Ask a Curator with Anna Mercer from Ipswich Museum #AskaCurator

Today, 15th September, marks ‘Ask a Curator Day’ which gives us the opportunity to ask questions to museum curators all over the world!

As we specialise in museum design, we work closely with curators all the time. We are currently working on the re-development of Ipswich Museum – the museum is home to an extensive range of collections from natural science to Egyptology, social history to world cultures. Anna Mercer, Senior Collections and Learning Curator at Ipswich Museum, has kindly answered some of our questions, from which object has the most interesting story to the most famous person to visit the museum! #AskaCurator

Ask a Curator Day

What does your typical day look like?

There isn’t really a typical day, which I think is one of the great things about being a curator. Like much of the rest of the population, we’ve spent large chunks of the last year working online from home, separated both from the collections we look after (from flint tools and fossils to paintings and costumes) and our audience and community. So, it’s good to be back in the museum some of the time, combining emails and online work with ‘hands-on’ work on the collections, and seeing months of planning come together when visitors, schools and other community groups are enthused by visiting the museum, taking part in events (online or actual) and our current ‘Power of Stories’ exhibition.

In your opinion, why are museums important?

Though there are many ways to engage and inspire a wide range of people with their history, environment, culture – and a ‘sense of belonging’ –  only museums (and I guess historic houses) have the unique advantage of having real things from the past and across the world. These could be things you might be able to touch, or at least come into touching distance of – to come ‘eye to eye’ with an eagle, get up close to the remains of a 200,000 year old mammoth found in Ipswich, explore the flint tools made by early people who lived at the same time, or see African items and costumes of the kind which inspired designers of Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ movie, and much more…

Which object has the most interesting story?

I think you’d get a different answer from every member of our curatorial team, as we have so many objects with fascinating stories. One of my current ‘favourites’ (though it could change next week!) is a very small item we have on display. It’s a beautifully-carved small jet plaque depicting the Syrian God Atys, found on a Roman villa site in Ipswich in the 1930s. I just love the range of stories this has to tell – about people, objects and religious beliefs migrating across the Roman Empire, and ending up here in Ipswich, to be discovered by past generations of archaeologists… (possibly the now famous Basil Brown, first excavator of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial)

How do you conserve your most vulnerable collections?

I guess the first part of the answer is a bit like a doctor with a patient ‘first, do no harm’ – so we try and keep things in conditions in which they will not deteriorate, or at least to keep that deterioration to a minimum. Those conditions are different for different types of objects (metals, fabrics, etc – but usually include carefully packing or mounting for display, and controlling light and humidity levels, and keeping galleries and stores free from pests (like the clothes-moth).

Ask a Curator Day

What’s your oldest object?

One of my colleagues tells me that this is a piece of Precambrian rock, from way back in geological time: the most likely candidate is a piece of Lewisian gneiss from Scotland (Loch Assynt) thought to be more than 2.8 billion (2,800 million) years old!

Who is the most famous person to visit your museum?

I’ve only worked here for about two and a half years, so I don’t necessarily know about all the famous people who may have visited. But I’d guess they’d have to include Prince Albert, who visited in the Museum in its early days, and more recently Suffolk musician and ‘superstar’ Ed Sheeran. Ed’s school A-Level sketchbook, including drawings of items from the museum collections, was displayed in the museum exhibition ‘Ed Sheeran: Made in Suffolk’ exhibition at Christchurch Mansion in 2019-20 alongside photos and paintings of Ed, and other memorabilia, which he also visited.

What’s your favourite part of your museum and why?

What a difficult question! Lots of different parts, for different reasons. I love our Victorian Natural History gallery because of its wealth of fascinating natural history specimens from all parts of the world, including the perennial favourites with visitors – the giraffe, rhino, lion and gorillas. Though the gallery itself is seriously in need of a re-vamp, I also love the wealth of stories and cultures from around the world, which are represented in our World Cultures gallery. And then there’s the Anglo-Saxon gallery with fabulous items – jewellery, weapons and everyday objects – from much closer to home, in and around Ipswich, or the ‘Journeys in Ancient Egypt’ gallery, which brings ancient Egyptian life and culture to life for a broad audience.

What is your experience of working with Mather & Co?

It’s been a great experience: we’ve had such interesting and productive discussions and debates, involving a range of members of our museum team, and also now reaching out to representatives of our local community, to help develop our key themes and messages and how these relate to our museum collections. Mather & Co have stimulated us to think differently about how we can approach and display our collections, moving away from ‘traditional’ collections-themed galleries to a more integrated and creative approach.

If you have a museum project in mind – contact us to see how we can work with you.