Blythe spirit - Museums Association

Blythe spirit

A daunting project to move the huge collections of three museums from a much-loved building to more accessible facilities
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Simon Stephens
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The Wellcome Collection has been developing  an exhibition, which features photography by artist Jim Naughten, about its collections that are stored at Blythe House on its behalf by the Science Museum Group
The Wellcome Collection has been developing an exhibition, which features photography by artist Jim Naughten, about its collections that are stored at Blythe House on its behalf by the Science Museum Group

Moving house is always stressful. You not only have to carefully pack and transport your precious items, you also need to make sure everything is in the right place when you arrive at your new home and then unpack it all. So imagine how anxious you would be having to move hundreds of thousands of objects, many of which are fragile, priceless and even hazardous.

That is the task facing the Science Museum Group (SMG), British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) – the three organisations store a vast number of objects at Blythe House, a former Post Office Savings Bank building in west London that is being sold by the government. All of them have to move out by 2023. An already challenging logistical undertaking has been made even more difficult by the pandemic, which has inevitably disrupted plans and slowed progress.

But the move is a challenge worth taking on as all three national museums are moving their collections into purpose-built facilities that will be far more suitable places to store, care for and access objects. The move is also providing the opportunity to photograph many of the items, assess their condition and identify potentially hazardous material.

Timeline
  • 1899-1903 Blythe House constructed
  • 1903-1977 Houses the Post Office Savings Bank
  • 1979 Blythe House formally acquired by the government
  • 1984 The V&A, Science Museum Group and British Museum move collections to Blythe House
  • 2004 Blythe House given Grade II listed status
  • 2013 V&A Clothworkers Centre opens
  • 2015 Government announces decision to sell Blythe House
  • 2017 Blythe House collections decant project begins
  • 2023 The three national museums leave Blythe House

But despite the enormous gains being made by the move, many of those involved have mixed feelings about leaving the atmospheric and quirky Blythe House.

“Blythe House is an architectural marvel, and when it was first built as the Post Office Savings Bank it was a state-of-the-art workplace and pioneered the open-plan office,” says Laura Humphreys, the curatorial and collections engagement project manager at SMG.

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“It’s a very sensory building – you can tell where you are by the way sounds echo in certain rooms or by pungent collection smells, and seemingly identical corridors feel subtly different depending on where they lead. In terms of museum history, literally hundreds of museum professionals have cut their teeth at Blythe – so it is a special place for many in the sector.”

Seemingly identical corridors at Blythe House feel subtly different depending on where they lead

Museum professionals are not the only people who think Blythe House is special – it is often used as a film and television location. Staff working there even nickname certain areas after the movie that they feature in, spending time on the Judi Dench bench or in the Olivia Colman courtyard. They are also amused that it often features as an asylum or hospital in films. But although it is a beguiling building, Blythe House is not great for storing museum objects.

“People are fond of Blythe House, and some have worked here since it opened,” says Philippa MacKenzie, the head of the collections move programme at the V&A. “But most people who work in stores are entirely practical and while they might say that the tiles are nice, they also say the meeting spaces are cranky and access is not brilliant. So I think they are looking forward to having proper access to the collections. I am fond of the place, but not when it is freezing cold or the lift is broken.”

Recording the collection before digitisation © Science Museum Group

The benefits of the move will be huge, with the museums learning a lot about their collections and how best to store and document them. Many of these gains are being achieved before the objects have even left the building.

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The V&A is moving 250,000 objects, about 350,000 library books and an estimated 1,000 archival collections from Blythe House to its planned collections and research centre in east London.

“One of the massive benefits of the move is the improvements that we have been able to make to documentation and reconciliation work, and to making sure that we have images of things,” MacKenzie says. “Like any museum, we have some objects that are well documented and photographed, but for a significant proportion of the other objects, not so much. It is that good housekeeping that has been so helpful and continues to be so.”

