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Newsletter, April 2009 (Issue 175)

Museums' Collections


How lucky we are! Those of us who have often visited Christchurch Mansion and High Street Museum have a good idea of the variety and quality of the collections. But to listen to two enthusiastic professionals talking about these artefacts in some detail brought home to me what extraordinary treasures we have.

Jayne Austin, born and educated in Ipswich schools, was appointed Collections Manager some eighteen months ago. She described mainly the collections at High Street Museum. Emma Roodhouse became Curator of Fine and Decorative Arts last May so it was appropriate for her to concentrate on the works of art in Christchurch Mansion.

Jayne reminded us first of the original museum (now thankfully saved and re-opened as Arlingtons Brasserie) and the building of the High Street Museum in 1881 when it looked "fabulous". Aiming to make it fabulous again, the Museums' Service will work up a Lottery bid in the region of £6-10 million, probably creating a new glass atrium linking the present museum with the 1934 Art Gallery next door. Something to look forward to.

Quickly but fondly Jayne told us about the Bass Rock display (of 1903) and the Ogilvie Bequest of birds (1918) which will be enhanced. The Victorian Natural History collection in the main hall is still for staff and visitors alike the "heart and soul" of the museum with its first gorillas in Britain and its giraffe - which interestingly is still on loan, although tracing the owner might be difficult now!

We were delighted to hear about the concentration on world cultures in the current exhibition plans, including the modernisation of the Egyptian Gallery. Even more pleasing was the news that both museums have full Museum Accreditation now. I thought that Jayne fully justified her title "A New Future for the Past".

Emma Roodhouse described how the Fine Arts collections in Ipswich have been built up from the early days when the museum was largely devoted to Natural History and Science.

So the earliest pictures were of the great Kirby and Henslow. Serious art collecting was boosted by Felix Thornley Cobbold's gift of Christchurch Mansion in 1895, followed by his donation for buying pictures in 1906. So now with other bequests and purchases the Mansion can boast of its collections of 16th and 17th century portraits, the Leathes Collection of Flemish and Dutch art, pictures acquired from Ipswich Art Club, the Art School, architectural drawings and many other works on paper, some modems and "the Big Boys" - Gainsborough and Constable, who need little comment here except to say that in return for the loan of our Constable portraits to the National Portrait Gallery they are lending us their superb Gainsborough self-portrait. Emma's next big job will be to start work on the Mansion's very fine 18th century furniture collection.

Most of us were left with the strong impression that the Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service has a bright future. Certainly we are benefiting from the curatorial posts being filled again. As Jayne Austin pointed out, it's essential to have qualified people looking after the collections properly. The museum's letter from Charles Darwin written in the 1870s had been folded and roughly filed and now has four unwanted holes punched in it. That isn't the way to do it!

NEIL SALMON

    Front cover of issue 175 Cover, issue 175

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