Category Archives: Exhibitions

A bit behind the scenes

An update from James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

The Geology Gallery received a lot of attention in the run-up to the festive period thanks in no small part to the help provided by Cali, the latest addition to the natural sciences volunteer team. After a short training session in how to carefully clean specimens using a conservation vac and a paintbrush, we were away, and have already cleaned around half of the objects on display at the time of writing. It should be a fairly quick job to finish the rest of the objects in the ‘table-top’ display cases, leaving only a dozen or so in wall-mounted cases. This is part of regular ‘deep cleans’ that help care for museum objects, and will help us double-check and update the information we hold about each object. Many museums are also ‘Accredited’ which means that they uphold certain national standards of collection care, and this work contributes to Saffron Walden Museum maintaining its Accredited status year-on-year. Meanwhile, the photos we take can be used for everything from social media to encouraging researchers to visit the collection.

Fossil ammonite found in Saffron Walden. 150-200 million y.o.

At the start of December I visited the Essex Field Club’s (EFC) annual exhibition and social at Wat Tyler Country Park, near Basildon. The EFC is a volunteer-run society of amateurs and professionals who compile and look after a county-wide database of the wildlife and geology of Essex. The club’s secretary, Fiona Hutchings, very kindly introduced me to members from each specialty so I could speak to them about the natural sciences exhibition this summer, called Take Away the Walls. My plan is to hold a museum-based exhibition showcasing the wildlife of north-west Essex, and to run activities bringing together wildlife organisations and community groups across Uttlesford to help people enjoy the outdoors in new ways that will benefit their own health, and the health of the local environment. The exhibition and activities will really start to take shape behind the scenes soon, so keep your eyes peeled for more updates in the coming months.

Fossil bryozoan in flint. Tiny bryozoa live in coral-like colonies (above), but are much more complex internally.

At the end of this month I will be attending a short training seminar entitled ‘Finding Funds for Fossils, Ferns and Flamingos’, hosted by the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) at the World Museum, Liverpool. NatSCA are a nationwide ‘subject-specialist network’ of museum professionals working in the natural sciences who have an active programme of meetings, training courses and conferences throughout the year. This particular event is all about how to successfully attract funding and support to care for and promote natural sciences collections in museums, and I look forward to putting my new-found knowledge into use to benefit the tens of thousands of natural sciences specimens at Saffron Walden Museum.

Half-term at the Museum

It’s hard to believe it’s October half-term next week! As the days are getting shorter and the country is being battered by storms, why not take shelter in the museum during half-term? We’ve got loads going on to keep the kids, and adults, entertained!

Woolly Mammoth Fun Days
25 and 26 October

Join us for our Woolly Mammoth Fun Days on the Wednesday 25 and Thursday 26 October. On both days, you can follow our Woolly Mammoth activity trail around the museum, and lend a hand to create a “fur” coat for our chilly mammoths!

On both days, there will also be seated activity sessions, as follows:

Weds 25 October: Ice Age Wrapping Paper– create your own ice age themed stamp and create some ice-tastic wrapping paper

Thurs 26 October: Fantastic Fossils – paint your own plaster fossil

These seated sessions will run every 20 minutes from 11am to 1pm, and from 2pm to 4pm. There will be space for 15 children in each session. If you are coming in a large group it is advisable to come later in the day when we tend to be less busy.

Usual admission charges to the museum apply and children MUST bring an adult.

Museums at Night
27 October

Our ever-popular Museums at Night is back on Friday 27 October, from 6pm until 8pm. We’re opening up the museum after-hours and challenging you to follow our night-time trail by torchlight. See the museum as you’ve never seen it before.

Usual admission charges to the museum apply and children MUST bring an adult.

Life in the Ice Age

Until 14 January

Our current exhibition, Life in the Ice Age, runs until 14 January 2018. 

Learn about about ice sheets, glaciers and times of warmer weather. See a Stone Age man and learn more about the tools he used, and discover more about the creatures that lived in Essex during the last Ice Age glaciation.

