Author Archives: Museum Administrator

“The Museum and Me” – new book by Rachel Morris

Rachel Morris launches her new book on the 27th August 2020, inspired in part by her childhood visits to Saffron Walden Museum….

There can have been few children quite as geeky and eccentric as I was when I was ten. We were living outside Saffron Walden with our high-minded and austere grandmother, the four of us surviving on her state pension.  It was because we were always broke that I spent my childhood haunting Saffron Walden library and museum, where I could drift around for hours on end and no one would ask me any questions.

Years later I became the director of a museum-making company called Metaphor and started to remember my ten-year-old self. My book ‘The Museum Makers’ is about time and memory and museums, but also about families and the secrets they carry and the stories they tell.  One theme that’s threaded through it is Saffron Walden museum. 

I don’t remember the museum’s Victorian incarnation (though I wish I did) because they did up the museum in the middle of the 20th century and the majority of the old Victorian exhibits were swept away.  But some photographs have survived to show how typically Victorian looking the old museum had been, with its dark brown wooden showcases and its rows of deer antlers and its stuffed elephant in the middle of the gallery.  It’s companies like mine that have updated many museums and although there is much I don’t miss about Victorian museums (they were often racist) I do admire their grandeur and the rather gloomy drama of the way they looked.

I didn’t go to Saffron Walden museum to learn things – though I did love history and I was always reading children’s books about time travel. I went partly out of curiosity, partly in search of wonder and amazement, partly out of a restless urge to go to places without having to ask my family first.  I don’t remember many specific things – I was too young for that – though I remember Wallace the Lion.  And I remember the overall look of it, as well as the approach up the drive, with the castle ruins beyond, and the way you went in up the steps to the front door – as if into a house, except that it was not like any house I had ever been into.

I doubt that there was much interpretation at the time (museum interpretation didn’t really take off until the end of the twentieth century), but for me that didn’t matter. I generally visited the museum after having visited the library and so I always arrived with a head full of the stories that I had already consumed (usually whilst lying flat on my tummy on the library floor with the soles of my feet in the air).  And anyway, like lots of children I liked to look at things and to tell stories in my head about them.  One story I learnt either then or later was how the museum’s elephant was taken to London to star in the Great Exhibition in 1851.  Now that’s a story I would have loved when I was little.

After the museum I went round to the Common to pick up the bus home, with the first of my library books already open and me starting to read.

Children have a natural affinity with museums. They share with museum-people a love of things and a willingness (well, this is true of children at least) to ascribe to them magical powers. It’s no accident that a film like ‘Night at the Museum’ has been so popular with children. And so likewise the popularity of fairy tales that are stuffed with things that have magical powers, like slippers that can’t stop dancing and a ring that makes you invisible.  The other thing that amazed me about museums when I was little was the sheer profusion of things inside them.  My high-minded grandmother had got through life owning not much more than a small suitcase of belongings.  One of the qualities of museums that so entranced me when I was little was that they were thing-worlds (and so the very opposite of home), filled with more things than I could count.

Saffron Walden Museum is a family-focused museum with a long history of being child-friendly. As early as the beginning of the twentieth century schoolchildren were being encouraged to visit the museum when Guy Maynard was the curator.

My book, The Museum Makers, is about many things but its basic premise is that if museums have always been about sorting and classifying and making sense out of the confusion of the world, then – in the way that we hold on to our things and our memories and try to make sense of our own pasts – we are all museum makers.

My book is also very definitely a thank you to the museums of my childhood, of which Saffron Walden was one.

Click here https://bit.ly/TheMuseumMakersextract to hear Rachel Morris reading an extract from her new book, The Museum Makers which is published by September Publishing on August 27th 2020.

