By David Clensy
THERE are few people who would look at a paper bag and see a treasure.
But the spirit of the new M Shed museum will be to celebrate the normal; the everyday; the mundane – the things that make Bristol‘s social history come to life.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising to find expert paper conservator Harry Metcalf, studying a brown paper bag, as though it’s the Crown Jewels.
After all, the eagerly-anticipated new museum, which is set to open on June 17, will be filled with more than 3,000 individual objects from the daily lives of Bristolians.
The Harbourside building, formerly the Industrial Museum, is alive with activity as legions of contractors put the finishing touches to the fittings, while curators scurry around, carrying objects in white-gloved hands.
Yesterday the four historic cranes outside the building moved on their dockside rails for the first time since the Industrial Museum’s closure in 2006.
But while the cranes are turning heads, inside Harry’s focus is firmly fixed on the paper bag.
“This isn’t just any paper bag,” Harry says. “It is one of the earliest paper bags – it dates from 1831.
“It comes from a grocery shop called A.S.Taylor.
“But the real significance for the city’s heritage is simply the fact that it is a paper bag – Bristol has a real history of paper bag making, with Bedminster firm Robinson’s introducing the world to paper bags in the 19th century.”
Unsurprisingly, the 180-year-old paper bag wasn’t in the best condition when it came into Harry’s hands.
“It had been used of course, and so it was creased and torn a bit. But the bag had been kept for generations as a keepsake, and somebody in the 20th century had attempted to mend the tears using tape.
“Unfortunately, that’s the worst thing they could have done. They would have been better simply leaving the bag a little torn.
“Often our work as conservators is about undoing previous repairs that have been clumsily applied.
“Over time, the adhesive in the tape transfers into the paper itself, and leaves horrible yellow marks.
“So I’ve put in quite a bit of work on the paper bag, using industrial methylated spirits to carefully remove the yellowing.
“The creases in the bag, I decided to leave, because it tells part of the object’s story.
“The bag was used to carry shopping, so it’s only right it should have creases. The balance for conservators is always doing enough work to halt degeneration, without taking away the item’s character.”
When you realise the amount of thought and time Harry has clearly put into the paper bag, the scale of the 3,000-object problem at the M Shed begins to take shape.
As we speak, we are surrounded by countless boxes of items – a seemingly random collection of historical ephemera, ranging from a St Paul’s Carnival dragon mask to a 19th-century docks sign, reading: “Have you any unauthorised cigarettes on your person? If so, please deposit here.”
“Working with ephemera, including modern ephemera has been fascinating, and it throws up its own issues,” Harry says. “After all, we know and understand how ancient exhibits behave, but we know surprisingly little about the way modern materials are going to decay over time – so we have to try to preserve them for the future based on the things we do know.”
But even some of the more historical items to be displayed in the new museum have had some interesting preservation issues.
“Take a look at this,” Harry says, reaching for an early 19th century bill – a news poster.
The bold lettering on the bill reads “Sir Charles Wetherell left Bristol at 12 o’clock last night, Sunday October 30, 1831.”
The bill was put up around the city by the council authorities, to try to quell the Bristol Riots as the mob stormed the Mansion House, residence of Wetherell, who was the recorder – the judge – for the city.
The bills were, however, soon torn down, and the unfortunate bill-sticker knocked about; his kettle was taken from him, the paste thrown out, and the kettle forced upon his head, amidst the laughter of the mob.
But this individual bill survived intact.
“The interesting thing about the bill from a conservation point of view, is the way the lettering has mirrored itself across the other side of the paper,” Harry says.
“This indicates that it has been folded up for much of its life, and over time the oil has seeped from the lettering and left this mirroring effect.
“Again, I decided this was a part of the bill’s history – so I’m more than happy to leave the extra lettering on there.”
Alison Lister is leading a team of half-a-dozen textile conservators working on a range of items from dresses to embroidery samplers for the new museum.
“Sometimes it’s not about dramatic intervention,” Alison says, as she examines a Victorian wedding dress.
“This dress for instance, which dates back to 1881, is still in reasonable condition.
“But while it would once have been fitted to an ordinary mannequin and put on display, we’re now much more careful about how we present the item.
“The fact is, women had a very different posture and frame in 1881 – they tended to be a little smaller, with very narrow corseted waists. If we put this on a 21st century female profile mannequin, it simply wouldn’t fit right, and the dress would be stretched over time. We have to get mannequins specially made for certain periods.”
Embroidery samplers being prepared for exhibition include some children’s needlework, including two delicate pieces – one proudly signed by a girl called Adelaide in 1845, the other stitched with the name of Lucy Fripp, Berkeley Square, Bristol 1830.
“Samplers are lovely pieces of social history, because domestic embroiderers and children learning embroidery tended to put in tremendous amounts of detail about themselves in their stitching.
“But they used to be displayed by being glued to a wooden board and stuck in a frame behind glass – not the best way of conserving a piece of embroidered material.
“So we have been working on removing the samplers from their original mountings and lightly – invisibly – stitching them on to fabric mounts.”
Alison and her team have also been working on a much more robust item – an early Scouts’ uniform from 1919.
“The uniform, which is for a member of the St George unit of the Bristol Scouts, had been kept in a drawer for generations, before a local family donated it to the M Shed. Over the years it had been attacked by moths. So I had to painstakingly stitch around all the moth holes to prevent them spreading any further,” Alison says.
“But again, I didn’t want to fix all the moth holes, because they’re a part of the item’s story.”