Mounting an Exhibition

Our Assistant Conservation Officer, Eugenie Karen, gives an update on plans for our new exhibition.  Preparations for the fifth changing exhibition in the Treasures Gallery are well underway.  ‘Rights and Romance: Representing Gypsy Lives’ showcases items from our Gypsy, Traveller and Roma collections.  It will open on 1 March.

Exhibition planning requires extensive teamwork and cooperation.  Given that this is now our fifth outing, our systems are running in a near well-oiled fashion.  However similar the processes are though, each show stands alone because the material going on display brings its own challenges.

As a conservator, I am tasked with assessing whether the objects are suitable to be put on display.  I am then required to ensure that each item receives what is in effect a care plan.  I need to ensure the object is as comfortable as possible for the duration of its exposure.  After the initial assessment and the green light is given, I decide what the object needs in terms of light levels, temperature and support.

Supports are not there to be seen.  We try to ensure that the object is showcased to its best advantage, but if you ever visit an exhibition and see a person contorting themselves to examine something behind the object, they are probably a visiting conservator getting inspiration.  Sometimes we make the supports in house, using polyester film, acrylic supports, foam, box board or simply paper or mount board.

Sometimes an object demands more to show it to its full advantage.  Included in the upcoming exhibition are two flowers crafted from wood shavings.  They are incredibly delicate and brittle.  There are not many objects in this exhibition so we decided that these two items ought to achieve an extra prominence by getting bespoke mounts made.

woodshaving flowers
Flowers made out of woodshavings mounted on Perspex stands. Image credit Leeds University Library.

It was felt that such fragile items ought to ‘float’ and I called upon the expertise of Jon Baxter, a local mount maker.  We devised a design whereby a clear Perspex mount would cradle the heavier ‘head’ of the flower counterbalanced by a hole through which the stem would slot which raises the whole thing above the surface of the case.

We won’t know how fully we have achieved our aim until we begin installation in February but I am confident they will look beautiful.

Reuniting correspondence: Merle Brown and Jon Silkin

Letter to Merle Brown from Jon Silkin, 19 July 1969
Letter to Merle Brown from Jon Silkin, 19 July 1969

Tracing literary correspondence can be a frustrating experience for researchers. An archive does not usually include letters written its creator, which can be scattered across many collections or held in private hands. A good example of this phenomenon is the Jon Silkin archive in Special Collections. The archive contains a large series of letters written to and kept by Silkin, but little of his own correspondence.

Having held the Silkin Archive since 1995, Special Collections was very lucky to be offered, in 2015, a series of letters written by Jon Silkin and Lorna Tracey to Merle Brown. Brown was an academic, critic, and founder of the Iowa Review. The letters were kindly donated by Brown’s widow, Carolyn. Some of Brown’s letters to Silkin are in BC MS 20c Silkin/8/BRO-3.

Silkin’s letters to Brown were written between 1965 and 1978, and offer an insight into the personal and professional relationship between the two men. 

Brown, who described Silkin’s The Peaceable Kingdom (1954) as ‘the finest first volume of poetry written by a living English poet’ contributed critical essays to Stand magazine during Silkin’s editorship. He regularly critiqued Silkin’s poetry, writing an essay on Silkin’s ‘Amana Grass’ in the inaugural issue of the Iowa Review.

The letters show Silkin’s rigorous responses to Brown’s writing, and include detailed discussion of his own poetry. At one point, he writes ‘in my mid-thirties I’ve hardly evolved a ‘style’ of my own’ [12th Nov 65].

Much of the correspondence focuses on the work of creating and maintaining Stand. Silkin and Tracey regularly mention the pressure of maintaining the magazine. The letters give real insight into the business of publishing literary magazines in this period. They describe frequent ‘sales’ tours whilst staying on friends floors and sofas and also adapting to new technology.  Tracey discusses the potential purchase of an IBM  Selectric Composer, and an addressograph machine.

It is rare and fortunate to be able to reunite both sides of a correspondence which had been continents apart.

Learning, Sharing and Planning for the Year Ahead!

Special Collections and Leeds University Library Galleries started the year with a day of sharing, learning and planning at a staff away day. It was a great opportunity to bring everyone together and reflect on all that we achieved in 2017 across Special Collections and both Galleries.

We started the day with a few exercises to find out more about everyone in the room. We discovered that the most languages spoken by one person is three. We have many musical team members, with the cello, guitar and tuba among the instruments played, definitely enough to start a Special Collections band! Many of our team members hold multiple roles within the University, the most being three by one person. Lots of our wonderful staff have been on television at least once – so much star quality!

