After the fire

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

Three years ago, on 25 March 2013, a huge fire severely damaged the Walworth Town Hall building.  The Cuming Museum had its public display galleries on the ground floor of that building, with over 900 objects in display.

All museums dread major incidents like this and we all have strategies in place to deal with them.  The London Fire Brigade also has rescue plans in place for historic buildings and objects.  Top priority is always life and limb, but once assured people are safe the fire brigade works hard to help preserve what they can.

In the Cuming Museum’s case the emergency personnel did a brilliant job of rescuing over half the objects on the day of the fire and the museum team spent the next year salvaging and recovering more of the museum’s collections.

Cuming Museum displayLike most museums, the Cuming only ever had a fraction of its collections on display at any one time but new objects were exhibited all the time through temporary exhibitions.  The rest of the collection was safely stored elsewhere and was not affected – but even so the job of conserving the material affected by the fire was a big one.

Damaged historic buildings, objects and archives are cared for by trained conservators.  Many museums have these on staff but as a small museum the Cuming does not, so had to seek out a firm which could tackle the job.  Many conservators work alone and large firms are rare.  So to treat several hundred objects at one time would mean big pressure on even the largest firm.  For this reason the objects were sent in small batches so the chosen firms could assess, conserve and return them in a manageable way.

Plowden and Smith was the main firm selected to take on the bulk of the job.  They have several different conservation specialisms, from wood and ceramics, to paper and textiles.

The museum’s insurance covered the cost of work but only to return the objects to the condition they were in before the fire.  It was decided that most of the objects would be cleaned and very gently conserved.

When you think of a fire in a museum (or anywhere else for that matter) you automatically assume most of the damage comes from flames or smoke.  However in our case very little was touched by the fire itself and not even very smoke damaged.  The big problems came from water damage and broken glass.

The fire brigade uses tons of water to extinguish major fires.  It saturates everything and gets absolutely everywhere.  It has to be done, but the water itself causes a lot of problems during the later clean up.

Also in the Cuming’s case, in order to get at the objects the fire brigade had to smash their way into the high quality cases used for display.  The glass in these kind of cases is designed to turn to powder when struck and this powder liberally coated most of the objects.

So Plowden and Smith, along with two other conservation firms who took on very specialist material, had two tasks: to deal with moisture damage and to get out all the glass.

Simon Moore and Janie Lightfoot Textiles joined the conservation effort focussing on taxidermy and rare pacific island material from the first voyages by Europeans to the region, most famously Captain Cook.

Janie Lightfoot Textiles’ team dealt with glass too, but their major work was severely damaged pieces, such as the kid gloves which had become very shrunken due to the water and heat.

Taxidermy is the Marmite of museum collections.  People either love it or hate it.  Modern taxidermy is making a comeback but our taxidermy is very old and we would never collect new kinds.

Our most famous “stuffed” animal is our little black bear, which Richard Cuming bought at a sale in 1806 from the Leverian Museum.  This museum was a very early museum and, in the late 18th century, was based just off Blackfriars Road.  The bear was on display from the very first moment when the Cuming Museum opened in 1906, and many generations of children remember him.

Being furry, he was covered in glass and dust after the fire and Simon Moore, an expert in restoring natural history objects, spent an incredibly long time extracting it all while at the same time trying not to pull out any hair – either his or the bear’s.

In another example, the conservator at Plowden and Smith removed all the glass from the velvet associated with Queen Caroline’s funeral coffin. Leaving the glass would just mean the damage would continue.

Work on objects like these took well over 18 months to complete. Not everything merited attention and the instruction was, for most objects, to do the least needed in order to preserve them.  However some objects needed a lot of work and were significant enough to need resources focussed on them.  In a future blog we’ll look at the giraffe sculpture from the lost “Walworth Zoo”. The sculpture is the only surviving memento of the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens.

Meanwhile the collection is in storage but continues to be exhibited and digitised in anticipation of new space. The Cuming team in particular is grateful for all the help it received to rescue the collection and the enormous amount of good will and support from the community.

 

 

Advertisements

Southwark on Film

By Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer at the Local History Library and Archive

Historically, films have not really been given the same status as traditional manuscript archives.  Yet, films can contain rich information about place, time, and culture that the written word can’t capture so accurately. ‘Seeing is believing’ is definitely my mantra for film archive! Films can remind us what a street, building or person used to look like and entertain, educate and enlighten us.  Films aid research and those in our collection, on different film formats and spanning over 100 years of film making, help build the story of the borough of Southwark.

Some of the gems in our Film Collection include those from The Bermondsey Borough Council, whose Health Department under the direction of Dr Connan (Medical Officer for Health at the time), made over 30 films between the 1920s and 1940s.  Most of the films were made in-house as it was deemed important that they were made by people with medical expertise. The aim was to send a clear message about good health for its residents.

The Council showed the films in ‘cinemotors’ which, being portable, enabled the film makers to reach a wide audience, much to the delight of local children!  For decades, the films were shown around Bermondsey and Southwark, helping to improve the health of residents and prevent deadly diseases like Diphtheria – a fact highlighted in the film Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council (1931) which boasted an impressive reduction in deaths from infectious diseases over the previous 30 years.

Cinemotor van, Bermondsey, 1937

Around half of our film collection was digitised by London’s Screen Archives in 2012. You can view many of these films on their website and YouTube channel, including some of the films from the Brandon Estate Cine Club whose collection of around 20 films, all shot on standard 8mm film, was made by Richard Morgan and Brian Waterman. Both cine enthusiasts, they started the club on the estate in Walworth in the 1960s. The films record life on the estate through the residents’ activities over more than a decade – summer fetes, Christmas parties and coach trips to Canvey Island.

While some of our films are available online, others can only be viewed in the library and archive. We have the fantastic  ‘Two Bob’s Worth of Trouble’,  a film made by class 3C of Walworth School in 1961, which follows the adventures of a boy who is robbed of his trophy cup. The film features some of Southwark’s lost sites, like the Surrey Canal.  We also have many great films made by local historians, such as Michael Holland, and films by the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV.

Each month we showcase a different film from the archives. You can view this, or any of the films listed in our Film Collection booklet, at Southwark Local History Library and Archive, free of charge. It’s usually possible to just drop in and speak to a member of staff about viewing a film, but if you need any more information please give us a call on 020 7525 0232 or email local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk.