Our visitors do love to get close in to see the more unusual objects, such as the human skull with phrenology markings on it, or the small group of pathology slides which were found under the floorboards in someone’s house in Worcester. Museum designers also love glass doors, drawers with glass covers, touch screens and obviously there are the glass cabinets to keep everything safe and secure. Such wants result in smudges from fingers, noses and the odd bumped forehead from a visitor not realising there is glass there.
At The Infirmary we take advantage of the quiet days in January each year to conduct a deep clean of the gallery, inside the cases and out, skirting boards, window sills and a delicate review of the objects themselves.
The collection on display is functional and contains artefacts designed for a purpose. I am growing attached to some of them because of their stories and the context provided by labels, which emphasises the learning element of this gallery’s design. Unless you have worked in healthcare the gallery needs interpretation to guide a visitor on what an object may be for, or when it was first introduced. I am lucky not to have spent much time in hospital, however even before starting here two years ago I could describe a stethoscope. However, I was not aware of how a Victorian surgeon might remove a lower limb or in fact why they used a cauterising iron.
With a little context and closer inspection of the collection, these enquiries start to be answered and the annual clean is an opportunity to get closer to the collection and learn that little bit more. Some of the objects we display are not unique and we are therefore able to do the clean during a quiet time like January when students are on exam leave and visitors are less common.
Another benefit of the collection’s nature means we can use the clean as a training exercise, for example recently, we had three students join us from the University of St Andrews for a total of five days on a shadowing scheme the University runs. These are undergrads interested in finding out more about what a museum professional does all day and gives them an insight in to the workings of a museum, and in our case a small one, which actually means they’re involved in a broader range of tasks on their visits.
During the clean we showed them object handling techniques, talked about simple conservation of objects, explained more about the displayed object like why, how and where they are shown. Our Learning Museum Trainee Lewis also got in on the act as this provides useful experience and evidence for the QCF qualification he is doing as part of his course too. We want our visitors to see the objects and not really notice the glass, or to have their attention drawn from reading labels by unsightly spider webs or dust bunnies. We are fortunate being a small gallery means it can all be done in a few days of working as a team and everyone picking up the water spray and paper towels.
The topic of dress up always raises a good discussion and is undoubtedly the most used resource we have in the gallery when schools visit, whether primary or secondary. We are very lucky to have such a suitable topic for clothing – everybody has played doctors and nurses as children, right? Adding some gore to the proceedings is our 19th century surgeon or, if you want the more contemporary, scrubs and they are also very popular and disguise worthy. These also need TLC and are laundered regularly to keep them looking and feeling fresh amongst the many sessions they are used in.
Cleaning glass is a constant battle, however I hope those of you who also do it are careful not to leave your fingerprints on fellow museum’s glassworks!