The core focus of conversation throughout the day was about further increasing access to our world-renowned collections for students, academic staff, researchers and the wider public. We heard about the ways in which our teams have already been working on this and shared with colleagues what have been the most significant changes.

In the Galleries we have had a Visitor Experience team restructure and welcomed two new wonderful Gallery Assistants, and a new Galleries Events and Marketing Assistant. This has helped us to provide consistent service to our visitors and focus on providing excellent customer service. The Special Collections Reading Room team have updated all of their manuals and documentation to make them more accessible to visitors. This will ensure that researchers using Special Collections have all of the information they need.


Collections and Engagement Managers working across the service discussed the huge amount of material bequeathed to the University’s collections last year and the on-going task of cataloguing it all and making it available for future access and display. Our Digital Content team shared their work around visitor enquires and setting targets to reduce response time. Their aim is to facilitate access to Special Collections material as quickly as possible and continuing to develop the fantastic service they provide.

Medical Manuscripts Image Capture
How the medical manuscripts were captured. Image credit Leeds University Library.

We heard about an exciting marketing campaign being developed for 2018. It will increase awareness of the Galleries in the Leeds to ensure that as many people as possible know what an amazing asset we are to the city, and that we are free and open to all! The Galleries are currently working with a design company to develop new concepts and create eye-catching visuals – be on the lookout throughout May and let us know where you spot them!


Did you know that archives can sometimes contain hazardous materials? We learned what to look out for and how to take precautions when dealing with potential risks in our collections. Did you know that degrading film negatives emit vinegar fumes, called ‘vinegar syndrome’ or that toxic arsenic was used in a 19th and early 20th century conservation technique for damaged paper called ‘silking’? We were encouraged that our Collections Care Team are making sure collections hazards are being logged and managed safely.

With everything from marketing to archives, we had a fantastic day of sharing, reflecting and planning and are looking forward to an exciting year to come! Special Collections and the Galleries are open to staff, students and the public six days a week, so come along and find out more about the amazing exhibitions, displays, archives and research resources we have to offer!

Perronet Thompson – a distinguished, globe trotting family

December was a relatively quiet month for new accruals.  A highlight was a small collection of documents added to our Thomas Perronet Thompson Collection.  The archives include ‘A Pedigree of Perronet and Thompson’ by Henry Wagner, FSA, (1840-1926) showing the families’ ancestry from the early 1600s.  Wagner is mainly remembered today for his extensive research into the family history of British Huguenots in the 19th century.

In the pedigree Wagner traces the family back to the French Benjamin Mestral, Seigneur des Vaux and Catherine Baptiste, of Lausanne, who married in 1621.  Jean, the husband of their daughter Susanne, is the first Perronet listed.  His family came from Berne in Switzerland.

Many of Jean and Susanne’s descendants had impressive careers.  They include Jean-Rodolphe Perronet (1708-1794) a celebrated French civil engineer.  Perronet discovered how to design stone arch bridges with narrower piers.  These created larger areas for boats to pass through.  Best known for the Pont de la Concorde in Paris, Perronet continued to work on the construction of the bridge despite the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.  He was an inspirational teacher and founded the world’s first engineering school in 1747.

William Perronet (1729-1781) was a surgeon and apothecary who, for several years, served as an army surgeon.  Although he was not closely involved with the Methodist movement some letters between him and Charles Wesley exist in the Wesley family archives.  William’s brother’s Charles (1723-1776) and Edward (1726-1792) were Methodists for a time and worked as itinerant preachers accompanying Charles Wesley on his tours.

Vincent Perronet
Vincent Perronet, Mayor of Exeter 1944-1945, brother of Sir John Perronet. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Many of the family served with the army or became colonial administrators.  One such was Sir John Perronet Thompson (1873-1935) a colonial administrator in Simla and Delhi, India.  He was Chief Commissioner for Delhi from 1928-1932.  Our new accrual includes some of John’s letters to his sister Isabel written from 1898-1932, a copy of his speech to the House of Commons and an address to the Lincoln Diocesan Conference ‘The Problem in India’ both dated 1932.

In his correspondence and speeches Thompson comments on political and social issues in India.  He was evidently an advocate of independence for the country long before it happened.  His letters also include news about the Thompson family.  When Isabel asks about career prospects for her son, Basil, Thompson advises that colonial administration in India is no longer a good option.