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Highlight at the museum: Hertfordshire’s curators share their most prized treasures

PUBLISHED: 16:22 16 March 2016 | UPDATED: 11:23 21 March 2016

Eleanor Baumber with the bridal headpiece: Photo: Welwyn Musems Service

Eleanor Baumber with the bridal headpiece: Photo: Welwyn Musems Service

Welwyn Musems Service

It’s international #MuseumWeek this month, so we sent Clare Saul to five of the county’s treasure houses to ask curators which objects they love most in their collections

Hein van Grouw with the abberant red-eyed pale carrion crow. 'It encapsulates important parts of my research'. Photo: Trustees of the Natural History MuseumHein van Grouw with the abberant red-eyed pale carrion crow. 'It encapsulates important parts of my research'. Photo: Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Eleanor Baumber, curator, Welwyn Hatfield museum service

Shortly ahead of my own wedding, a colleague drew my attention to a 1930s bridal headpiece . It was worn by a Miss A Pullen of Welwyn Garden City for her wedding in May 1933 and is at Mill Green Museum.

It’s exquisite, embellished with imitation orange blossoms. The delicate white flowers with pale yellow stamens and tiny flower buds are handcrafted from wax and housed on a wire frame, covered carefully in cotton threads.

The artefact reflects a lost tradition for brides to wear orange blossom, a trend which is thought to have originated in ancient China, with sweet-smelling white orange blossoms reflecting a bride’s innocence and the tree’s abundance of flowers symbolising hope for a fruitful and flourishing marriage.

By the 1800s, the tradition for brides to wear orange blossom had spread to Europe. In Britain in 1840, Queen Victoria wore real orange blossoms in her bridal headpiece. The fashion was set, lasting well into the 20th century. Wax replicas of orange blossoms, like those in this example, offered a sturdier, longer-lasting alternative to the real flower and were also available out of season.

The tradition became so embedded that by the late 1800s the phrase ‘to go gathering orange blossoms’ had taken the meaning to seek a wife.

Emily Shepperson, curatorial assistant, British Schools Museum, Hitchin

Close up Mercury's animals - probably crafted by a native Briton. Photo: St Albans MuseumClose up Mercury's animals - probably crafted by a native Briton. Photo: St Albans Museum

The British Schools Museum is in an original Victorian school complex. My favourite part of the museum is the headmaster’s house, which was lovingly restored by volunteers and opened to the public in 2005. The house was home to headmaster Mr Fitch and his wife Sarah from 1857-1902. In this house they brought up their family and Mr Fitch oversaw the running of the school for 42 years.

My favourite item from the museum collection finds its home in one of the bedrooms in the headmaster’s house. It is a lovely mahogany sewing box belonging to Mrs Fitch. Lined with vibrant red silk and containing expensive mother-of-pearl buttons, this box may well have been a wedding present. Mrs Fitch would not have been able to afford to hire a professional seamstress, so she and her four daughters would have spent many hours making and repairing the family’s clothes.

This beautiful sewing box is my favourite item because it gives us a more personal insight into the daily lives of Mr and Mrs Fitch, some of whose descendants are still associated with the museum. It is wonderful to continue to tell the story of their family to our visitors.

Hein van Grouw, senior curator, Natural History Museum at Tring

Lord Lionel Walter, second Baron Rothschild (1868-1937), is famous for his passionate interest in ornithology and for having assembled in his museum in Tring probably the largest private scientific natural-history collection ever amassed, including about 300,000 bird skins and mounts. Less well known though was his interest in bird hybrids and colour aberrations.

I share that same interest and colour aberrations in birds, especially in corvids, is my main field of interest. Although Rothschild sold almost all of his study skins to the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the early 1930s, he kept back all his 2,500 or so mounted bird specimens, many of which are still on display in the public museum.

My favourite specimen is a pale-coloured carrion crow (corvus corone). Although its (glass) eyes are red, this bird is not an albino but was affected by a lesser-known condition called Ino. For me, this specimen from Rothschild’s collection encapsulates important parts of my research – colour aberrations, corvids and the history of old specimens. Currently I am looking into the history of Rothschild’s collection of aberrant birds.

Emily Shepherd with the ornate sewing box belonging to a Victorian headmaster's wife. Photo: British Schools MuseumEmily Shepherd with the ornate sewing box belonging to a Victorian headmaster's wife. Photo: British Schools Museum

Besides being a famous ornithologist, Rothschild was also an important figure in the history of Tring, and the Natural History Museum at Tring has recently refurbished its gallery devoted to him.

David Thorold, prehistory to medieval curator, Verulamium Museum

This statuette, found just outside Verulamium in 1970, shows the Roman god Mercury along with three animals associated with him – the cockerel, the goat and the tortoise.

The Romans, like the Britons 2,000 years ago, worshipped many deities and both adopted foreign gods into their pantheons. Roman gods usually had a specific responsibility, such as harvest, war or the sea. British gods were often localised but had a wider range of responsibilities. Mercury, god of luck, commerce, and travel was seen as more of an all-rounder by the Britons and was often adopted by them.

When statuettes of such fine quality are found, it is sometimes assumed they were manufactured by Romans familiar with the classical gods, then exported to the provinces where production skills and cultural awareness were lower, but while this statuette is well made, the tortoise looks more like a pheasant, with cross hatching on its back. Whoever made this had never seen a tortoise in his life, unlikely if it was manufactured in the Mediterranean. I have chosen it because it is a testament to the skills of provincial metalsmiths and shows the British were not backwards barbarians but a people with a culture and capabilities equal to the Romans.

Roman curse tablet - an attempt to gain justice by those without power. Photo: Hertford MuseumRoman curse tablet - an attempt to gain justice by those without power. Photo: Hertford Museum

Sara Taylor, curator, Hertford Museum

Curse tablets usually consisted of a sheet of lead inscribed with a curse or request, rolled up or folded and left in a shrine or sacred spring. The inscription usually related to a wrongdoing or crime, and the person offering the tablet hoped to get revenge on the wrongdoer through a curse. In Roman Britain, justice was not easily attained without connections and for many authors of curse tablets found in Britain this might have been their only recourse.

This particular tablet was excavated at Puckeridge during the creation of the bypass. It dates from the second to third centuries AD. The surface is very scratched and worn. Only a few individual letters can still be read, including the symbol denarii: the Roman currency. This suggests the tablet may have been prompted by a theft of money. After the tablet was inscribed, it was folded up and the folds nailed together.

For me, curse tablets are very special as they give us a direct link to the individuals who made them and the strong sense of injustice and anger they experienced nearly 2,000 years ago. It is possible that afterwards the maker of this tablet forgot about the loss of money and went on his way, but for us now, and generations of future museum visitors, this snapshot remains.

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