My name is Jenny Norris and I am currently studying for an MA in Art Gallery and Museum studies. My placement was at the Middleport Pottery project in Stoke-en-Trent; I didn’t really have a title for my role other than general conservationist, as I was expected to assist with a number of different tasks. I selected my placement at Stoke primarily because I wanted to gain practical conservation experience. Throughout my role I was able to handle ceramics and moulds that dated from the present day, all the way to the Victorian era.
My main duty was to work as part of a team which consisted of local volunteers; the majority of whom had once worked in the potting industry; to help conserve a collection of 17,000 moulds that are still in use today. We had to assess the condition of each mould and record our findings, along with extra information in a database for the Middleport museum. It was essential to record the amount of parts each mould was in, alongside the temporary mould number assigned to it. A mould was only given a permanent number once it had been decided if it would remain in the collection; if it was not suitable either for the collection or to be displayed in the museum, the mould would be destroyed. Further information to be recorded, concerned the writing etched on the moulds; this often indicated what the mould would be used to create, for example a soup bowl, the name of the design and the year it was produced. In the Second World War, Burleigh produced plates and other crockery items for the War Office, as well as busts of Winston Churchill and his powerful allies. Once we had ascertained all the relevant information, including a description of the pattern embellished on the mould, we examined each piece for signs of damage. As conservationists we were particularly concerned about any chips on the plaster mould, especially those which would affect the working surface. A significant number of the older moulds also have metal embedded in them, in order to strengthen the structure. This was an additional concern and we had to record any sign of rust or corrosion that was apparent on the mould. The final stage of the process was to photograph each mould; this will enable the museum to maintain a visual database of the entire collection, which will include the moulds that will eventually be disposed of. Since October 2013, the team at Middleport has successfully documented 6,000 moulds, which will be on display at the museum from June 2014.
The most important lesson that I learnt from my placement was to value all of the experience and expertise that was contributed to the project. In the case of Middleport, I found it extremely useful to talk to the other volunteers as their knowledge of the pottery industry often superseded that of the professional conservators.