in her home town in AD79.
The goggle-eyed Old Sarum heads look down inanely, but the lions ignore the junketing, being too busy gnawing hopelessly and forever at their stone globe with their toothless gums, while the Swallowcliffe Princess glides silently through the melee. The Warminster Jewel wishes everything would quieten down, as she’s trying to remember what it was she was reading at the time she was lost, but is too ladylike, being the gift of a king, to complain, but Lt.General Pitt-Rivers has stepped down from his frame, and is stomping about shouting “Quiet in the ranks there!” to no avail whatsoever. The dog considers cocking his leg against the General’s gaiters but thinks better of it.
The superior, aristocratic artefacts, the suave, silky-smooth jadeite axe from the Italian Alps, the gleaming Bronze Age torc and the striped gneiss macehead do not approve at all. The torc announces she will address the mob. “Bravissimo, bella senora”, cheers the jadeite axe, but the macehead has nodded off. Well, one does tend to at almost 5,000 years old, and he can always be seen yawning on his little stand.
The torc approaches Shrewton who is kneeling, looking for his lower legs. “Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent position”, she commands in her best Lady Bracknell voice. “Crumbs, ‘torc’ of the Devil” crows Shrewton, falling over at his own witticism and scattering bones everywhere. But the skylight above the mosaic begins to lighten with the dawn, the noise subsides, and miraculously all is restored to the quiet desolation of empty rooms.
On a wet, rather cold morning, a brave builder is repairing one of our walls. It draws attention to what appears to be one of the more modern parts of the building. However, the wall is, in fact, a complete patchwork. It is mainly brick, but of different hue, and possibly bricks of different sizes, and therefore different dates. Most interesting, perhaps, are the two patches of much older wall, which are similar to the section of wall highlighted in the blog last week. That wall is in part of the building which is much more obviously early, perhaps 16th century.
The new uplighters in front of the museum building pick up the texture of the old walls in dramatic fashion (see last week’s blog). The photograph above is a close-up of one section, in daylight, and just wonderful to look at.
Pause to look, and there are stories there, even without any other knowledge of the history of the place. Clearly, materials have been re-used. The basic ‘building block’ here is the flint, a local material and used in many of the older buildings in the Close. When building with ‘rubble’ (unshaped stones) it was useful to include a ‘string course’ at intervals up the wall, to create a kind of frame or skeleton, assisting the mason in keeping the wall straight. Such courses are often quite decorative, contrasting with the material of the main part of the wall and perhaps projecting outwards or highlighting windows and other features. Here it is not so much for this latter purpose, although the courses can be picked out because brick, clay roof tile and dark sand stone have been used, albeit in a rather rough manner, to add colour.
There are at least two types of sandstone used here, and some limestone. I am no great geologist and so cannot identify these with any certainty but greensand is another local material and the brownish coloured chunks here may be ironstone. Comments welcome!
The bricks are very weathered and vary in colour. It may be possible to date them from their size (see below).
If you are interested in the history of bricks, read on (with thanks to the Architects Journal)….
Brickwork offers clues to the age of a building. The Romans were the first to use clay bricks in Britain, and bricks were then not re-introduced into the country until the Middle Ages. Hampton Court was one of the first major buildings of that period to be built of brick. With the decline of medieval timber- framed buildings and the advent of canals, railways, and better roads, bricks were transported and used throughout the country.
By the eighteenth century, brick was the most common material for houses, and many old timber-framed houses were gentrified by re-facing with bricks or mathematical tiles, particularly the latter after the first brick tax of 1784.
Since the 1400s the width of a brick has always been about 4.5 inches (114mm) – governed by the need to grasp and lay it with one hand. But the length and thickness of a brick has not always been as constant as today, being influenced by government legislation, regional variations in firing thicknesses of clay, bonding, joint thickness, and local practice.
Medieval bricks were longer and thinner than modern bricks – perhaps 2″ (51mm) thick. But beware modern imitations, particularly in early 20th century buildings. Parliament fixed brick sizes in 1776 at 8.5 x 4 x 2.5 inches (216 x 102 x 63mm). In 1784, after the American War of Independence, parliament taxed each brick used, so some bricks were made larger, up to 10 x 5 x 3ins (254 x 127 x 76mm) so that fewer need be used in building and so saving costs. In 1803, these large bricks were further taxed, and this was avoided by reducing the size to 9 x 4.5 x 3ins (229 x 114 x 76mm). In 1850 the brick taxes were repealed, and brick sizes gradually standardised, rising four courses per foot (304mm), except in the north of England where they rose four courses per 13 inches (330mm) for much of the nineteenth century. However, the worst examples of ‘jerry’ building in the nineteenth century produced bricks of various sizes and sometimes with large quantities of soot mixed into the clay, leading to crumbling houses over a short period of time.
