Packing up & moving out

During August and September 2019, in preparation for our move out of the Old Gaol, Ely Museum staff and a brilliant team of volunteers set about carefully packing up every object in the museum, from those on display in the galleries to those kept in our store room.

With a looming early September deadline for the arrival of the builders, the team worked quickly, and carefully, to ensure each object was recorded and safely packed into boxes, awaiting its return to Ely next year.

We began the process with a training day provided by conservators Deborah Watson and Lorraine Finch who worked with the team to establish our packing method, talked about the types of materials we would and wouldn’t use, and taught us different ways of packing the boxes to ensure our objects would be safe during transportation and at their new temporary home.

Volunteers practice making puffs of acid-free tissue paper to support museum objects

Three volunteers have kindly shared their experience of the packing up process with us below!

Jane, a volunteer at the museum says;

I’ve been involved in a couple of exhibitions at Ely Museum. I was delighted to be part of the project to bring Aedwen’s Brooch to the Museum in 2015, travelling down to the British Museum and being able to hold it before it came to Ely. It had a special resonance with me as I live in the Parish where it was found in the 1690’s. And then in 2017 researching and putting together the Henry Baines exhibition, a 19th Century artist who drew and painted Ely. 

Exhibitions Jane has volunteered with before

But being part of the ‘decant’ was something quite new! Handling museum artefacts and exhibits is not something we are usually allowed to do. So being able to take down a box, open it up and take things out was amazing! Here were objects donated over the years which rarely see the light of day but are all an integral part of the history of Ely, and the people who lived and worked there.

I am familiar with Bronze Age and Medieval objects but not with Song sheets from 19th Century elections  – I had no idea such things existed. Every box I opened held something quite new to me and as I unpacked and checked the contents against the  record sheet I was amazed by the variety of things people value and believe should be in the Museum.

I am familiar with Bronze Age and Medieval objects but not with Song sheets from 19th Century elections  – I had no idea such things existed. Every box I opened held something quite new to me and as I unpacked and checked the contents against the  record sheet I was amazed by the variety of things people value and believe should be in the Museum.

Staff & volunteers tried a rousing rendition of this song one afternoon!

And I learned how to make ‘puffs’ from tissue paper and cut a special type of ‘foam’ so the items could be safely repacked in preparation for the move to storage for the duration. New skills which I can use again.   

I loved it! I was due to come back for a second week but the efficiency of the project was such that it was completed early. I do look forward to being part of the ‘unpacking’ and research in preparation for the new exhibitions. 

Staff & volunteers work side by side to pack up thousands of objects


Catherine, another of our volunteers who joined us to gain experience of working in the heritage sector following her degree said of her experience at Ely Museum;

Being involved as a Collection Volunteer to help pack away the museum has been a fantastic and eye-opening experience. For two whole months I was able to get hands on with the museum’s eclectic mix of collections. Not only have I been able to get closer to gallery collections which are often only viewable behind glass, I have also seen behind the scenes and encountered objects and archives from the treasure trove that is the Ely Museum collection store! As a history graduate who is seeking to gain more experience working within this sector, this was the perfect opportunity for me to learn new skills which would be helpful for my chosen career path in museums and heritage.

Catherine helps to pack up the ventriloquist dummies belonging to Vernon Cross

The process started with a training day led by SHARE Museums East, where we learned the correct techniques for packing objects for transport. Turns out, this requires miles of acid-free tissue paper, a foam material called Plastazote, Correx (a special corrugated card), and lots of creative thinking!

The objects I handled and packed away varied greatly, from Vernon Cross’ (the founder of the original museum) ventriloquist puppets, to packing away the Roman Skeleton that has been in the entrance of Ely Museum for nearly as long! With each new object we encountered we had to decide the best way to pack it to ensure it was fully protected during its journey and year’s stay away from the museum.

The thigh bones connected to the knee bone – packing a skeleton is a complicated job!

As well as learning how to handle and pack objects, I also learnt other museum skills, including how a museum documents an object using an accession number, and how to condition check each object.

The skills I learnt were numerous, and I like to think I am now better prepared to work in a museum or heritage environment than I was two months ago!

Staff & volunteers working side by side during the decant

Finally, Adrian, who has recently finished his MA & was also looking to gain further museum experience reflects on his time with Ely Museum too

I started volunteering at Ely Museum this summer shortly after graduating from Norwich University of the Arts. I joined the team working on packing the museum’s collection in preparation of the big refurbishment. It was a very interesting task, and it was a great pleasure working in my local museum alongside excellent staff and friendly volunteers.

The three weeks I spent working there were a great opportunity to learn more about conservation and the proper way to create packaging that will be able to last several years without degrading the item it protects. For example, using any kind of tape isn’t recommended as the glue will deteriorate over time and might taint the item. Acid-free paper and cotton or wax threads are go-to instruments when packing collection artefacts. I was able to put this to the test when I made a custom-sized box for an old Anglo-Saxon sword. I built it using a plastic sheet which I cut to size and folded into a box, sewing it together using thick cotton threads.

Adrian built this fantastic custom made box for the sword – the professional conservators were very impressed!
Delicate & fragile items often needed their own boxes
Awaiting collection by the team of professional movers

The sword was then laid on a bed of acid-free paper and I closed the box using ribbons.

I also had the opportunity to make a box with separations to keep several vases, with acid-free puffs to keep the objects in place.

One of the many bottle boxes Adrian constructed for us to use!

We were also introduced to the way the museum keeps a record of each item it has in its possession. Using a combination of accession books and collection management software, the museum is able to know when and how any of its item was acquired.

We’d like to thank our brilliant team of volunteers who gave their time & expertise so generously throughout this packing up process – we couldn’t have done it without them!

We’ll share more about the next stage of the moving out process, the arrival of the professional movers, in our next post!