Walking in with no expectations is how I go into a lot of situations and starting my new summer job in late 2018 as a Museum Assistant at the Ashburton Museum was no different. With no previous experience of the behind-the-scenes of a museum, I had no idea of the amount of work, what type of work or all the different components that keep the museum running. But after about the first week on the job I got the gist of things and it was pleasantly surprising.
It is common knowledge that museums have lots of old things that they look after and that these are on display. But a museum is much more than that…
In the archive
On my first day I was involved in the new Ng King Brothers Garden exhibition, working on research for an interactive timeline that would feature in the display. We also got the chance to go to the actual site of the gardens and have a look around, which was a cool way to spend part of a work day!
By using books, online resources and the collection management software, PastPerfect, this introduced me to researching for a display and figuring out how to make sentences shorter and more appealing for an audience. This came in handy when I had to write labels for curating my own exhibition on gardening, called ‘From the Ground Up’.
Another aspect of research is the research requests the museum receives, usually Kathleen, the museum archivist, deals with these, but working over the Christmas period meant that people were away and it was up to another Museum Assistant, Connor, and I to do the research.
I found this task very rewarding, when people emailed or came in looking for particular information, it was great to be able to find that for them, while at the same time I end up learning something new as well.
One exciting discovery was that the Netherworld Dancing Toys (a band from the 1980s) who had the hit song ‘For Today’, had played gigs at the Ashburton Hotel and that the band started writing For Today while staying there!
I also got to look through the photographers diary and found a negative called simply ‘Band at hotel ash’, which after Kathleen scanned it, we found out was the Netherworld Dancing Toys setting up for their gig. This was a pretty cool find and was great to send that information on to the person who put in the research request on behalf of an upcoming television programme that will be seen throughout New Zealand.
The highlight of my time here was working with Apryl, our collections registrar, in the collection store.
The museum has hundreds of objects ranging from shell dolls to war uniforms, therefore dealing with how to keep all of these objects in a good condition takes a lot of work. This process involves a lot of glove wearing, making boxes and a lot of acid free tissue paper, with the added paper work of writing condition reports and labelling.
For curating an exhibition, this involves looking for the right objects that suit a display. For ‘From the Ground Up’ I had to look for objects that related to gardening and with my inexperience I just thought you could go and get the things off the shelf and put it on display, and this is what I would have done if it was not for Apryl and Maryann, our senior curator’s expertise.
When retrieving an object from the object store, wearing gloves is a must, with the history of the object and the many dangerous chemicals used in the past, you don’t want to risk getting that on your bare hands, or leaving a fingerprint on an object.
Lifting the object off the shelf requires careful consideration as you don’t want to harm the object in any way. Before items go on display they will most likely need a clean, starting with dry brushing. If that is not enough, wet cleaning with deionized or stronger soda water is the next step. This may be dull for some but it was a very satisfying task, especially on a cut glass cake stand that turned from a yellow tinge to sparkling again! Apryl has specialist conservation training so could show me what to do. This work is all a part of the conservation of an object and therefore ensures the object will have a longer life that can be lived out, either on display or in the object store.
I also had the opportunity to find new objects to put in the museums Cubes, Exquisites, Peeps and Stereoscope displays. The designing of displays and layouts was fun but also challenging sometimes! Figuring out what colours go together, where the light is coming from and how many objects should go in takes a bit of time!
It was fun walking through the object store trying to find unique objects to put on display. My favourite one to look through was the box of stereoscope images, especially one that made me laugh which was of a baby whose head looks bigger than its body with the caption ‘As Good as Gold’.
My creative side thrived here with writing articles, labels and Facebook posts about our programmes. The summer exhibition ‘Dig In Mahi Mara’ saw the craft side come out with making bees, sunflowers, sewing the zips of bean bags so no one could get to them, and making a mobile out of kids garden tools was a pretty fun way to spend my summer days.
My time at the museum has made me sure of my decision to continue studying towards a Bachelor of Arts majoring in History and Political Science. Now when people ask me where that is going to take me or what job I am going to get, I have a reply: working at a museum, with multiple routes like conservation, curatorship, collections, public programmes and archives.
By Rosie Twamley
- Rosie (left) and Apryl working in the collection store.
- A section of From the Ground Up, an exhibition curated by Rosie.
- The stereoscope pictures, including my favourite one of the baby.
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