The Grosvenor Museum celebrated its 130th birthday last year. The Collections and Interpretation Officer for West Cheshire Museums, Liz Montgomery gave us a tour of the museum including a reveal of the secrets held within its vaults…
Liz joined the museum in 2008. “I studied archaeology and ancient history at Leicester and when I graduated there were no museum jobs at all so I worked as a PA in the NHS for 2 years. I worked on temporary contracts for about ten years. I’m from the Wirral so I had always wanted to come here , I used to volunteer here when I was about 15.
“I am in charge of collections and exhibitions here. We have a great learning team and there is another manager in charge of that. I have been here since 2008 but my job has changed dramatically, now I look after the whole collection and do a lot more strategic work.”
Cwac Museums operates over 4 other sites. Liz was heavily involved in the development of the award winning Lion Salt works which she describes as one her “babies”. Weaver Hall museum and workshop is a former workhouse in Northwich which displays a lot of the prehistoric collections. Stretton watermill is an historic watermill open seasonally and the Chester history and heritage centre on Bridge street completes the line up
The museum vault holds high value collections or items that require special environmental conditions to maintain their condition. The vault has air conditioning and a de humidifier to provide a constant temperature. The museum’s vast collection encompasses all periods of history from pre history through to the Civil War and up to the modern day. Finds from excavations all across the city are held here. Only a quarter of the museums collections are on display at any one time
“I love telling people about what we’ve got” says Liz
” I would like to see a much bigger museum with lots more on display. We have 2 archaeology galleries and by necessity from our visitor demographic, they are both Roman. Chester is a Roman city but its also a brilliant medieval city and the civil war and the Victorian period right up to the modern day. We have had various plans over the years to redevelop the museum and we are still working on it. If and when we find a site we are ready to go. We have massive stores of natural history and costume.. We have 5 sites across the borough- we try and display things across the sites and we have a rolling programme of temporary exhibitions.”
On a yearly basis every single item has to be checked to check the condition….
” I am particularly lucky in Chester because we work with great partners like the university, BIG heritage and we are about to start working with Storyhouse. This helps me get more out of the stores and on display. The part of the job that I love the most is finding out the stories and then presenting them. I love it when its something to do with Chester and its something we can make a link with…”
“I would love a medieval gallery because Chester was so important in the medieval period. We have pots, documents, we have everything medieval. I don’t want to keep it in the stores I want to get these out and tell people about them.” Another area under represented is the turbulence of the Civil War and the siege of Chester (1645-46).
“We did have a big exhibition a few years ago on the Civil War and we tried to include it in everything we have worked on recently including Chester Unlocked. It is a great story for Chester and its a sad fact we don’t have much archaeological evidence in the collection , its mainly documentary.”
400 boxes of material were recovered from the HQ site and are now held in the Winsford vaults. Liz says that she is working on a funding application with BIG Heritage to process the finds and display them in an engaging way.
Winsford also houses the bulk of the Roman tombstone collection- just 30 of the 251 discovered are on display In Chester. Liz says the stone collection is “unparalleled ” anywhere in the world. “There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world, Chester’s so cool!”.
Exiting the vaults Liz showed me the school work room and told me that 3 schools a day visit the museum. Young visitors tour the galleries and get the chance to feel real and replica objects in the work room and the museum also has a good partnership with Roman Tours.
The Natural History gallery will be getting an extensive revamp in the summer aimed at making it more fun and engaging for visitors and encouraging them to look at nature on their doorstep. “The 2 brothers who first worked as curators here, Robert and Alfred Newstead were natural historians. Robert Newstead turned his hand to archaeology and excavated most of the city. The Victorians had a love of collecting and categorising nature, and the collection is really full. ” Liz who does not have a background in natural history has enjoyed learning more about the subject leading up to the revamp.
The natural history storage area, another area normally out of bounds to the public was the next stop and again revealed another treasure trove of exhibits including taxidermy , animal bones , wasps nests, and glass cases packed with moths and butterflies.
The costume store is extensive: ” We have the God costume from one of the mystery plays, wartime uniforms a Sedan chair , demob suits from when soldiers left the army.. We’re looking at new ways to display the collection and also to rationalise it. In some cases we have 50 christening gowns and no information about them, but with 5 or 6 we have stories and photographs so we try to keep those ones. “Part of the responsibility of being curator is deciding what’s worth keeping
The period house , linked to the original museum via the shop is an original Georgian house. This part of the exhibition is used to house the social history collection, with each room of the house showing a different period of history.
“The front of house staff are really scared locking up , especially around Christmas time because they can hear weird music when they’re turning the lights off.”
The toy store in the loft was the last stop on our visit and offered an eerie atmosphere complete with disembodied mannequins and dolls. “I hate going into the toy store at the top of the house, it has a really horrible feeling like you’re being watched all of the time”
Liz concluded by saying that there was lots coming up at the museum, including family activities at half term and Easter and the launch of the open art exhibition. “There is never a dull moment .It’s an absolutely fantastic job which I love with many surreal moments, on many occasions, but I love showing our collections and telling people about the history of Chester.”
The Museum is open Monday–Saturday: 10.30am–5pm
Thanks to Liz Montgomery