Pilgrim Trust Conservation Grant – Holst Birthplace Museum

Addressing and resourcing collections care at the Holst Birthplace Museum  

The Holst Birthplace Museum shows what life was like for the composer Gustav Holst growing up in 1870s and 1880s Cheltenham and contains a music room displaying the piano on which Holst composed The Planets. This period house illustrates the middle-class ‘upstairs-downstairs’ way of life, with a selection of items on open display in a series of rooms.

The museum, which is a charitable trust, has two part-time members of staff: a Curator and a Learning and Administration Assistant. The museum requires 20 volunteers a week to manage the reception, as well as help with other activities. 

The Project

In 2014/15, as part of our Accreditation process, the museum employed a freelance conservator to assess our collections care. A number of things were highlighted as requiring action such as supports and cases for vulnerable items, as well as dealing with the light levels in some of the rooms. It was also apparent that the two part-time members of staff needed more support from volunteers to ensure the long term care of the collections. However, it was also clear that not all volunteers were aware of collections care, therefore the project encompassed not just work undertaken by a professional conservator, but also training for volunteers.

The project began in February 2019 with a conservation clean of Holst’s piano. The conservator sourced and fitted a Perspex cover for the piano’s soundboard – the section of the instrument most susceptible to dust and dirt. It is hoped that by covering the piano in this way it will lessen the need to clean inside and therefore reduce the chance of damaging this significant object.

Many of the items in the house are on open display, but this increases the chance of damage to the object, as highlighted with Holst’s piano. Displayed next to the piano is Holst’s music chest, which has suffered from bumps from visitors’ feet over the years. Following the conservator’s advice a plinth was built and fitted by a technician. Similarly, a celestial globe on open display in the Nursery, vulnerable to touching by visitors, was fitted with a bespoke Perspex case.

As part of the project four two-hour workshops (with cake of course!) were arranged for volunteers on four different subjects: pests, light and humidity, emergency planning and object handling. All workshops were very well received by volunteers with the result that one of the volunteers, Jenny, is now responsible for all of the pest traps. Jenny decided to get involved after attending the conservator’s workshop on pests:

I became aware that my knowledge of the insects which could damage a museum collection is very inadequate.  Another volunteer wondered whether it would be better to have one person responsible for checking the blunder traps, and I thought that this was an excellent suggestion. I was happy to volunteer to do this as l knew that I could get support from the conservator if I needed it. It has been very interesting to get to know more about the conservation of the items in the museum.”

Ultimately the project has enabled us to approach our next Accreditation Return with confidence, knowing that issues which were flagged up in 2014 have now been resolved and significant objects have been preserved for visitors to continue to enjoy.

Laura Kinnear
Holst Birthplace Museum