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Exploring the museum’s secrets

Museums are fascinating. You go in as a visitor, marvel at the objects on display, learn about the past and come away knowing more about your heritage and why we are where we are today. But how often do you consider how those artefacts ended up in their cases or on the walls?

Some, hundreds or even thousands of years old, will have been dug up by accident or during archaeological digs. Others might have been stored in attics – dusty, unloved and often damaged. Whatever their journey towards discovery, their contribution towards our human story is invaluable. But who wants to look at muddy, broken fragments of pottery or dirty paintings that you can’t really see? To truly appreciate the mastery of an artist or the ingenuity of a Bronze Age man or woman, most of us want to see pieces looking their best. So how does that happen? The Royal Cornwall Museum’s new ‘Secret Life of Objects’ gallery provides an intriguing insight.

Curatorial assistant Sophie Meyer is the person behind the displays. Having worked as a field archaeologist at the Museum of London before returning to her home county of Cornwall, she has first-hand experience of the journey required from initial discovery to eventual exhibition.

“There are four main areas of an object’s life – documentation, storage, conservation and research,” she explains. “We have around 321,000 artefacts in our collection and each one needs to be carefully logged, restored, preserved and studied in terms of what it adds to our knowledge and learning. Only about 6 per cent of items are on display at any one time so a huge amount of what museum staff and our wonderful team of volunteers do on a daily basis, goes on behind the scenes. We wanted to make people aware of that and that’s why we’ve created this new gallery.”

The exhibition is housed in a small room to the left on the first floor at the top of staircase. There are paintings in poor condition waiting to be restored, important old books and manuscripts, shells that need to be individually catalogued, an eighteenth-century boy’s brown silk coat in danger of decay and old photos that have now been digitised. Given Sophie’s particular passion for osteology (the scientific study of old bones), there are also several cases devoted to the Harlyn Bay burials – very important finds that date back to the early Bronze Age.

“Alexis Jordan, one of our researchers, has prepared a selection of the bones that were excavated in 1900 – each of which shows some sort of skeletal marker that tells us something about the person and the conditions of their burial,” says Sophie. “It’s a project that demonstrates how much like a jigsaw puzzle history is and why it’s so exciting when you find another piece.”

Curators often wear gloves when handling objects because hands can act as transporters of bacteria, oils and even heat. To show the potential damage that can cause, there’s an interactive panel that reacts to your touch. For children, there’s a skeleton to put together too.

“There’s so much more to museum work than meets the eye,” says Sophie. “It really is a hive of activity that demands lots of different skills – including being a detective at times. The new ‘Secret Life of Objects’ gallery is our way of sharing that adventure.”

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