Today marks International Museum Day 2021, a celebration designed to raise awareness of the huge value of museums to facilitate cultural exchange, enrich cultures and develop mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples. At Wessex Archaeology, we work very closely with many museums. As of yesterday (17th May), many museums are in the process of opening to the public again following the latest period of lockdown.

To celebrate, we’ve been speaking to our talented Archives Team, who’ve been telling us more about their work with museums.

Moira Taylor, an Archives Officer based in our Salisbury office, reveals the process of depositing an archive to a museum:

“I am off to Norfolk Museums stores today to deliver a large archive from a project we have been working on for some time. Even before the fieldwork began the museum was informed that an archaeological excavation was happening in their area in the hope that they would be able to accept and store the resulting site records, drawings, artefacts and digital data. At this early stage, museums often provide an accession code that we write on all elements of the archive as a specific site identifier. The museums each have their own code, for example today’s archive going to Norfolk museum is NWHCM: 2018.54.

As the excavation takes place if we find large amounts of material, anything unexpected or of particular importance we will let the museum know and if necessary, they will visit the site or recommend how we should deal with the finds. We also collaborate with museums on community engagement events to inform local residents, schools and heritage groups of the archaeology being uncovered.

Once the fieldwork is finished, we will follow the museum’s guidelines on how they would like the archive to be prepared: the paperwork may have to be ordered in a particular way; the finds bagged, labelled and boxed in a certain format and stored in a precise box size and the digital data stored as specific file types. The guidelines vary between the museums as they all have different storage facilities and archival requirements.

Many museums now have a lack of storage room and although we favour retaining all finds we will consult with the museum on a selection strategy for objects with a low research value. This benefits the effective storage of more significant archives. Often objects not selected for retention are used for handling or teaching collections. 

It is always exciting to finally deliver the ordered archive to the museum and although this may be the end of my involvement, the aim has been to provide an archive that can be revisited, researched and reused. I hope the archive may either help promote the understanding of the archaeology in the local area or even be of national significance.  Good communication with the museum has been key to ensuring the long-term future potential of the archive.”

Jess Irwin, our Finds and Archives Officer based in Sheffield, tells us more about archives and working with museums in our North office:

“The types of material excavated across Wessex North sites can vary greatly, representing a cross section of history. These include prehistoric sites in the Peak District, medieval castle deposits in West Yorkshire, right through to modern day industrial assemblages in the centre of Sheffield. Museum liaison is crucial from right from the start so that they can be aware of what’s likely to fill their valuable shelf space, and be involved with the necessary selection of material which will be of the highest research value to the region.

At the Sheffield office we liaise with museums all over the North of England. From the smaller community run museums (such as Nidderdale, North Yorks) to the larger national collections (such as Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool). We have a close relationship with the South Yorkshire and Derbyshire museums in particular, being on our doorstep.  

Recent depositions include the Sheffield Castle archive which went to Sheffield Museums Trust and Pontefract Castle which was deposited with Wakefield Museum just before Christmas. This last month we have deposited Outseats Farm with Derby Museum and Ratby Lane with Leicestershire County Council Collections.

One of my most interesting deposition successes was finding a home for a large wooden witch sign retrieved during excavations on the Sheffield ring road.”

Celebrating International Museum Day with our Archives Team

Frances Ward, a Finds and Archives Supervisor in our Bristol office, shares how working with museums provides a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes…

“One of the highlights of being an archivist is deposition day!  When you’ve been working for months on preparing the boxes of paperwork and finds and can finally transfer them to their final destination.  The deposition itself can sometimes be something of an expedition, especially if you’re going behind the scenes in a museum for the first time.  There are museums that I have visited many times before as a member of the public but there’s something wonderfully secretive about going in the side entrance with a trolley load of boxes.  It’s almost like getting into a speak easy.  You ring a bell on an unmarked door and are admitted into a world of boxes and cabinets that are only usually seen by a select few.

I remember this feeling was particularly pronounced when I went behind the scenes in Bristol Museum for the first time.  I’ve done a few trips to the museum now but I don’t think the excitement of being allowed to ‘peek behind the curtain’ will be getting old any time soon.  Archival depositions mirror the process of archaeological excavation in many ways.  The excitement of unveiling a space that holds so much interest for so many but is actually witnessed by so few.

As we move into a time where museums are opening and depositions are possible again after such a long period of lockdown I know that both myself and my colleagues are eager to get back into those secret museum spaces, and to add a bit more of the past to those cabinets and corridors!

All the best to all those museums out there that we at Wessex Archaeology have such positive long-standing relationships with.  We look forward to seeing much more of you again soon.”

Jen Whitby, Archives Assistant Supervisor based in our Salisbury office, reflects on how lockdown has caused us to adapt our work with museums...

“Lockdown brought a change in our ways; from working from home to loss of contact. We have always worked closely with museums, whether it be to notify and request a museum code, ask not so silly questions, or (best of all) to arrange the transfer and deposition of the archives. It is always a thrill for us to see our archives off, and our museum colleagues are equally keen to get a hand onto what we have discovered.

Despite the changes, work never stopped and nor did they. We kept talking and working together. The reduced workload allowed some to review their procedures, others were able to chase up their records and ask for us to target specific sites or queries, and some stayed in contact throughout to notify us of when and if they could take anything. With each successive lockdown plans were cancelled but not halted. Merely rescheduled for such a time when we could get back to normal.

With the recent changes, two previously rescheduled depositions were finally able to take place; one to Oxford and one to Southampton. This was the first opportunity I had to see what procedural changes had to be made due to the pandemic. The usual deposition forms were more electronic based, ensuring as few people handled the boxes as possible at the repository, and the archives were placed into quarantine before final inspection and sign off."

Oxford archives going into quarantine

Some of the Oxford archives going into quarantine

"Both were so happy to finally speak to someone in person. It was clear that they, like us, missed that interaction. We had missed discussing the bit of archaeology we are both passionate about, seeing how we each were coping, whether we had discovered some interesting project for them to look forward to at some point, and more importantly whether we would be depositing again. It truly felt as if normalcy was slowly resuming, and we look forward to working with more museums.  It is great to see our friends back in business. Happy International Museum Day!”

Find out more about the work of our Archives Team here: https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/archaeological-services/archives