At the end of January 2022, the Esmee Fairbairn funded project at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, to rehome material from the Derbyshire School Library Service, reaches its conclusion. The project started in March 2019 and has seen the successful, and ethical, rehoming of thousands of museum quality paintings and artefacts. A total of 107 museums, galleries, archives, libraries, trusts and foundations across this country and abroad have received items. This is a personal reflection of the project.
The Derbyshire School Museum Service was set up in 1936, following a Carnegie Trust grant, to provide children living in isolated rural towns and villages in Derbyshire access to museum quality items. This was an innovative scheme and the first of its kind in the UK, with many councils following Derbyshire’s example. It was later absorbed into the Schools Library Service (SLS), founded in 1951. Several thousand items were collected by the service, and comprised of paintings, prints, textiles, sculpture, studio pottery and glass, world cultures, social history, and archaeological material. Sources for the items were diverse and include private donations, purchases from Heals and Sons, Fortnum and Mason, Primavera, Berkeley Galleries, as well as from schemes such as the School Education for the Arts. The founder of the service, Barbara Winstanley, even travelled to Canada to purchase Inuit and First Nations material.
A number of factors over time, led to the closing of the service, such as changes in the curriculum, budget cuts, the greater accessibility that people had to cars and public transport and the arrival of televisions and the internet. And so the service closed its doors in 2018. Items were transferred to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and funding was secured from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation for the items to be researched, and ethical futures for the collection found.
The curatorial staff at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery carried out exhaustive research into the collections held at other museums and galleries, to see if items held at Buxton would be a suitable addition, and dialogue was opened up with curators at other institutions. Lists of the items were also published on the Museum Association’s “Find an Object” website, along with an expression of interest form. This form gave an opportunity for institutions to explain the reasoning as to why the item should be transferred to them, and this enabled the curatorial staff, along with invited specialists in their field of expertise, to make sound judgements as to who was to get what. Importantly, the object had to be within the public realm, be displayed and researched, as well as be accessible to school children for educational programmes.
Research work was also required into the items as sometimes previous identification of world cultures material was not correct or tainted with outdated views and colonialism. One example is a Hindu statue which was originally described as being the male god Shiva, dating to the 8th century and originating from South India. My specialism is in Hindu art and I recognised it as being the goddess Durga, dating to the 19th century and originating from north India! This glaring mistake was quickly rectified.
An artist engagement programme was put in place during the first lockdown, and eight contracts were awarded to the following:
Tullie House Museum, Carlisle worked with Prism Arts and two of their participants, Harvey Tye and Jonathon Harkins, responding to Japanese prints.
Bristol Museum worked via Zoom with Australian artist Ryan Presley (in Australia) responding to boomerangs, and with Akran Girmay responding to West African ceremonial paddles.
Rob Young worked with the de Morgan Foundation at Cannon Hall in Barnsley, responding to the vase made by William de Morgan.
Poet Mark Johnson responded to paintings transferred to Oriel Mon in Anglesey.
Ingrid Karlsson, Helen Leaf, and Gordon McLellen responded to Sami and Inuit material retained by Buxton Museum.
Manchester Museum used the opportunity to consult Chinese students back in China during COVID-19 about the Chinese collection the museum had received as they redevelop their Chinese and South East Asian galleries.
The resulting work can be seen at https://buxtonmuseumandartgallery.wordpress.com/?s=travelling+stories
There are too many items, and too many stories to tell, for this blog, but below is a selection of some of the items that have been transferred.
The bulk of the Chinese collection went to Manchester Museum. They are working on a new gallery that will explore the rich cultural heritage of China, and historic and contemporary links between Manchester and China through rarely seen collections, personal stories, and international research.
The British Museum were allocated a beautiful watercolour of Hong Kong harbour by Lui Shou-Kwan. An important 20th century artist, Liu was one of those attempting to bring Western modernism into Chinese art.
One of the intriguing pieces was a Roman silver spoon. Through my investigations I discovered that the spoon had originally formed part of a hoard of silver objects that had been buried in Canterbury towards the end of the Roman Empire. The hoard was found by chance by road workers in 1962, and it would seem that they were not very honest in declaring all of the treasure. How it later came into the SLS collection is a bit of a mystery, but it has been transferred to Canterbury Roman Museum where it has joined the rest of the hoard.
Oriel Ynys Mon, on Anglesey, received some 20th century paintings as well as a memorial stone commemorating the sinking of the ship, The Royal Charter, off the coast of Anglesey in 1859. One of the paintings that was transferred to them is Pony on Llanddwyn Island by Kyffin Williams.
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has received a significant collection of South American, Polynesian and Aboriginal material. Curators at Bristol are actively researching this material and looking at restitution and repatriation of items in the future. One item they received is a shaman’s cape. This item came from the Jivaro people of Ecuador and is made from bark cloth and decorated with hummingbird feathers and a complete toucan. The Jivaro believe that the toucan is an intermediary between this world and the spirit world.
One item I thought I would struggle to rehome is a letter dated 13 March 1928, from John Gavin Tait to the Egyptologist E N Adler regarding the translation of two Greek ostraca from Egypt. My research revealed that the department of Egyptology at the University of Denmark holds the archive for Adler. They are currently working on a re-edition of the Greek and Demotic texts from the Adler collection, and the letter was the missing piece in their jigsaw. Therefore, the University of Denmark was the best home for it.
