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Sandwell Museums collection in 10 objects

Sandwell Museums looks after around 20,000 objects and 6 historic buildings, including a medieval manor house, 17th century yeoman farmer’s house, a canal pumping station…well see for yourself

Sandwell itself only came into being in the early 1970s, before that, the different towns of the borough had their own councils and museums, which now form our museum service today. Some of those museums were opened in the 1890s so there is 130 years of collecting which has gone on and 130 years of different approaches to collecting. Sometimes the approach was just the whim of curator at the time! Today we have a strict collections policy which tells us what is appropriate to collect, such as things which tell stories about the history of Sandwell or our buildings or that are good set dressing for our historic houses even if they aren’t local items, or items which we need for specific projects or exhibitions. Any proposed additions to the collection are discussed by the museums team and a joint decision is made if the item should be kept.

Anyway I’ve picked 10 things which I think represents some of the stories our collections tell and the types of objects we have…and are also some of my favourites.

So in no particular order…

  1. Ruskin Pottery.
Green and purple flambe vase – early 1900s with an Art Nouveau shape

” The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.” John Ruskin

Ruskin Pottery was made in Smethwick between 1898 and 1935. Its fabulous bright colours and beautiful varied glazes make it stand out against other pottery being made in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At Sandwell Museums we have (we think) the largest public collection in the world (or near enough).

What is also lovely about the Ruskin story is the story of the factory workers, their trips out to Clent and how they were well looked after.

I have picked this particular vase from our collection as I love the colours and the shape. My favourites are those from the early 1900s with a bit of an Art Nouveau flavour.

The Ruskin Pottery Gallery at Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery

Read more about Ruskin Pottery and the people who worked in the factory

2. Christmas card envelopes sent to George Alfred Haden Haden Best.

We don’t have many items belonging to the family who lived at Haden Hill House museum between 1879 and 1921 so the few items we have are very precious. These are my particular favourites – hand drawn envelopes sent to George Alfred Haden Haden Best in the first 10 years of the 20th century. I am intrigued and fascinated by them – who sent them?

3. The Mummy’s Head

This rather grim item is the unwrapped mummy’s head of, we believe, a surgeon from Thebes from the very late Ptolemaic period (that’s Cleopatra and her dynasty). The Ptolemaic period lasted for 275 years, from 305 BC to 30 BC.

So how did this ancient Egyptian end up in the Black Country – well he was brought back by Victorian lady traveller Helen Caddick along with hundreds of other objects, pieces of arts and crafts, jewellery and costume from all over the world. Helen travelled far and wide from West Bromwich in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Helen was also instrumental in setting up Oak House as a museum in 1898 and when it opened it was full of her collection as well as natural history specimens, before it was turned into an historic house museum in the 1950s.

Helen on her travels

Today although this old gentleman isn’t on display he is used as part of our schools programme and has been taken out to schools across the Black Country for children to meet who are studying the Egyptians. The children are usually amazed, interested and repulsed in equal measure.

Learn more about Helen Caddick.

4. The thrown chairs.

Many things we look after are furnishings and furniture as we have 4 historic houses. Some of the furniture is just set dressing and not that interesting really but we do have some interesting pieces too. These 17th century chairs have long been a favourite with me! They were purchased in 1951 at a cost of £25 each.

5. Mr Kilvert’s sword and medals

Mr Kilvert’s Medals
Mr Kilvert’s Sword

John Ashley Kilvert became an Alderman and Mayor of Wednesbury later in his life, but as a younger man he had been present at the famous Charge of the Light Brigade. He dined out on the story of the battle for the rest of his life as did many of the other survivors. We have in our collection Kilvert’s sword, his medals and his bible. However, the medals did disappear for decades but resurfaced again around 10 years ago when we were alerted to the medals being sold at auction. The auction house had realised there were museum accession numbers on the items and managed to track their origins. So the medals were returned and we could tell Kilvert’s story again.

