We recently acquired a set of button sample books from James Grove & Sons Ltd in Halesowen. James Grove were world famous for making horn buttons. They also made buttons out of casein, polyester, and nylon.
As part of the acquisition I arranged to interview Roy Taylor who worked for the company from the 1960s until it closed in 2012. The first part of the interview we discussed what it was like working at James Grove. I wanted to know what the atmosphere or character of the factory was like (the sights, smells and sounds), how long he trained for, and who worked for there.
The second part of the interview Roy came into the museum to look at the button sample books. A button sample book was used in a number of ways. Firstly it was designed to show prospective clients the range of buttons made by the company. Clients would also bring their own button designs for Grove’s to make, therefore this would also go into the book. A duplicate book would be kept in the warehouse as a reference for the machine tool makers, and button makers. Each button sample had a unique reference number. Roy still remembers the reference numbers for each button he designed or made regularly. It was fascinating listening to Roy talk about the buttons, how they were made, as well as how fashions and the materials used to make buttons changed over the decades. I originally assumed many of these buttons were moulded but in this video Roy discusses how most were machine and hand made:
Hello everybody, my name is Natasha Hall and I am going to be taking you with me on my travels as the new Institute of Conservation (Icon), Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), Fine Metals Conservation Intern stationed at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for the next year.
Fine metals are something that most persons on this earth are drawn to. For millennia metalwork has been a solid backbone to human growth and adaptation, allowing our species to create items for various purposes; from heirlooms, to weapons; for vanity or religion. The longevity and stability of this material has in itself enabled us to have the gift of looking back through the ashes of empires, whether it is hundreds or thousands of years. The conservation of these items is the plinth on which future generations’ knowledge on human history stands. I am a truly an honoured individual to have the opportunity to be working in this environment for the next 12 months.
Before I go on I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to Icon and HLF for funding my placement here at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and a HUGE thank you to my mentor Pieta Greaves ACR, Staffordshire Hoard Conservation Coordinator for her continued support. Also Julie Taylor my Job Center advisor who told me about this internship, helped me to secure the placement and has always shown credence in me and my abilities.
This Fine Metals internship will allow me to simultaneously meet people and experience first hand what a career within conservation would be like. As a naturally curious soul I have to admit to being quite wide-ranging with my points of interest. Already 2 weeks in and I am learning to channel my focus into one area, learning that concentrating on one area or item does not exempt all avenues of interest. Rather, like a beehive looks from the outside, though whole on the surface within it, a honey comb of compartments all separate – yet together. This is how I see the complex world of conservation. Inside this one point of interest lays neat yet complex areas of perception which when delved into can keep you spellbound with history, science and art alike for hours on end.
On my first day as Intern, the Conservation team was invited to Portsmouth to visit the legendary and ill-fated Mary Rose. Following a two and a half hour road trip with Pieta, object conservator Alex Cantrill and previous Icon HLF, intern Rose Wachsmuth we arrived at the ship, this was a great day and allowed me to be reacquainted with the staff I will be spending my time with for the next year on an informal but professional level.
As the new Intern, part of my body of work will be to continue on Rose Wachsmuth’s work and recommendations (read more about Rose’s internship) in the Silver stores located at the Museums Collections Centre. There is a mystery of how and why some of the objects in the silver stores are tarnishing when others are fine. I shall be testing various silver objects in various ways to see if we can get to the bottom of the mystery and help to preserve objects in the silver stores for longer. I will also have the chance to clean some of the objects of the tarnish layers.
To start building on my knowledge and experience my first project is looking at a group of buttons: 105 buttons of mainly navy descent, spanning from the 18th to the 19th century. These buttons are to be analysed, treated and need to have both pre and post conservation reports, XRF and X-Ray readings. The buttons project will run alongside other projects and will be completed by Christmas for mounting and displaying shortly after.
I will also work closely in the future on two projects with Applied Art curator Martin Ellis as he is completing a small gallery refit, my part of this will include conserving some fine metal jewellery that has been made in Birmingham’s Jewellery quarter and to help install and condition check some especially fine Vesta Cases.
I shall be updating you with more information and images from this, and all of my projects project during my time here at Birmingham I will be sharing more in-depth information about my various projects, samples of condition reports, information on training gained and conferences I attend.