You are probably wondering what Buxton Museum and Art Gallery kept from the SLS collection. Well, we did keep quite a bit, so long as it fitted in with our collection policy. In total we kept 663 items, which range from paintings, prints, sculpture, studio pottery, archaeological, social history, and world cultures items
Below is a selection of images of some of the pieces we transferred to the permanent collection.
Many of the items that have been transferred to new homes have already been put on display. Some items have required conservation or further research, and so wait for their new place in the spotlight. Should you visit a museum in the UK, and an object or painting takes your interest, take a look at the label. If it says “Transferred from Derbyshire County Council” then it will have come from SLS.
The SLS project has had a very positive outcome, and the collection can still be enjoyed by the public in many diverse venues across the UK. The Native American and First Nations material from the SLS collection will form part of a new project set to start in February. I shall be studying the material and restitution policies, putting on an exhibition in March at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, and later this year making a trip over to the USA and Canada to return items to the indigenous communities.
The project has faced a few challenges, not least the Pandemic, which saw the museum close in line with government guidance, and staff working from home. Deadlines could not be reached and so the project had to be extended. Lockdown now seems like a bit of a distant memory, but the challenges of home schooling, caring for elderly parents, isolation from family and loved ones, and the general uncertainty of the future is something, I am sure, we hope never to revisit.
To work on the breadth and quality of this kind of material is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it has been an experience I will not forget. I have worked with wonderful colleagues…who have also become great friends. I have met some amazing people from other museums and galleries, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of them for their patience, friendly words, encouragement, advice and knowledge, and for making this an incredible experience.
Recipients of material from the Derbyshire School Library Service
- Buxton Museum and Art Gallery
- Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
- Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
- Chesterfield Museum, Derbyshire
- Horniman, London
- Derby Museum and Art Gallery
- The Oriental Museum, Durham
- Sheffield Hallam University
- Aberystwyth University
- Manchester Metropolitan University
- Central St Martins, London
- Manchester Museum
- Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery
- Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge
- Roman Museum, Canterbury
- Milford House, Armagh, Northern Ireland
- Southwold Museum, Suffolk
- Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire
- Northampton Museum and Art Gallery
- Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
- Derbyshire Record Office, Matlock
- Bradford Museum, West Yorkshire
- Nottingham Castle Museum
- Kingston Museum, London
- The DeMarco Archive, Edinburgh
- The Atkinson Gallery, Southport
- Ipswich Museum, Suffolk
- The Museum of British Folklore, Boscastle, Cornwall
- The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall
- The Museum of English Rural Life, Reading
- The Kennel Club, London
- Crich Tram Museum, Derbyshire
- Durham University
- Pallant House, Chichester
- Astley Cheetham Gallery, Stalybridge, Tameside
- Charnwood Museum, Loughborough
- Penlee House, Penzance, Cornwall
- York Art Gallery
- Hepworth Wakefield
- Reading University
- Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, Wirral
- National Museums of Northern Ireland (Ulster Museum)
- Towner Eastbourne
- Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, Essex
- Glynn Vivian, Swansea
- The Science Museum, London/Manchester
- DeMontfort University, Leicester
- Tullie House, Carlisle
- Y-Gaer, Brecon
- Oriel Mon, Anglesey
- Bingham Library, Cirencester
- The Embroiders Guild, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire
- Southend Museum and Art Gallery, Essex
- St Albans Museum and Art Gallery,
- Gwynedd Museum, Bangor
- The British Museum, London
- Plas yn Rhiw, Gwynedd
- The Victoria and Albert, London
- Fleetwood, Lancashire
- Elmbridge, Surrey
- Royal School of Needlework, Hampton Court Palace, London
- National Museums of Scotland (Edinburgh)
- The Garden Museum, London
- The Charleston Trust, East Sussex
- Ceredigion, Mid Wales
- Bakewell Old House, Derbyshire
- Ben Uri Gallery, London
- Maidstone Museum, Kent
- Prince Philip Zoological, London
- Bradford City Art Gallery, West Yorkshire
- Robinson College, Cambridge
- Schuetz-Wolff Foundation, Freiburg, Germany
- Salford University
- Andrew Holmes, London
- The Fitzwilliam, Cambridge
- Matlock Mining Museum, Derbyshire
- Haslemere Museum, Surrey
- The Lace Guild, Stourbridge, Worcestershire
- Kew Gardens, London
- Newark Museum, Nottinghamshire
- St Anne’s Roman Catholic Church, Buxton
- The Crescent Heritage Experience, Buxton
- Leicestershire Museums
- Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire
- Gladstone Potteries Museum, Stoke
- Saffron Walden Museum, Essex
- Ditchling Museum, East Sussex
- Russell-Cotes Museum, Bournemouth
- Westminster College, London
- The Blackfeet Nation, North Dakota, USA
- The Quilters Guild, York
- Edinburgh University
- National Coal Mining Museum, Wakefield, Yorkshire
- Farnham Museum, Kent
- Horsepower Museum, Winchester
- York University School of Conservation
- Keele University, Staffordshire
- Museum Conservation Services, Cambridge
- Department of Egyptology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
- DeMorgan Foundation, Cannon Hall, South Yorkshire/London
- Belfast Museum, Northern Ireland
- Stourbridge Glass Museum. Suffolk
- Sunderland Glass Museum
- Henry Moore Institute, Leeds
- Leach Pottery Museum, Cornwall
- Skelton Workshops, Hassocks, West Sussex
- William Morris Society, London
The catalogue entries for the School Library Service are held at the Derbyshire Record Office CalmView: Overview (derbyshire.gov.uk) along with the Derbyshire Museums Service CalmView: Overview (derbyshire.gov.uk)