To get a good handle on collections management in museums I also need to learn about how visitors experience the collections. And what better way to do that than to put together a mini-exhibition? For the last five years the museum has displayed a selection of its embroidery samplers each summer season, and this year it was down to me to choose samplers for the drawers and objects for the top cabinet, and to write the panels that go along with it.
The theme of this year’s display is ‘learning and leisure’, reflecting the different roles of sampler making in girls’ and ladies’ lives. Sampler making was valuable practical education for work and motherhood, it allowed girls to improve their reading and writing, and helped teach religion and good behaviour. Without handheld toys and games like we have today, girls and young ladies would also produce samplers to pass the time while they recovered from illness.
The samplers all have a plastazote (museum-grade foam) border and are laid on a thick card base to protect them when stacked in storage. In the display drawers these boards are secretly pinned to stop them sliding aorund around.
There must be some sort of guidelines for placing objects in a display… These battleships went in a convoy formation winding between all the other items.
The finished display – come and see it while you can!
Remembering that making samplers was a female-only activity which largely died out 100 years ago, I knew I had to choose a range of items for the top of the cabinet to represent work and play for girls and boys right up to the present day. A slate tablet and pencil worked well for education, but most of our Victorian toys are already on display elsewhere. I enjoyed the challenge of scouring the record cards and the Museum’s stores for iconic toys that are up to a century old, but are still produced and sold in huge numbers today – dominoes, tiddlywinks and all sorts of models, to name a few.
To finish off, some handy ‘Get Involved’ tips and challenges – can you read the sampler from the 1700s? What toy would you keep if you could only have one? Head over to Home Close to compare your sewing skills to those of a Victorian 8-year-old, and find out how entertainment has changed over the last 250 years.
‘Samplers: work and play’ can be explored in the Domestic Life building (outside the Osier Café), and is open to museum patrons until 4th November 2016.
Featured Object: Corn/straw splitters
Following our meeting, Collections Manager Lisa decided it would be fun for me, as the Collections and Interpretation intern, to shed a bit of light on some of the more rarely-seen objects in the Museum’s collection. From nearly 40,000 objects, my first choice is the first collection of objects I handled at the museum and which are, at first glance, no more than a few sticks in a very big box. Even knowing they were corn splitters I was none the wiser as to how they worked or what their product was used for. An internet search for “corn splitters” returned links to pictures of kitchen gadgets for removing sweetcorn from the cob.
The museum’s selection of corn splitters.
They each have a carved bone point…
…with blades to split the straw into many strands.
It turns out that the Museum’s straw splitters perform an even more delicate job and that their story ties in with British agricultural folklore and pagan (pre-Christian) beliefs. Our straw splitters possess a head made of bone, which has been carved to give several blades arranged around a central point. This point is placed in the end of the straw and is driven downward, splitting the straw into several strands as it goes. Why? To create something called a corn dolly as part of harvest celebrations.
A traditional ‘triple favour’ design.
A traditional angel dolly design.
A more complex and decorative candlestick design.
A knot design taken from a pattern on a memorial tablet in Bath Abbey.
The tradition of making corn dollies stretches back to pre-Christian Europe, and they tend to be hollow shapes plaited using the strands of straw, more recently created using the splitter. The dolly is woven from straw taken from the final sheaf of the harvest and is said to provide a home for the Spirit of the Corn over winter. The dolly is then ploughed into the first furrow of the season to return the spirit to the soil ready to protect the crops and provide a good harvest in the coming season. There are also some corn dollies on display to paying visitors of the museum, in Home Close, throughout the open season from April to November.