Icon HLF Fine Metals Intern
During the past six months Birmingham Museums have launched two brand new galleries showcasing the cultural heritage of the city and I’ve had the privilege of being involved in both developments.
The History Galleries, Birmingham: Its People, Its History opened last October at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and We Made It opened at Thinktank as recently as last week. The two exhibitions perfectly complement each other, working in tandem to innovatively explore the manufacturing history of this region. But, what exactly ties these two exhibitions, one about science and the other history, together, if anything? Well, first of all and most obviously, Birmingham. The History Galleries at BMAG explore nearly one thousand years of Birmingham’s history, but it’s the last two hundred years or so, that are really relevant to We Made It.
While the History Galleries explore Birmingham’s past from the point of the influential and everyday people behind the industrial innovation, We Made It develops this story further by exploring the science and the materials behind the manufacturing. In many ways, We Made It is a science exhibition inspired by history, specifically the manufacturing history of the West Midlands. The two exhibitions even display some identical objects from our shared collections. For example, visitors to the History Galleries are presented with an impressive array of pen nibs made by local manufacturers including Brandauer and Perry & Co. This important Birmingham trade is placed in the social context of the day, even making reference to the fact that three quarters of the world’s handwriting was once produced with a Birmingham-made pen nib.
We Made It also includes a display of pen nibs produced by the same Birmingham-based companies, but instead it looks at this trade from the point of the materials used, in this case, steel. Steel has long been an important material in Birmingham’s industrial past, and its importance here is explored in the context of its properties. As a strong, flexible and hard-wearing material, it’s suitable for mass production by machines for use in products like pen nibs. So, in one exhibition visitors can learn about how the material was made and why it was used and in another, more about the people and companies who made the products.
Likewise, buttons were once big business in Birmingham and the History Galleries display nearly five hundred cut steel, glass and brass examples.
Here, we learn about the working conditions in button workshops, the people involved, specifically women and children and how this thriving industry contributed to the fashions of the day. We Made It develops this narrative by taking the story into the age of mass production in its Nuts and Bolts section, where visitors will find a button shank machine from the 1790s. This machine was one of the first to work automatically and could produce enough button shanks in one afternoon to keep a button maker in business for a whole month! This was an age of revolution and We Made It looks at how machines like this enabled the mass production of many products.
Staying with the theme of mass production, the exhibition also displays one of the first machines used for wrapping chocolates at Cadbury’s. Although, you won’t so much learn about the people who worked at the Bournville factory, but rather how the chocolates were wrapped and why the aluminium wrappers made the perfect packaging.
In contrast, the array of Cadbury’s objects on display in the History Galleries are presented in a way that allows you to learn about the daily working lives, education and leisure of the female workers.
Although some people may think it’s a shame to separate objects that ultimately tell the same story, this is an opportunity to get more objects out of storage and allow them to contribute to a bigger narrative across more sites, in more exhibitions. We have nearly one million objects in our collection and it’s impractical to display all of these at any one time. But in sharing them across our individual sites in different exhibitions, we can ensure that more narratives of the same, or indeed different stories can be told.
Nevertheless, these galleries were designed to stand alone and aren’t dependent on one another to convey their messages. One of the key strengths of both exhibitions is the distinct visitor experiences they offer. One of my favourite aspects of the History Galleries is the powerfully evocative First and Second World War oral testimonies from Birmingham residents, creatively located in an immersive installation (below).
We Made It offers something else still, particularly through its interactive approach. The Build a Mini interactive challenges visitors to assemble a car (needless to say it’s a Mini!) by completing tasks on the various interactive stations, such as connecting the circuits or positioning the cams.
Visitors can also learn how glass is coloured by ‘mixing’ their own minerals and discover how plastic injection moulding works, by ‘making’ a plastic duck! Of course, cars, glass and plastic have all played an important role in this region’s history and the We Made It interactives reinforce this point through participation, to get people thinking about the many materials that make up just one product.
Science and history really do go hand in hand and have always been natural partners in the industrial endeavours of the West Midlands. In the same way, both exhibitions are natural partners in exploring Birmingham’s contribution to science, technological innovation and history over the past two hundred years or so, and demonstrate just how and why Birmingham became known as the ‘town of a thousand trades.’
Sarah Hayes, Project Curator, We Made It
Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum
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