Paintings, Catalogues and Secol Sleeves: Volunteering with the Grundy Collections

Cath Hard at work in the History Centre

Cath Woodcock volunteers with several very different heritage collections – old postcards for the Local History Centre, tourism memorabilia for the town council, for Lightworks a collection of illuminations objects and a photograph project connected with the forthcoming Blackpool Museum. Cath very kindly took time out from her hectic schedule to speak about her latest heritage experience, a project at Blackpool’s Grundy Art Gallery, where she is among the first group of volunteer cataloguers.

Under the direction of Caroline Hall, the Collections Manager for Blackpool Council, Cath has just started to learn about the Grundy’s historic collections, the roles volunteers can play in recording its extensive material and supervising others accessing the collections of paintings, sculptures and objets d’art. One of Caroline’s responsibilities is running training for volunteers and staff to work sensitively with local arts projects so that these attract funding and participants can gain accreditation.

Cath’s love of art comes from childhood visits to the Grundy Art Gallery while a primary school pupil at nearby Sacred Heart. Cath’s personal enthusiasms, however, lie in textile conservation – hence her in-depth research for and absorption in the conservation of a medieval chasuble in 2012 at the Lancashire Museum Service Conservation Studios in Preston. When asked why she had chosen to focus on the Grundy paintings, Cath said she was naturally curious and that she had a strong desire to assist with this engaging project at the Grundy Art Gallery.

Attending a course at the Museum of Lancashire, Cath has learned about cataloguing conventions, correct methods of handling artefacts and general conservation issues. Fascinated to hear of alternative ways for considering artworks to determine their medium, she heard about the harmful effects of ‘wear and tear’ and became aware throughout the course to some conservation methods which she is applying to her present cataloguing practice. For this project, the Grundy prefers to use one sheet per item as a single catalogue record. One side of each sheet includes an accession number, a small photograph, a short description of the work, its medium and a brief assessment of the condition. The reverse has space for adding information on provenance.

Cath continued with some delight to spill the beans on the wider, intriguing process. Apparently, when considering the condition of a painting, light, damage, age and materials are all carefully taken into account. Local knowledge is helpful in composing accurate descriptions of urban scenes, as is the ability to write captions correctly and create concise descriptions. At the Grundy, volunteers can learn a little more about some of the major issues facing arts professionals today.

A painting from the Grundy collection recieves attention

Collections Manager, Caroline Hall, trained all volunteers and staff on good practice and how to protect themselves and the art objects while working with the collections. Important features of collections management are secure storage, wearing gloves and using Secol sleeves to avoid objects meeting harmful dust and germs or leaving physical traces on the items by human handlers. While catalogue records can easily be kept inside loose-leaf folders or binders, the Grundy had encountered problems with store-rooms which forced the temporary removal of its artworks to a separate location. At the time of interview, most of those collections were due to return to the gallery. Careful labelling of objects according to cabinets, shelves and locations inside spacious drawers had contributed towards Caroline’s plan to teach volunteers to use resources with care, control access to records and supervise others; she had previously created consistent systems for easy storage and access to objects usually hidden inside secure storage rooms, such as Illuminations promotional posters in the Lightworks building at Squires Gate.

Volunteers and staff hope to make the collections available online in the future. Cath explained that courses were taught to volunteers by Caroline in the expectation of raising the quality of skills demonstrated by volunteers and gallery staff. According to Cath, Caroline has said that she is “looking to achieve a high standard of skills among all staff and volunteers”. This pilot project, which has so far proven successful with people volunteering at the gallery, has “years of work in all collections still to do”.

Lynne Charoenkitsuksun

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