SMG is moving about 300,000 items from Blythe House to its National Collections Centre in Wroughton, Wiltshire. These range from a huge Cambridge eight rowing boat down to every imaginable scientific instrument.

Every single object is being processed as part of the move. This includes checking each item, assigning it a unique barcode so its location can be tracked, updating its database record and photographing it; images are then published on the SMG’s online collection. A huge amount of work has gone into making this process as streamlined as possible, saving valuable seconds on each item.

Sound documentation is the silver bullet for collections accessibility.

Laura Humphreys

“Being able to do a full information audit, hazard and condition check, and to barcode and photograph 300,000 objects is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Humphreys says. “It will transform how we can engage audiences with our collection. Sound documentation is the silver bullet for collections accessibility.”

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It is a huge logistical exercise to move the vast number of items, but the process has been made simpler by the three museums working together. For example, SMG and V&A jointly appointed two companies under the museum object transport framework to move their collections from Blythe House.

Constantine was contracted to move objects for both museums, while Edes was appointed to move library and archive materials for the V&A. The SMG, together with the V&A, British Museum, Museum of London, Imperial War Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, established a museum object transport framework in 2019. Eleven suppliers are part of this. It was created to support the full range of objects moves that the museums require, from transporting individual objects to moving exhibitions and major collection moves.

“The safety of the collections is paramount,” says Samantha Stewart, the programme manager for display and storage at the British Museum. “There is a huge variety of our collections being moved, from Victorian plaster casts that were originally made in Central America to archaeological assemblages, which include thousands of finds.

The British Museums collections are relocating to new storage and research facility near Reading

This means that we are constantly refining appropriate packing techniques. And the building itself, while special, also poses challenges, and we are working closely with our colleagues at the V&A and SMG to manage moving these fantastic collections out of it.”

Alexandra Fullerlove is the head of collections services programmes and planning at the SMG. “Blythe House itself presents a challenge,” she says. “It is a wonderful building, but we have more than 100 storerooms, spread over six floors. The V&A and British Museum use a similar proportion of the building and we all share one goods lift. This is an obvious challenge, but also a great opportunity to share knowledge and expertise, and work closely together.”

The work of the three institutions to move their collections has been hampered by Covid, but they are all confident they can be out on time.

“We are still working through the implications of the pandemic, which saw Blythe House close for several months in 2020, although the project is back up and running and construction continues on our two new V&A East sites in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park,” says Tim Reeve, the deputy director and chief operating officer of the V&A.

A bust in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s stores at Blythe House

“Even with reduced access to the stores during the first and second lockdowns, and factoring in the need for greater homeworking, the team has made impressive progress.”

Reeve says that by January this year, more than 91% of the V&A objects at Blythe House had been photographed, 82% had been audited and barcoded, and 83% of essential archive rehousing work was completed. Essential conservation is all but complete, and the packing of the objects for transit is well under way.

“Like all V&A sites, we’ve worked with our health and safety team to ensure all spaces are Covid-secure, in partnership with our colleagues from the British Museum and SMG,” Reeve says. “Steps we have taken include carefully controlling the number of people allowed in collection storage areas and workspaces, introducing a booking system and rotas for staff, and a one-way route throughout the building, as well as ensuring staff have the right protection and guidance to keep everyone as safe as possible.”

By 2023, all this hard work and collaboration should have paid off and Blythe House will be empty of collections. But its history as a museum store will not be entirely lost, as there are a number of initiatives to document its past.

These include an oral history project being led by the SMG that also features photographs of some of those who have shared their memories. These will be used in a book, and those behind this initiative are still looking for contributions from museum professionals who have worked or volunteered at Blythe House in the past.

Meanwhile, the Wellcome Collection, London, has a project related to items in its collection that are cared for by the Science Museum at Blythe House. Artist Jim Naughten has made a series of stereoscopic photographs (a technique pioneered by the Victorians) designed to bring a selection of these objects to life.