For more information behind this story visit https://bit.ly/TheMuseumMakersbook

Object of the Month – August 2020

Chinese Foot-Binding – Lotus Shoes

Foot-binding was a traditional practice that originated in 10th century China, among court dancers and high society women. By the 12th century it was a widespread practice. In the early 19th century it was estimated that five to eight women out of every ten in China (taking into account regional variations) had bound feet. It eventually spread through all social classes and while it was outlawed in 1912, it continued in some rural areas for years afterwards. A census taken in 1928 in rural Shanxi found that 18% of women had bound feet, while in some remote rural areas such as the Yunnan Province, foot-binding continued to be practiced until the 1950s. In most parts of China, the practice had virtually disappeared by 1949. In 1999, the last lotus shoe-making factory closed.

The museum has around 14 pairs of Chinese lotus shoes associated with foot binding. They typically have wedge heels, pointed upturned toes which extend beyond the sole and stiffened ankles. The embroidered uppers of the shoes have been beautifully crafted in silk and metallic threads, with embellishments – usually gold braid, beading and sequins.

The foot-binding practice involved plunging the feet into hot water and massaging them with oil. Then all the toes, except for the big ones, were broken and bound flat against the sole, to produce a triangular shape. The arch of the foot was strained as the foot was bent double. The feet were bound in place using a silk strip measuring 10ft long and 2 inches wide. These wrappings were briefly removed every 2 days to prevent blood and pus from infecting the foot. Sometimes “excess” flesh was cut away or encouraged to rot. Over time the wrappings became tighter and the shoes became smaller as the heel and sole were crushed together. After 2 years the process was complete and the feet were most probably numb, with a deep cleft in the sole that could hold a coin in place. Once a foot had been crushed and bound, the shape could not be reversed without undergoing the same pain all over again. This practice was usually undertaken on the feet of a young girl, aged between 3 and 11 years, as their feet would have been softer and easier to manipulate. It was usually carried out by the child’s grandmother. 

This painful practice was associated with beauty, status and marriage eligibility. Having tiny feet was considered sexually attractive, emphasising a masculine Chinese view at that time of a woman’s inferiority and weakness.  It was believed that girls who had their feet bound would be able to attract better marriage offers because of their tiny feet. In wealthy families, the feet of all the daughters would have been bound but in poorer families, the practice might only have been carried out on the eldest daughter, as they had the best chance of making a good marriage union. The ideal length of the foot – the “golden lotus” was deemed to be just three inches. 

Request for help with research project

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martin Barry a PhD student from Bristol University is researching ‘The Materiality, Memories & Material Culture” of Princess Mary’s 1914 (WW1) Christmas Gift to Soldiers & Sailors. Let him know if you are still in possession of your relatives embossed brass ‘Mary Tin’.  He would like to interview relatives by phone or virtually via Zoom.  Contact mb12582@bristol.ac.uk

Object of the Month – July 2020

Hipposandal – a Roman horse shoe

Our Object of the Month for July has been chosen by Carolyn Wingfield, Curator

How were hipposandals used?

Iron hipposandals (soleae ferreae) were removable temporary horseshoes, which were used to protect the hooves of working horses.  They were first introduced in the Celtic-Roman area north of the Alps in the mid-1st century AD and were in use until around the 5th century AD, when they were largely replaced by nailed on horseshoes.

The iron soles of the hipposandals were marked with grooves, with an oval-shaped thick metal cup above that, which would have enclosed and protected the hoof. They were fastened to the horse using metallic clips and leather laces.  This particular example from our collections has the back wings and upper frontal loop missing. 

Wearing Hipposandals gave working horses’ better traction and protected their hooves, particularly on rough ground and metalled tracks. Wearing them greatly improved the efficiency and resilience of the animals.  There were also versions known as kureisen (cure shoes) which were worn to help treat and protect a horse if it had diseased hooves.

The word hipposandal is derived from Ancient Greek as the word “hippos” means horse. Hence the word “hippodrome,” which we now use to mean a theatre, but which originally was the name for an ancient Greek stadium for horse and chariot racing.

Where did this one come from?