Come and find out more about the animals of the Ice Age, with models of a sabre-tooth tiger, a European wolf and a woolly mammoth, as well as actual remains of creatures – including a woolly mammoth tusk!


Plus we have lots to see and do in our nine permanent galleries, which include local history, archaeology, natural history, costume and world cultures. Take one of our activity trails around the museum, dig for treasure in our archaeological sandpit, or get up close and personal with nature in our Discovery Centre.

For more details about visiting the museum click here

Elaborate Edwardian Hats

Each month, we’ll be revealing the history of a different fashion accessory in the museum’s collections, to complement our new exhibition Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories. This month we look at the Edwardian fashion for highly decorative hats.

When we think of fashionable Edwardian women, most of us picture an elaborate, wide-brimmed hat. In the Edwardian period, hats were a fundamental part of an outfit and they were used to exaggerate a wearer’s shape. The hourglass shape popular in the Victorian period had fallen out of fashion and it was replaced by an “S-shape” silhouette, where the hips were thrust backwards and the chest forwards. To exaggerate this shape further, wide hats were positioned to stick out over the face. By 1911, hat brims were wider than the shoulders and there are stories of 18 inch hat pins being needed to secure these creations to the hair!

Edwardian hats were not only large, but they were also extremely decorative. Ribbons, tulle, and fake flowers were popular ways of embellishing hats, but the most favoured decoration was feathers. The market for feathers was vast: in London, one merchant alone recorded more than 1 million heron and egret skins being traded between 1897 and 1911. In 1911, 41,000 hummingbird skins were sold in London. Bird species were under significant threat of extinction because of this fashion for feathers.

Daisy, Countess of Warwick, owner of Easton Lodge near Dunmow

It was under these circumstances that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was established. The Plumage League had been set up in 1889 to try to ban the trading and use of feathers and 15 years later, in 1904, through a Royal Charter granted by Edward VII, it became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. However, a Royal Charter did little to slow the trend for feathered hats, and it was only in 1922 that the import of rare and endangered birds and feathers was banned. By this time, fashions had changed and feathers were no longer held in such esteem.  

You can see Edwardian fashion accessories on display in our current exhibition, Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories, open until 30 July 2017. 

Victorian fire-screens

Each month, we’ll be revealing the history of a different fashion accessory in the museum’s collections, to complement our new exhibition Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories. This month: Victorian fire-screens!

This beautiful hand-held fire screen (above) is one of the star items in the Victorian section of Completing the Look. Up until the late 1800s, most homes were heated by open coal fires – there was no double-glazing, insulation or central heating as we have today! Close to the fire, the heat could be intense so women used fire screens to protect themselves. Elegant, wealthy ladies were expected to have pale, delicate skin so they used fire screens to prevent their cheeks from becoming flushed. The screens also stopped their wax-based make-up from melting in the heat!

An embroidered fire-screen from the museum’s collection

Fire-screens became an important piece in the Victorian parlour. They were hand-made, often from painted papier-mache or from metal with an embroidered design. They were used to show off the needlework or artistic skills of a woman. Both sewing and painting were seen as very desirable attributes for a middle or upper class woman and they signified that a woman had plenty of leisure time, another marker of social class. Fire screens could also be mounted on slender wooden poles and placed on the mantelpiece as decorative items.

‘La Toilette’ by Francois Boucher

Fire screens were used from the 1700s, as shown in the painting ‘La Toilette’ by Francois Boucher (1742), where a fire screen can be seen on the floor in the bottom left hand corner. However, they became especially popular in the 1800s, with mostly hand-held screens being used in the early part of the century, and mounted standing screens being used in the later part of the century.

It has been suggested that women used the ‘language of the fan’ whilst holding their fire screens.  Unspoken communication could be made by the way a fan or fire screen was held: holding the screen to the right cheek meant “yes”; to the left cheek meant “no”; and holding the screen in the left hand meant a woman wished to speak with you.

You can find out more about the language of the fan, and see our beautiful Victorian fire screen, in Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories, open until 30 July 2017.

