Set between a 1960s suburb and John Lennon International Airport, the historic Tudor house and gardens of Speke Hall seem incongruously misplaced. Yet the many oddities of Speke Hall are what made it such a fascinating place to work. With its illogical floorplan and many hidden details, the house provided many learning opportunities about material culture in the Tudor and Victorian eras. It also created a tangible reality to the theoretical histories I have studied about Catholic worship during the reformation. I really enjoyed getting to work so closely with such a vast and interesting collection.
My placement at the National Trust property at Speke Hall gave me an invaluable insight into the care and upkeep of historic homes. As a long-term admirer of historic homes, this internship provided an exciting opportunity to work more closely with a conservation team and to expand my mostly theoretical knowledge of history. Alongside another intern from the University of Manchester, our project was cataloguing the ‘bits box’ or damaged items which have been detached from the collection and were in need of repair. These items ranged from damaged crockery, to wooden panelling to wallpaper fragments. As the house had been continuously lived in from the 1600s to 1952, these collections provide a diverse snapshot of Liverpool life and the 400 years of turbulent history within the house.
After correctly packaging the items, we created an inventory of the provenance of objects and their technical details, before investigating the viability of repairs. As I had no previous knowledge about the correct handling procedures for heritage items or the necessity of acid-proof packing material, I learnt a huge amount about modern conservation practice. Focusing on individual items provided a unique perspective through which to view the collection. One of my favourite objects that we investigated was a long metal hook which after much searching, we identified as a knee level for a 1920s Singer sewing machine. Further investigations revealed objects created by German woodcraftsmen, London clockmakers and Liverpool pharmacy companies. The sheer variety and scale of the objects I discovered in storage impressed on me the importance of keeping up-to-date digital records so the collections are not forgotten or neglected.
Throughout my placement I received firsthand insights into the modern British heritage industry, as well as improving my skills in object handling, archiving and conservation cleaning. I also had the opportunity to be part of the conservation team of other local National Trust Houses, such as Paul McCartney’s childhood home, which further diversified my skillset. Discussions with the volunteer room guides and conservation staff further augmented my knowledge of the fascinating stories of Speke Hall. I also witnessed the house in many seasons, from the bare and dark house of February which saw lots of outside tradespeople performing the winter clean, to May when the gardens were bright and green and the carpark was full of visitors. This placement transformed my knowledge of the issues and strengths of modern conservation practice, and has immensely enriched my MA degree in history.