Kilvert in his army uniform

Read more about Kilvert’s story

6. The Wesley horse bone

unknown artist; John Wesley as a Devil; Sandwell Museums Service Collection;

In 1743 John Wesley, the leader of the new Methodist movement came to speak in Wednesbury. He also spoke at Oak House twice in his time too. However during his time in Wednesbury unrest ensued because of anti-Methodist feelings. However Methodism was becoming more popular with working people and there is some suggestion that certain parts of the establishment took it upon themselves to ensure Wesley was not made welcome and make it look like the crowd disapproved.

Wesley wrote ‘Thursday 20th Oct, 1743 – ‘I rode to Wednesbury. At twelve I preached in a ground near the middle of the town, to a far larger congregation than was expected, on, ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.

I believe everyone present felt the power of God…and we held our peace. I was writing at Francis Ward’s in the afternoon, when the cry arose, that the mob had beset the house.

We prayed that God would disperse them; and it was so. One went this way, and another that; so that in half an hour not a man was left.’

But the few troublemakers who had drifted off before weren’t finished, and a larger number soon returned.

‘Before five the mob surrounded the house again, in greater numbers than ever. The cry of one and all was, ‘Bring out the Minister! We will have the Minister!’

John Wesley’s Journal, Vol 1, p.436-7, Baker Edition

Wesley in Wednesbury

Further unrest ensued and Wesley’s coat was torn and his hair pulled.

This object is a horse vertebrae carved into what is thought to be Wesley as an anti-Wesley symbol. However another museum have something similar and believe it is a pro-Wesley symbol as came out in the recent #Curatorbattle on twitter. What do you think?

6. A French farmhouse

Pratt, Jonathan; Interior, French Farmhouse; Sandwell Museums Service Collection;

I have picked this small unassuming oil painting on display at Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery as one of the objects in this list. This is not because it is big or massively art historically important but it represents our collection of Victorian paintings which we have recently re-displayed. We have chosen paintings to rehang in the new display that can inspire our community painting groups, craft activities with our family activities and creative writing with school groups and just paintings which make you stop and look….and there is something rather lovely about this little painting.

7. The jardinieres

I both love and hate these in equal measure – what do you think?

8. Cundi

As i’ve mentioned previously we have a lot of items from all over the world which were brought back to what is now Sandwell by intrepid Victorian travellers. Of course we aren’t experts, we are generalists and sometimes the descriptions put on these items decades ago are questioned and we must then do some research to discover the truth.

unknown artist; Buddhist Deity; Sandwell Museums Service Collection;

This rather lovely sculpture is an example of this – read more about how our collection and knowledge develops

9. Chance glass catalogue

Chance glass catalogue

I talked earlier about how our collection has grown over the last 130 years and in that time our social values have changed. In Victorian times museums were there to edify the masses and create awe and wonder and stop the working classes indulging in less favourable pastimes. Today we want to collect things important to local people and local stories and we want to collect the every day items people used or made in Sandwell. Chance glass was a large glass manufacturer in Smethwick and Malvern for over 100 years making lighthouse lenses, optical and medical glasses, lenses, cathode tubes for radar during World War II and decorative everyday household glass (we have quite a lot of their 60s and 70s household glass in our collection and people remember it fondly).

1970s Chance glass handkerchief vase.

For a while they also dabbled in stained glass windows. This beautiful catalogue from 1847 has recently come into our collection and like Ruskin Pottery showcases how it wasn’t just heavy industrial activities that were being produced in the Black Country.

10. Nostalgia Rooms

This one is a bit of a cheat really as none of these items are officially in our collection, but they are items we have and look after and shows how we collect objects for specific displays. This gallery ‘the Nostalgia Rooms’ we put together several years ago to get people talking, to inspire inter-generational conversations and projects and to work with dementia groups. It is now one of our most popular galleries at Wednesbury Museum.

I bet if you’re old enough you say…

‘we had one of those’

‘my nan had some of those’

‘I remember that wallpaper’

So there is just a flavour of some of the types of objects we look after at Sandwell Museums and how they came to be in the Black Country.

Bonus object – a beautiful 19th century hairpin from India.

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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