This item was donated to the Museum in 1985 by a metal-detectorist and researcher along with a collection of shell and pottery fragments (which included sherds of Nene Valley fine-ware) and belemnite fossils all collected in the same area of Wixoe.

Wixoe is a village in West Suffolk, located on the bank of the River Stour, 2 miles south-east of Haverhill. It was recorded in the Domesday Book as having covered 600 acres and was one of the smallest parishes in the hundred of Risbridge.  Today, many of its cottages are Victorian and it has a 12th century church, St Leonard’s. 

Roman remains have been frequently found in the vicinity of Wixoe, mostly on the Essex side of the Stour. In 1803, close to Watsoe Bridge, an earthwork enclosure was identified as a ‘camp’, along with two cemeteries.  In 1973 aerial photography showed many large pits, two streets and a building with flint foundations, close to the river.  Field-walking and metal detection over many years have revealed multiple finds of Roman coins and other artefacts, including brooches, figurines, pottery. 

The assumption of archaeologists and historians is that Wixoe in Roman times occupied between 12 and 24 hectares, and was one of eight small Roman towns in Suffolk, which included Icklingham, Long Melford and Felixstowe.

In 2011, on the Suffolk side of the Stour, archaeological surveying and excavation work undertaken during the Abberton pipeline installation, revealed a small town which was likely to have been occupied between 100-400 AD. Its road connections were the real advantage of the town’s location. 

The Via Devana, a military track, which ran from Chester to Colchester, would have passed through Wixoe. Another road would have led east from Wixoe, on the north side of the Stour, passing through Long Melford, before heading north-east to Baylham and probably on to Dunwich.  A third road led north, probably towards Icklingham and the Icknield Way.  A fourth road, close to the Ains Ford, is thought to have run towards the major Roman fort at Great Chesterford, on a more southerly section of the Icknield Way.  There is no clear trace of these roads immediately outside Wixoe, but it is likely that they have been eroded by ploughing or incorporated into the existing field boundaries.  Evidence suggests that the Stour may have also been navigable as far as Wixoe by flat-bottomed boats.  There may even have been a wharf there at one time.

The town appears to have been a planned rural commercial centre, rather than one which evolved naturally from an earlier settlement. It is most likely that it was built after the Boudiccan revolt and sacking of Camulodunum (Colchester) in AD60-61.  The archaeological evidence suggests that its wealth was focussed on industrial production relying on local timber (charcoal) and imported metals.  It appears to have consisted of largely timber-framed domestic buildings, with evidence of courtyards, boundary ditches, industrial ovens and hearths showing the remains of lead and iron workings, with cobbled surfaces and pits used for quarrying.

Use of horses in Roman Britain

Battle

The Romans used horses primarily for battle; horsemen fought as a secondary force to the infantry soldiers. They would have initially fought on the wings of the battle formation.  It was the job of the cavalry to prevent the enemy from outflanking the infantry, who would have been positioned in the centre of the formation.  When the Romans turned a battle in their favour and the enemy began to retreat, the cavalry would then move forward to cut them down.  The use of horses in battle enabled the Roman army to move faster and more efficiently.  Horse riders also played other crucial non battle roles for example couriering urgent messages and acting as scouts investigating new territories. 

Agriculture & Industry

In Romano-Britain, horses were used in the majority of agricultural processes as draught animals, alongside donkeys and oxen. In industrial processes their walking motion would have been used to power heavy machinery, for example in milling flour or operating a saw mill. 

Transport

The majority of Romano-British people would have travelled on foot, but those who were wealthier such as merchants would have used horses for transport, as did the military and government. Rest stops would have provided those travelling long distances with a chance to rest and change horses. 

