What I did on my holidays – or, the potential of museum archives

View of the facade of the Holburne museum

It seems appropriate for a holiday period to talk about a place I have just visited while on holiday: the lovely and recently expanded Holburne Museum in Bath. There are many reasons to enjoy the museum, but I was particularly interested after having recently heard their Director talk about the role archive documents had played in creating one of the new displays.

The core of the Holburne Museum’s collection was amassed by the private collector Sir Thomas Holburne (1793-1874). He kept this extraordinary mixture of furniture, ornaments, paintings, porcelain and much more in a Bath townhouse where he lived with his sisters. It must have been a bewilderingly rich and crowded experience to visit the Holburnes, given the size of their collections relative to the size of even a gracious townhouse! One area of the redisplay recreates just a small part of this richness, inspired by a detailed inventory of the town house. The inventory is also available in audio for museum visitors, who can listen in growing amazement, as I did, to the list of tables, chairs, knick-knacks, sideboards, fire-irons, netsuke, figurines and more which occupied just one room in the Holburnes’ house.

But, as the museum website states, there is frustratingly little other information available about how and why Holburne set about creating this extraordinary collection. Few records survive. Having seen what the museum curators have achieved based on a single surviving document, it would have been fascinating to see what they could have done with more.

Letter from Emile Galle to his patron Josephine Bowes

Letter from Emile Galle to Josephine Bowes (1872)

We may soon have that opportunity with another museum, though: the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle. As part of the National Cataloguing Grants Programme, they are receiving funding to catalogue the archive which documents how John and Josephine Bowes went about creating a world-class museum for the North East of England. Unlocking the archive will tell many stories about taste and patronage, about commissioning artists like Emile Galle (a fragment of one of his letters to Josephine is illustrated here), and about the couple’s ambitions for their collection. It should be a huge source of inspiration for the museum’s curators in future years.