Beautiful, Vulnerable and Inaccessible

Monday, April 27, 2015

There is currently an exhibition of ‘Beautiful, vulnerable and inaccessible’ in the Art Space at Rhodes. This exhibition is a collaboration between the museum and photographer Sarah Stephens and it highlights the fragile nature of museum collections. Many of the items photographed for this project are not on display because their condition is poor and this is a chance to get ‘up close’ with them in a way you would not normally be able to do. Museum collections are not all pristine. Objects have ‘lived’ before they even get to us, and preventing further wear and tear is a major part of what we do. Below photographer Sarah describes the exhibition:

This exhibition, originally displayed in 2011, was initially inspired by Trevor Ashby’s work for the Royal Cornwall Museum and evolved into a series of images ‘peeping into a shadowy world of objects stored away’. The final images were converted to black and white and then partially recoloured to highlight the fragility of some objects and the beauty of others. This resulted in an artistic approach that highlights the serious conservation issues that museums have to deal with on a day to day basis.

I photographed 21 objects from Bishop’s Stortford Museum’s collection and of those 12 were  selected for the exhibition. They reflect the range of objects within the museum’s collection, by date, type of object and condition or conservation status.

These are the hidden treasures of the museum’s collection and each provided unique challenges in capturing their true beauty. Some were physical challenges such as the public house sign, which due to it’s sheer size and weight, could not be moved from it’s position in the off site stores.

Saracen’s Head pub sign, from 70 South Street, Bishop’s Stortford Sarah Stephens Photography

Some were challenges in terms of photographing the object without causing any further damage to it: the 1890’s bodice has heavy beading that over time has come away from the delicate fabric causing it to tear. As a result this had to be photographed quickly but with extreme care whilst on a mannequin, to avoid any further deterioration.

1890s Bodice from the museum collection Photograph – Sarah Stephens Photography

The pedlar dolls, which are on display in the drawing room of the museum, were included because it is only by getting really close to them that you can see the amazing details of these ornaments. The dolls themselves are approx. 20cm tall so their products are really tiny, but full of incredible detail. These required careful photographing of the details of the contents of their trays of wares.

Detail of one of the pedlar dolls trays Sarah Stephens Photography

Some of the objects have stories to tell: the WW1 photo wallet was damaged by the bullet that killed William Sanford in 1917, the sword and sheath has a mystery as to how it arrived in the collection, the manacles’ label has a story of it’s own and the police documents are part of the collection involved in the museum’s ongoing  On the Beat and Past Policing projects.

Photographing museum objects is a pleasure and a privilege. I get close to some amazing things and sometimes there are real moments of discovery. Whilst photographing the bronze age pot sherds we realised that we could see the indentations of the potters hand in the base of the pot – only visible because of the way in which I was lighting the object and so had been previously unseen.

Detail of the base of a Bronze Age pot from Thorley Sarah Stephens Photography

Which is my favourite? I’m often asked this and it’s almost impossible to choose because of the eclectic nature of the objects. But the one I have hanging at home is of the 1890’s bodice.

It is fantastic to see theses images being displayed once again in the Art Space at Rhodes. Due to the size of the space it is not possible to display all the images but the full exhibition photographs can be seen in a gallery on my website All the images are available to purchase as a limited edition print which includes a donation to collections care for the Museum.

Sarah Stephens

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