One, two, buckle my shoe!

Each month, we’ll be revealing the history of a different fashion accessory in the museum’s collections, to complement our new exhibition Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories. This month: shoe buckles!

In 1891, a collection of shoe buckles was donated to the museum by a pair of brothers who ran a drapery business in Stansted. The collection comprised 78 shoe buckles dating from the 1700s. Two of these shoe buckles are on display in our current exhibition, Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories.

One of the earliest examples of a shoe buckle is shown on a brass rubbing of Robert Attelath, who was the mayor of Lynn (now King’s Lynn), and who died in 1376. In the image, his shoes are fastened with what many historians consider to be a buckle. Buckles were an especially common sight from the 1600s until the end of the 1700s.

Women’s shoe with buckle, 1700s, in the museum’s collection

Early buckles from around the 1670s were simple and practical. They were rarely bigger than 5cm across and the decoration was pressed or moulded onto the small frame. However, by the 1720s buckles were becoming more and more elaborate, and they became a status symbol. They were worn by men, women and children and by all but the very poorest people. A glance at a person’s feet would give you a good idea of their social class. The nobility would wear shoe buckles set with paste gems and occasionally made from gold but the ordinary man was more likely to wear buckles made from brass or steel.

Men’s shoes with buckle, early 1800s, in the museum’s collection

Birmingham and the surrounding area was the centre of shoe buckle manufacture. The invention of a stamping machine allowed buckles to be mass-produced and the development of a new plating technique in 1778 meant that an estimated 2.5 million pairs were being manufactured each year in the 1780s. About 4000 people worked in the buckle trade in Birmingham, and the average price paid for a pair of buckles was 2s 6d.

Unfortunately, shoe buckles were a relatively short-lived fashion. As men began to wear long trousers that covered shoes and women began to favour flat shoes that were too delicate for large heavy buckles, the trade declined quickly at the end of the 1700s. By 1791, the shoe buckle makers of Birmingham, Walsall and Wolverhampton petitioned the Prince of Wales (later George IV) to wear buckles again. The prince sympathised with their plight and he and his household once again became buckle-wearers. However, his influence was not sufficient to influence fashion, and shoe buckles became a thing of the past.

See Georgian shoes and shoe buckles in Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories at Saffron Walden Museum until 30 July 2017. 

Your Stories: Saffron Walden Cricket Club

A new co-curated community display, entitled Your Stories, is now on display at the museum.

The Your Stories project aims to give people in our community a voice within the museum. Through this project, community groups, charities, societies and clubs have the opportunity to curate a display with the assistance and guidance of museum staff.

The first group to be involved in the project are Saffron Walden Cricket Club. The Cricket Club have a long and interesting history in Saffron Walden, which is explored in the display. Through objects including trophies and plates, cricket club kit, documents and photographs, the display tells the story of the club: from its origins in the mid-1700s to its current position as a successful local club with five men’s teams, a women’s team, a team for disabled players, and an Academy of over 300 boys and girls.

Alison Mable and David Barrs from the Cricket Club worked closely with our Collections Officer, Leah Mellors, to decide on a narrative, select appropriate objects, write text for a display panel and labels, and put the display together in a visually-appealing way.

David Barrs, the club’s Chairman said “We were delighted and honoured when Leah asked us if we would like the Cricket Club to be the subject of the first Your Stories display. We had lots of archive material to choose from and we really enjoyed working with Leah to put together the display, which looks at the history of the Club in Saffron Walden since 1757.”

The Cricket Club hope that the display will spark people’s memories of the club, as they are keen to fill in gaps in their knowledge of the club’s history. If you have any memories or information about the Cricket Club, please contact us and we will pass it on.

The Your Stories display is a legacy of the museum’s 2015-2016 community collecting exhibition, Uttlesford: A Community of Collectors, which showcased the collections of ordinary people in our community. A new display case for the Your Stories display was generously funded by the Gibson Walden Fund and Saffron Walden Museum Society.

