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!