Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures grant, Jane Austen’s House Museum have been fortunate enough to offer a Collections Traineeship role since 2015. Here, we ask current Collections Trainee Tyler Mills to explain more about life behind the scenes at Jane Austen’s House Museum….
So Tyler, tell us about working in the Collections department at Jane Austen’s House Museum…
Well, I began the traineeship almost twelve months ago now and working at Jane Austen’s House Museum has been an incredible and exciting experience.
‘Collections’ encompasses a diverse and expansive aspect of a museum, involving the care, development and management of the buildings and objects within. Working in ‘Collections’ is to be a careful custodian supporting the preservation of the objects, and heritage of Jane’s house, a treasured Grade I listed building. ‘Collections’ is also the various ways that the Museum shares the stories of Jane Austen; her works, family, friends, and legacy – through public displays of important objects, exhibitions on significant themes and the acquisition and development of objects safely stored at the Museum.
Tell us more about preventative conservation…
There are many challenges involved in preventing the deterioration of material heritage. Here at the Museum we observe and control the environmental conditions as best possible, affected by the age and condition of Jane’s House, for the stability and preservation of our objects. These environmental conditions include temperature, humidity, visible light and ultraviolet light – all of which, when in excess or deprivation, can damage delicate and vulnerable objects.
How do you go about monitoring the conditions?
You may see me wandering around the Museum with a specialised environmental meter pointing towards windows – hopefully without a concerned expression – which records the lux (a measurement of illuminance and luminous emittance) and U.V levels for inspection. Similarly, I may be spotted struggling to reach and inspect the humidity and temperature data loggers we have hanging in various rooms of the House. These are simple practices to help us record and monitor the conditions inside the House, helping us know where to install humidity control cassettes in display cabinets or replace the light filters on the windows.
Even when these environmental conditions are suitable we still might have dangerous and unwanted visitors to the House – pests. Pests thrive when they have access to four essential features; food and shelter, warmth and water or humidity. Preventing these unwanted guests is part of our regular ‘Pest Management’ procedure, beginning by monitoring ‘blunder’ traps placed strategically throughout the museum. However, as we all know, the most effective method of preventing pests, is good old-fashioned cleaning and housekeeping – in our case, with a specialised museum twist.
Tell us more about cleaning such fragile and important objects. It must be quite a responsibility!
Every few months staff and volunteers from across the museum participate in our Conservation Cleaning Days using non-invasive techniques and equipment to remove the build-up of dust and dirt, which if neglected will attract moisture and eventually, pests. The specialised techniques and equipment we use are vitally important to the protection and preservation of valuable or historic objects and interiors, as ordinary domestic cleaning products can cause serious and irreversible damage – so PLEASE DO NOT bring along some polish to give Jane’s Writing Table a good shine!
It’s not only the House which requires conservation cleaning, but also our Collection Store – the secret restricted archive of all (most) things Austen. The store houses objects, books and letters which are on rotation (unable to handle any more sunshine) as well as an area of preparation for exhibitions. Therefore ‘Deep Cleans’ are performed by Collections Staff to remove all the built-up dust and dirt from every shelf, drawer and wall to maintain the store as an area of stable environmental conditions.
It’s also the little things that enhance the visitor experience – clear, clean and transparent display cases without any finger smudges, wiped down with microfibre cloths. Not to mention the weekly winding of our fantastic ‘Snelling Moonphase Longcase Clock’ which chimes gratefully every hour, and the annual washing and re-fitting of Jane’s replica bed and sheets – including mattress, casters and canopy tester…
Finally, after almost 12 months working at Jane Austen’s House Museum, do you have a favourite object from the collection?
This is the question that I am most frequently asked and I have wracked my brain to consider!
Visitors may be drawn to the immaculate First Editions of Jane’s novels, some are studiously devoted to the precious letters and manuscripts penned by her hand, others captivated by the intricacy of the patchwork coverlet made by the Austen women, and many mesmerised by the quiet magnitude of Jane’s Writing Table. But to me, nothing quite so captures the imagination than the simplicity of our modest Ivory Cup & Ball. Reputed to be Jane’s very own item, you cannot help but wonder how many hours were spent perfecting the skill of ‘bilbocatch’, and above all, how much joy and comfort this straightforward toy brought to a family that regularly competed in games and activities.
A great choice, Tyler! Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.
Join us for the next interview with Tyler when we will ask about the exciting world of acquisitions, exhibitions and documentation...