If you belong to a community group, club or society and you are interested in sharing your story in the museum, please contact us for more information.

Filming collectors and their collections

By Leah Mellors

Last week, I was out and about with local videographer and editor Ollie Sandles, filming the collectors who will be displaying their collections in the next round of our exhibition, Uttlesford: A Community of Collectors. The footage will be turned into a short film that will be shown in the museum during the exhibition.

Collections 1Ollie and I visited most of the collectors in their own homes, to film the collections and talk to the collectors about their passion for collecting. The week began with a visit to Ann’s house, where she showed us her collection of pestles and mortars, which she keeps in her kitchen. Ann was a natural in front of the camera and took great pleasure in demonstrating the many different things that can be ground up in a pestle and mortar.

Wednesday morning was spent with June, who talked to us about her vast collection of 600 pomanders, which are perfumed containers used to fragrance and decorate rooms. We were particularly interested to hear about one of the ingredients traditionally used in pomanders – ambergris, or sperm whale vomit!

Collections 2In the afternoon, Vic came into the museum with his collection of pigs, including Pinky and Perky, his stuffed animal pigs! Vic has been interested in pigs since his childhood and he used to keep his own Tamworth pigs. His collection is made from a wide variety of materials, including wood, stone, porcelain, glass, amber and even an origami pig.

On Thursday morning, we visited Angela and Christopher, a married couple who share a love of collecting. Angela collects dolls and teddy bears. She will be displaying her collection of regional costume dolls in the exhibition, which come from all over Europe. Christopher has a collection of walking sticks and canes and we were fascinated by the personal stories he told us about the individual sticks.

Collections 3The filming was rounded off with Jackie, who brought her collection of embroidery and textiles into the museum. Her collection has a close, personal connection, as many of the pieces were made by her family, including her grandfather who stitched some of the pieces whilst in hospital during the Second World War.

Ollie will bring all of the interviews and footage together into a short film for the exhibition, which will open to the public on Saturday 28 November. You can see the first round of collections, including animal skulls, army badges and model aeroplanes, on display in the museum now.

YouTubeYou can see more of Ollie’s videos on his YouTube channel

A Community of Collectors

Leah Mellors, Collections Officer (Human History) tells us about the museum’s new community project:

“The project aims to explore the varied and wonderful collections of ordinary people in our local community. Participants in the project will be given the opportunity to learn about caring for, displaying and interpreting their collections, before creating their own displays in our next temporary exhibition. In total, there will be 12 participants with an incredibly varied range of collections, from army badges to pomanders to animal skulls.

“We held one-to-one sessions with two of our participants: Lowenna, who collects cat statues and ornaments, and Ruth, who brought in a collection of model aeroplanes made by her late husband. Lowenna spent a morning showing Gemma and I her collection of cats and told us the story of how the collection has grown, from the first seven cats she bought to a collection of over 100! A few days later, Ruth and I enjoyed a long chat about her husband’s collection and I learnt about how his collection is connected to his love of flying and RAF Debden.


“On Saturday, four of the participants came to the museum to take part in a group workshop. After initial introductions, the participants described their collections and shared the story of why they collect. There were fascinating insights into what inspired our participants to collect, with one of the participants, Judy, telling us that she collects poor man’s checks because nobody else does! It was lovely to hear the passion as the participants described their collections and to witness the camaraderie between them as they discovered a shared love of collecting.

“In the afternoon, I gave the participants a crash-course in writing exhibition text panels and labels, and showed them the exhibition space and display cases. The participants will install their own displays in August and they started to form ideas about how they might display their collections. Throughout the day, Gemma and Paul Louis Archer, a professional photographer, photographed the participants with their collections and recorded short interviews, which will be used in the exhibition or on our website.



“The day finished with a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum stores and a chat about the way museum staff care for collections to ensure they are preserved for the future.

“Collecting lies at the heart of our museum and it was fantastic to discuss and share a love of collecting with people from our local community. You can see their collections on display in the museum from 29 August 2015.”