In the heart of Silsoe, Bedfordshire sits Wrest Park, which is famed for its impressive gardens. But beyond the splendor of the gardens and 1830s mansion house, behind the scenes sits a large industrial building which, since 2013, has been used as an archaeological collections store. Collections Archive Assistant Rose Arkle explains more about this treasure trove.
1. There are more than 160,000 objects in the collection
The objects in the collection are stored for sites under the guardianship of English Heritage from the East and West Midlands, East of England and London.
They were originally held in two other stores – the Atcham store in Shropshire and the Beeston store in Norfolk. Moving in began in June 2011 and was completed by November 2013.
2. It used to be an agricultural store
Originally the site was owned by the Silsoe Research Institute and, before the collections moved in, it was used as Cranfield College’s agricultural store. The large warehouse was used to store and repair agricultural equipment.
It was transformed to house collections by installing a new roof and adding partition walls to create rooms with specific environments. The design remained sympathetic to its original use though – doors and windows were either replaced with metal panels, roller shutters, or were filled in using a contrasting brick.
3. It’s a working store that carries out extensive documentation
Although we don’t have a high turnover of objects entering and exiting the store, we do run an extensive programme of documentation projects.
Collections are documented by excavations carried out on a specific site. For the most part a site comes ready processed from an archaeological unit, so all we have to do is re-pack, accession (give it a unique number) and document each object.
At the moment we’re working on the Jewel Tower pottery collection, which is a bit unusual. We have had to identify, date and research the collection before cataloguing could begin. It takes a lot of time to understand and rationalise the collection in this way. We have needed pottery, clay pipe and glass specialists come in to help us understand the collection.
4. It’s really easy to find what you’re looking for
Each pallet is assigned a unique number and is marked with its site and weight, then stored alongside two others and given an aisle, column and shelf number. Each shelf is allocated a QR-code which, once scanned, will pull up all the object information we have on our database. Although it’s a lengthy documentation process, it means that we have a standardised cataloguing system which is clear and very user-friendly.
5. It’s not just archaeology – there’s architecture too
One room houses 40 staircases, 219 mouldings and more than 1,000 different wallpapers. This is part of the Architectural Studies Collection (ASC) – a collection of 6,000 objects started by the London County Council in 1903 to preserve and promote changes in London’s architectural history. Some of the things in this collection were sourced from skips when houses were being renovated in the early twentieth century!
6. Watch out for the bell jacks
A highlight of the collection is the bell jacks, which came from the roof of Colombia Market in London. These statues of 16th century tradesmen tower almost 8 feet tall, and can be seen lining up amongst the enormous shelves of architectural history.
They’re part of the ASC that comes from commercial buildings, schools, public houses and farms, and other significant buildings such as St. George’s hospital and St. Mary’s Church. We also have a collection from Brooke House, Hackney- a demolished former hunting lodge of Henry VIII.
7. A year of testing went into creating the different environments in the store
A key part of creating this collection store was making a safe and controlled environment to preserve these objects. A year of extensive testing went on to gauge temperature and humidity changes of the buildings to determine what environmental controls needed to be installed. The relative humidity (RH) of the architectural section is higher than the archaeological section as it has a larger quantity of open pallets and woodwork. To reduce the humidity two de-humidifiers were installed. We also have a secure inner room which stores wallpaper, archaeological paper archive and small finds – this is kept between 14-16 degrees and around 48-50% RH – lower than the rest of the buildings.
8. Volunteers are integral to all aspects of keeping the store running
Three regular volunteers come in on a Monday to assist with the on-going packing and cataloguing of back-log collections. We are currently working on Tilbury Fort and Jewel Tower simultaneously. A photography volunteer comes in on a Monday, and he is slowly working his way through our 160,000 objects!
There are conservation cleaning volunteers who come in once a month to assist the Conservator/ Collections Care Assistants in their mammoth task of keeping the store clean. They also target specific object groups in the ASC for cleaning. Project volunteers are also recruited for specific tasks over the year; recently this included re-packing the archaeological paper archive and packing photographs into conservation wallets.
Our volunteers help us deliver monthly store tours, and run specialist events such as ‘Awesome Archaeology’ over the summer and St. George’s Day.
We take work placement students over the Easter break. University students are recruited to gain experience of working within the collections team, covering conservation cleaning and opening sites for the new season. They also learn how to pack and document archaeological collection.
9. Wrest Park isn’t the only collections store run by English Heritage
We currently have five other stores which are dedicated to conserving, researching, documenting and packing collections for long-term storage so these objects can be interpreted and enjoyed for future generations.
Take a look behind the scenes at the conservation work being carried out on the historic objects at one of our other collection stores.
10. Members of the public can come and visit!
We hold tours on the first Monday of every month between April and October at 2pm. Contact the Wrest Park Visitor Reception to book your place on these tours. Advance group bookings can be organised on other weekdays too.
Find out more about taking a tour of the Wrest Park Archaeological Collections store