I love a few sequins and a bit of sparkle, I have to confess I am a fan of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. The swish of a skirt, the flash of colour, the promise of a brighter and more exciting world. I have had my eye on a little pink number for many weeks now. Vivid colours, a few diamantes, lots of netting to swirl around in.
My aim is not to wear this dancing extravaganza but simply to make a padded hanger for it. Well, when you are a museum collection care volunteer this kind of thing is as good as getting a ’10’ from Len!
It was back in January that I started a 10 week course to learn collection care skills at the Museum of London. Funded by the Arts Council, the course covered different skills and looked at different materials each week. Museum staff and volunteers were given the chance to work side-by-side to learn the skills necessary for basic collection care and cleaning. Most importantly learning when to leave an object to the professionals but also coming away with an understanding of what can be still be done with care and consideration on a small-scale.
Ever since I finished the course I have been using my new-found skills as a collection care volunteer at the Museum of London. Unfortunately I haven’t used these skills as much as I wanted to at Bromley Museum, my local museum where I also volunteer. Lots of reasons really, I have stopped volunteering in the week as I am struggling to find the time to fit everything in. I volunteer only one Saturday a month now, unless there are family events at half term or during the summer holidays.
On a Saturday the reality of volunteering in a small council run museum often takes over from any collection care ideas I may have. There is usually only one staff member and one volunteer in on a Saturday, priorities are often welcoming visitors, preparing for the coming week’s school visits, helping with exhibition prep. Collection care often takes a back seat.
Many weeks ago in our office I noticed a museum object hanging up in a canvas protective bag. I couldn’t resist a little peek and what met my gaze was a dancing delight. The dress was donated to the museum by Peggy Spencer and belonged to one of her students at her dance centre. Peggy, with her husband Frank, were professional ballroom dancers and teachers, who set up the Royston Ballroom in Penge. For over 40 years her dance teams appeared on the original ‘Come Dancing’. Regularly watching ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ all these years and admiring the costumes, it is a real treat to get up close and personal with an original Peggy Spencer dress.
There were a couple of things that I noticed straight away with my trained ‘collection care eye’. The dress was probably too heavy to be hung on a hanger, all the netting made the dress very heavy, the weight can distort and rip the fabric quite easily. It was also on an ordinary plastic clothes hanger, this again set alarm bells ringing. There was no padding on the hanger to protect the fabric and plastic can react with the material – I had been taught it was best to use a wooden hanger with padding. The canvas bag also had a velcro fastening which is not ideal as it is very easy to catch the fabric in it and pull the fibres.
Lots of things needed to be changed in order to store this item correctly, but the reality of a small museum, its low budget and lack of space meant I just had to do the best I could. There is no storage space for a box and we don’t have one big enough for the dress anyway. It will have to stay on a hanger but at least I can make a padded one with a wooden hanger from materials we were provided with after the course.
I was really excited to be finally using my new skills at Bromley, where I first began my museum volunteering journey. I wanted to give something back and it was great to have the confidence to tackle the job. I brought in a clean bed sheet from home and laid it out on the table. I didn’t have any conservation nitrile gloves, fabric ones can could catch on the diamantes so I decided to go with clean hands to work on the dress.
It is funny how you have an idea of how things are going to go and it doesn’t always work out the way you think. I got the wooden hanger and wrapped the padding round it, adding a few stitches at the end to keep it in place. I quickly realised that the shape of the wooden hanger wasn’t going to work with the shape of the dress even with the padding. It was too straight and too long and just seemed to push the fabric out at the shoulder without supporting it. After a bit of indecision, I decided to go with the plastic hanger because the shape was right. Not ideal but sometimes you just have to do the best you can. I thought with the padding and cotton cover it would be okay.
I measured and stitched and made myself a padded hanger. I noticed as I worked that a lot of the diamantes had already come off and were loose in the bottom of the bag. I got a little plastic bag and put them in it, added the accession number to the bag and attached it to the front of the canvas cover. It was fantastic working up really close with the dress. I have learnt over the 10 weeks of my collection care course that it is an amazing opportunity to really understand the objects you have in front of you.
I noticed the hand stitching, the diamantes individually stuck on and the little catch by the zip to stop anything accidentally popping open at the wrong moment during a dance! While I was working in the events room I kept the door open so any visitors could see what I was up to. A mum and her daughter popped their head in the door and I invited them over to have a look. The girl was about 7 or 8, and like my own daughter, a big fan of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. It was such a lovely moment to explain to her about Peggy Spencer and the dress, to tell her what I was doing, let them have a close up look and the beautiful netting and vibrant colours underneath.
When I had finished, I gently laid the dress back in the bag, carefully closed up the side, safe in the knowledge of a job done, perhaps not professionally, but as well as I could under the circumstances. An object better cared for and well looked after. Perhaps more than that I had learnt a lot more about something from our collection. I had shared it with visitors, I had spread a little ‘Strictly’ magic in my local museum.
I wanted to write this post because we often do courses and training, whether as professionals or volunteers, but sometimes we don’t use the skills. Even when we do, we don’t often shout about it. I am a volunteer funded by the Arts Council, trained at the Museum of London, putting my skills to use in a small, underfunded local museum. I am learning and the museum is benefitting.
As the ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ final reaches our screens this weekend, I will be sitting there enjoying the show, watching the dancers, the swirl of fabric, the sinuous lines, the sparkle of crystals and sequins. I have a new appreciation of the work involved in those dresses and I am proud to have kept a little bit of that dancing heritage alive. So thank you to the Arts Council, to the Museum of London and to Bromley Museum for the opportunity, keep doing what you are doing because it is working and it is volunteer work well worth doing.
To find out more about the Collection Care Support provided by the Museum of London please visit their website.