Photography of Wellcome Collection objects by artist Jim Naughten

Many of the objects featured in Naughten’s portraits are usually hidden from view for a variety of reasons, including their condition. These range from fragile wax anatomical models to delicate amuletic tokens. The planned exhibition will feature photographs of the interior of the stores to accompany the images of objects.

The Wellcome Collection exhibition will celebrate the end of an era for Blythe House, but will also ask wider questions around museum collections, including how they are cared for, researched and interpreted.

“If you designed a storage facility you would not come up with Blythe House, but there is something about it as an experience that you don’t forget,” says Emily Sargent, a senior curator at the Wellcome Collection. “There is such a deep relationship with Blythe House for a lot of the people who work there and there must be quite a big emotional burden packing up all these histories and stories.”

All these stories will be unpacked again in state-of-the-art storage facilities where the collections will be better cared for and far more accessible, for museums and the public. But there is no doubt that the magic of seeing the objects at Blythe House will be gone, except in the memories of those who were lucky enough to visit and work there.

The National Collections Centre in Wroughton, Wiltshire
Science Museum Group

The Science Museum Group (SMG) is relocating around 300,000 historic items from Blythe House to a purpose-built collection management facility at the group’s National Collections Centre in Wiltshire. This former RAF airfield near Swindon is already home to 35,000 large objects from the Science Museum Group Collection and half a million items from the Science Museum’s library and archives.

The 545-acre National Collections Centre also includes large open areas, native woodlands, runways and one of the UK’s largest solar farms. Once completed in 2024, the new facility will house around 80% of objects in the SMG Collection and will open regularly for public tours, school and research visits.

Items being moved from Blythe House include:

  • The best microscope collection in the UK.
  • Some of the earliest samples of plastic ever made.
  • Astronomical instruments
  • A fire-making collection featuring Eskimo fire drills, and some of the earliest examples of Bryant and May safety matches.
  • A vast Met Office collection.
  • Building materials, from Babylonian bricks to LED lights.

As of February, 253,240 objects have been inventoried and hazard checked and 75,254 objects have been packed.

British Museum

The British Museum has partnered with the University of Reading to develop a new storage and research facility in Shinfield, a village just south of Reading.

The British Museum Archaeological Research Collection (BM_ARC) will house ancient sculptures, mosaics, archaeological assemblages and historic cast collections, many of which are being moved from Blythe House.

These collections include Alfred Maudsley casts of ancient Mayan objects. The BM_ARC will include bespoke study facilities; a loans logistics centre and storage facility for touring exhibitions; storage capacity for all large 3D objects and bulk archaeology collections. Members of the public, students and academics will have access to the facility by appointment.

Work is ongong on the project but the pandemic did force the decant team to leave the site for five months and to adapt its processes and procedures to be Covid secure and in line with government advice.

Victoria and Albert Museum

More than 250,000 objects, 1,000 archival collections and 350,000 library books are being studied, photographed, conserved and packed, ready for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) move from Blythe House.

The objects are heading for a purpose-built collections and research centre in Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as part of the V&A East project, which will also include a new museum.

The V&A Collection and Research Centre will feature research spaces, a central public collection hall, pop-up displays, performances and screenings, and behind-the-scenes access. There was a plan to develop displays with the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research organisation, but this has been abandoned “due to evolving strategic priorities, and in the context of the effects of Covid-19”, according to the V&A.

The number of items the V&A holds at Blythe House by parts:

  • Theatre and performance 85,428
  • Textiles and fashion 84,000
  • South-east Asia 37,756
  • Ceramics and glass 33,586
  • East Asia 33,261
  • Furniture and woodwork 20,270
  • Middle Eastern 13,521
  • Paintings, prints & drawings 9,294
  • Metalwork 5,916
  • National Art Library 3,192
  • Sculpture 1,161
  • Archive of art and design 840

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