Chariot Racing & Public Events

In ancient Rome, chariot racing was extremely popular. Races were held in what was called a “circus” because of the oval shape of the stadium.  The most famous and oldest of these is the Circus Maximus in Rome.  The closest chariot racing circuit in Romano-Britain would have been the Camulodunum Circus (Colchester). The Romans loved a spectacle and in addition to the chariot racing they would have also had hunting shows, where venatores, often on horseback themselves, would have hunted herds of wild animals including horses for the assembled audience’s enjoyment.

References

Manning, W.H. (1985). Catalogue of Romano-British Iron Tools, Fittings and Weapons in the British Museum, BMP, London.

Colchester’s Roman Circus Centre, Colchester Archaeological Trust: https://www.romancircus.co.uk/

Update: Museum Re-opening

We welcome the government’s announcement that museums in England can re-open from the 4th July.

Our first priority is the safety of our staff, volunteers and visitors.

We are working hard behind the scenes to ensure that all necessary safety measures are in place for re-opening in line with the government’s guidelines.

We will announce our official opening date which is likely to be later in the Summer, across our social media channels, website and local media in due course.

Thank you for your continuing support of the Museum.

New blog article: Roman Kitchen & Dining

Curator Carolyn Wingfield is giving a small display of Roman pottery a makeover, looking at where the pots were made or how they were used. This small bowl with a perforated base is a pottery strainer or colander, which has been partially reconstructed; it is quite rare for strainer bowls to be found complete. Domestic pottery like this was usually made locally, so it may well have been traded at a market in the Roman town of Great Chesterford, or the smaller centre at Great Dunmow. In this case, we do not have any information on where the strainer bowl was found. It was common in late Iron Age and Roman times to place food and drink offerings in the grave with the dead (usually cremated remains). We do not have detailed records of where every pot in the collections was found, but it is probable that most of the complete or reconstructed Roman pots in the collections probably come from burials.

Pottery strainer bowl or colander, probably made locally, c 170 – 250 AD

Everyday vessels like this take us straight to the kitchen or hearth of a Romano-British family home, to people preparing their food and maybe adopting some new food fashions and items of kitchen equipment after Britain became part of the Roman Empire. One manual of Roman cooking survives– the recipes of Apicius, a celebrated Roman ‘celebrity chef’. However his recipes do not necessarily reflect what the average Roman Briton was cooking – especially those with more exotic ingredients such as ostrich! Nevertheless it does give us a valuable insight into Roman cuisine, and some ways of preparing common foodstuffs and sauces. Recipes for preparing cooked squashes in sauce or lentils with chestnuts, for instance, refer to straining ingredients.

Small Roman flagon and cup, both dating from the mid 2nd century AD

This flagon was made at a pottery near St Albans (Roman Verulamium) and the cup was imported from north Gaul (Roman France). The flagon was found in Great Chesterford and given to the Museum in 1836 – the year after it opened – by a Mrs Barnes. The little cup, which is just 7cms high, may also have been found at Great Chesterford, but no record survives of its provenance.

Wine was imported and enjoyed before the Roman conquest by at least some local Iron Age people; wine amphorae (large pottery containers) have been found in high-status burials and sherds of amphorae were excavated at an Iron Age village site now under Stansted Airport. Romans usually drank wine diluted with water – even soldiers had a ration of weak, sour wine. After the Roman conquest the taste for wine and its availability spread. Drinks based on wines flavoured with herbs and spices were also popular, as was the use of wine in cooking. Native drinks were based on fermenting grains (barley, wheat) and honey, so mead was probably common as well as beer, though strictly it would have been more like an ale or barley wine as hops were not used in Britain until the late Middle Ages.

The small size of the flagon and cup suggest they might have ben used for someone’s special tipple rather than drinking to quench thirst. Perhaps we could imagine a local Briton enjoying a nip of spiced wine on a damp chilly evening? Bibite! (Drink up!)

Introducing our brand new – Click & Collect Activity Packs

Bringing our usual holiday craft and learning activities to your home! Each pack contains all the materials you need plus exciting stories from our collections and is just £5.