In 1851, machinery was designed for making pressed bricks in volume, eventually replacing handmade bricks, except for best quality work. Machine- made bricks, such as Flettons which were first made in the 1870s, are generally smoother and more regular in appearance than handmade bricks.
If you would like to learn more, try this site by clicking here.
In his recent talk to Volunteers about prospects for the museum after our successful NHLF bid, the Director began by referencing his arrival in 2007. It was a time when there was a need, and desire, for change. And it was important to rejuvenate the heart of the museum – the King’s House.
A Masterplan was prepared. A priority was to update the prehistory displays as Stonehenge would have its own new visitors’ gallery after 2013. In July 2014 the Wessex Gallery opened and Part One was complete.
The Salisbury Galleries, meanwhile, date to the 1980s, and also need re-designing.
Conserving the Grade Two listed buildings is vital and potentially expensive. Tiles fall off, leaks and damp are occasionally serious, as a ceiling collapse a few months ago reminded everyone.
Meanwhile, the museum continues to take in new material, including large items such as the Scout car.
A big plus is the recently acquired Hurricane Store’ at Old Sarum but there are still problems, generally, with storage.
The museum needs 45 000 visitors a year to be stable financially. At the moment the annual figure is 30 000. Commercial opportunities are being developed, eg the use of the King’s Room (which also needs updating), but, for example, a lift is needed to make it more accessible.
With NHLF funding, and other monies, the Salisbury Gallery will be re-developed during 2020 – 2022. It may involve revamping rooms and buildings, and Wiltshire Council and Heritage England are supportive of changes to the ground floor but there is much to consider.
Adrian stressed that we have a ‘Round One’ pass only from NHLF at the moment and certain criteria must be met before we gain ‘Round Two’ funding.
And, of course, we need to raise match funding to go with the Lottery grant. Fundraisers have been appointed and staff to fill new posts will follow. Conservation Architects will be needed, designers for interiors, business planners, Quantity Surveyors, etc, etc. In addition a Membership drive is planned.
Onward and upward..but a lot of hard work yet to do!
Not many people would choose to spend their May Bank Holiday watching a hole being dug, unless of course the person wielding the spade was world-famous archaeologist Dr Phil Harding, assisted by Lorraine Mepham. At Salisbury Museum the crowds went to see Phil and Lorraine digging an exploratory test pit in the grounds of the museum.
The dig was part of an annual project in which Phil and Lorraine have been investigating the history of The King’s House, home to Salisbury Museum. For the past three years, the dig was on the Festival of Archaeology’s weekend in July but, due to Phil’s commitments elsewhere, the dig was moved to early May.
As part of the 40th birthday celebrations for Wessex Archaeology, the whole dig was filmed to be premiered at the Festival of Archaeology, July 13 and 14.
The specific question the digging duo were set to answer this year was: ‘how old is the wing of the museum, now the café?’ Previous surveys have suggested that it was built in the 15th century, replacing an earlier building and perhaps 200 years after the cathedral.
Digging down against the café wall, just a lot of wet mud was produced, and by lunchtime, it felt as though the dig might not provide answers. Late afternoon, a small fragment of pottery was found and instantly recognised by the expert eye of Lorraine to be early medieval, contemporary with the foundation of the cathedral itself.
Having lain undiscovered for hundreds of years the humble shard of cooking pot was cheered as it was cleaned and shown to an appreciative audience, providing a link to someone who may have witnessed construction of the iconic building. Sadly nothing was found to confirm the date of the café- a challenge for another day.
Phil and Lorraine returned to the pit on Tuesday to meet nearly 300 children from local schools keen to see archaeology in action – and meet the man in the hat from Time Team.
Having been seen by just under 900 people in two days, and many more viewers online, the dig was recorded for the archive and finally backfilled when the last school group left. To see the film, and hear how the project went, go to the Festival of Archaeology, July 13 and 14, at Salisbury Museum.
Phil Harding and finds specialist Lorraine Mepham, both of Wessex Archaeology, have been at the museum this week – in a hole! An excavation in the grounds of the museum attracted over six hundred on Bank Holiday Monday and huge numbers of school parties today.
Wil Partridge, Finds Liaison Officer, was on call today, together with Megan Gard, student, showing school parties some of the objects from the museum collection.
Thank you, as always, to all concerned, especially the Volunteers!