In May 2019 I joined the Garden Museum as their first full-time archivist, having qualified in May 2018. As a new professional, being a lone archivist is challenging but extremely rewarding.
The Garden Museum is the UK’s only museum dedicated to the art, history and design of British gardens. In 2017, it opened the country’s first Archive of Garden Design; a new archive fundraised for and built in response to the lack of a repository for 20th century garden designers. Housed in a deconsecrated church, St Mary-at-Lambeth, it’s an inspiring place to work. The Museum didn’t want the archive to be underground or at the end of a corridor, but designed it to be at the centre of the space as very much the ‘soul’ of a Museum which is all about memories of gardens.
One of the benefits of being ‘on view’ at work, in a glass room, is that it can lead to chance encounters with visitors. I was supervising researchers in the Study Room when a visitor knocked on the door – she happened to have spent her childhood holidays in a garden designed by Russell Page in Mallorca, the plans for which were in the archive!
It’s a fantastic collection. I was already familiar with the material from my previous position as Russell Page Archive Cataloguer in 2018. My reward for this work was a trip with the Russell Page Archive Council, a group of supporters and enthusiasts, to visit gardens he’d designed in Belgium. I brought huge reproductions of plans from the archive to present at each garden. It was an unforgettable experience – you can read my blog here!
After this cataloguing position, I continued to work freelance at the Museum on weekends alongside being Assistant Archivist at the Museum of Croydon. I was thrilled when the Director, Christopher Woodward, announced that the Lennox Hannay Trust would fund a full-time archivist. I have been so lucky to have Lindsay Ould, Borough Archivist at Museum of Croydon, as my mentor – it’s important for new professionals to feel supported.
One of my first steps was to complete an audit of the entire archive. Once I had a grip on the collection, I agreed a strategy for the year ahead with the Director. Cataloguing and outreach were the main priorities.
The audit helped establish cataloguing priorities and I recruited two volunteers to help. Purchasing packaging materials for rehousing is challenging; we are one of London’s only museums to be fully funded by its own income. I’ve worked closely with the Finance Manager to ensure the archive’s finances are transparent and we can now work to a budget.
Our cataloguing strategy has evolved to prioritise getting collections-level descriptions online, whilst volunteers and funded project archivists will complete detailed cataloguing. We are delighted that our Archives Revealed Cataloguing Grant application was successful. A Project Archivist will soon catalogue the Beth Chatto Archive and open the archive to school children for the first time. Apply here!
Developing relationships with donors has been particularly rewarding. A highlight was a trip to a windswept corner of Cork to visit ‘Vegetable Queen’ Joy Larkcom, outlined in this blog post. Together, we sorted and appraised the remainder of her archive and I was treated to the most amazing tomatoes and apples.
Stakeholder relationships are really important at the Museum. I work closely with the Fundraising Manager, writing progress reports, submitting funding applications, and providing bespoke archive sessions for Friends, Patrons and potential supporters.
We have established a successful outreach programme, including ‘Secrets from the Stores’ workshops with presentations from experts, study sessions and archive tours. I’m currently in the process of publishing the latest Museum Journal; a 40-page publication telling the story of the seed company Elphick’s of Lewes, based on original research and interviews with Tony Elphick, featuring digitised content from the archive.
Next spring we will experiment with a new, small temporary exhibition space for archival collections, with an accompanying programme of talks.
One of our biggest projects has been establishing an online presence for the archive, creating a unique digital learning resource on our website. Funded by the Geraldine Stutz Trust, we have chosen 25 of Russell Page’s key projects to digitise, research and publish. Garden design students and amateurs alike across the globe can now access this original research and his archive online.
Digital engagement has been particularly important during the Coronavirus lockdown, when physical access to collections has been impossible. A series of blog posts and exhibition stories on Google Arts & Culture have kept our audiences connected.
I have been working with my Plugged In Powered Up mentor to preserve all these new digital assets, establishing workflows and a resilient storage strategy.
All these efforts have led to increased enquiries and research visits. I am finally back in the building after working from home during lockdown and was delighted to host a researcher who, this week, walked 100 miles from the Garden Museum to Russell Page’s final resting place at Badminton, to raise money for the Museum. Our Director is also doing a sponsored swim of 50 miles from Newlyn to Tresco, following loss of income due to COVID-19.
Whilst being a lone archivist as a new professional is challenging, I have learned so much in a short space of time due to the varied responsibilities of my role and my confidence has increased dramatically. I have had to become the ‘expert’ for all things archives at the Museum, taking initiative and making decisions independently. The support of my mentor, the Director and my network of colleagues and course mates has really helped if I ever need advice. One of the best parts of being a lone archivist at a small independent museum is the freedom it gives me to be creative and take ownership of the archive service’s progression. I can’t wait to see how it will develop!
Rosie Vizor, Archivist, Garden Museum