Simply follow the link to order yours

https://saffron-walden-museum.arttickets.org.uk/ 

Week One: Brilliant Botanists

Learn all about the botanist George Stacey Gibson. Make your own plant press and create your own herbarium. Become a plant hunter with the plant hunter trail. Grow your own bean plant and learn about what plants need to grow!

Your pack will include:

1 x plant press kit

1 x Herbarium kit

1 x Glass jar and bean “seeds”

1 x A4 activity booklet, including instructions and plant hunter trail

5 x A5 Museum collections photographs to collect and keep

Collecting your Activity Pack

Once you have ordered your pack please email the Museum to arrange a collection slot. Do not come to the Museum without contacting us first.  Collection from outside the Museum will be available from the 17/06/2020 Tues to Fri depending on staff availability.

PLEASE NOTE: When booking, the date you select has no impact on when you collect – we just can’t get around this part of the booking system.

After you have ordered your pack please email cpratt@uttlesford.gov.uk to arrange a time to collect your pack from the Museum.

Hygiene & Corona Virus

Packs will be prepared by one member of staff wearing gloves and a face covering, and materials with hard surfaces will be wiped over. We recommend you also take your own additional precautions, especially if a member or your house hold is in the higher risk group.

The museum is closed for the time being, but remains active online…

Website: www.saffronwaldenmuseum.org      

Blog: https://exploresaffronwaldenmuseum.blogspot.com/

Email: museum@uttlesford.gov.uk

Phone: 01799 510333

National Volunteer Week – June 2020

The first week of June is National Volunteer Week.  With the Museum still closed due to the covid-19 lockdown, we’re really missing you all especially our amazing volunteers, who are all integral to the museum’s diverse activities. We thank you all for your on-going support.  Here’s a message from us to you for #NationalVolunteerWeek  – It reads:

We miss you all so much especially our amazing volunteers and can’t wait to see you again when it’s safe

Volunteers play lots of different roles within our organisation:

Welcome Desk volunteers.  June for example (pictured holding the “When” word, has been one of our dedicated volunteers for over 20 years.  She undertakes the vital work of co-ordinating all our welcome desk volunteers –they meet & greet our visitors and provide them with orientation information, sell admission tickets and souvenirs and answer your enquiries.

Collections volunteers  (Natural Sciences, Archaeology and Human History) assist staff with vital collections tasks such as cataloguing, packing, labelling and digitising collections, they also transcribe early museum records and assist with exhibition installing. #DidYouKnow We also have verge volunteers who carry out ecological surveys of plants at 16 Special Roadside Verges in the Uttlesford District

Learning and Activity Volunteers have a vital role assisting us with preparing and running our school sessions and school holiday activities.

Last year we held a Volunteer Party for #NationalVolunteerWeek. When it’s safe to do so we will make sure we have another one!  The volunteers admired a temporary display explaining how they are vital cogs in our organisation.  They also took part in wildlife surveying with our Natural Sciences Officer, James Lumbard. 

Follow this link for a full-size PDF version  of the Volunteers Pictures  Scrapbook  or see the Flipbook version  below

The Shape of Women: Female Fashion Silhouette – Part 2 (c. 1900-Present Day)

Our Collections Officer (Human History), Jenny Oxley has a real passion for vintage fashion, check out Part 2 of her blog charting the changes in the female fashion silhouette, this time covering the period between 1900 and the present day – illustrated through the museum’s collections.

Follow this link for the PDF version The Shape of Women – Part 2: 1900=Present or see the flipbook version below

“The Shape of Women” : Corsets & Crinolines

Our Collections Officer (Human History), Jenny Oxley has a real passion for vintage fashion, check out her latest blog, charting the changes in the female fashion silhouette between 1790 and 1900 – Corsets and Crinolines – illustrated through the museum’s collections.

Follow this link for the PDF version The Shape of Women – Part 1: 1790=1900 or see the flipbook version below