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‘A story is not so much about the artifacts itself, rather about how it came to be here and what is its relationship to other objects. There are many stories to be told and different perspectives from which they can be told, and these stories often overlap with others. We have further come to understand that there is seldom a “true story,” as curators describe parts of their research to be almost like “detective work.” Thus information exists in several layers’ (Halloran et al 2005)

This project is about unpacking the layers that form the stories of artifacts in the Royal Albert Memorial and Art Galleries (RAMM) collections that come from Dartmoor.

To start with, the project will focus on the Harry Hems collection. Harry Hems (1842-16) was a Victorian sculptor and woodcarver. Born in 1842 in Islington, London, he worked as a cutler, woodcarver and sculptor in the UK and Italy before arriving at Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in 1866 to work on the building. Here he founded a company that specialized in ecclesiastical sculpture and church fittings restoration, working in Littleham, Staverton, Kenn, Winkleigh, Revelstoke, Swimbridge and Honiton, among other places. He subsequently worked in France and the US, producing carvings for over 400 churches and 100 public buildings. After his death, RAMM purchased nearly 500 medieval carvings he salvaged from churches in the South West of England, including roof bosses, bench ends, a green man and a misericord.

RAMM describe Hems’ work as one of the most important collections of medieval woodwork in a British museum.

Whilst some items of the Hems collection are on display at RAMM, most items are unavailable to the public, carefully stored or conserved in freezers, if they have pests, where they are protected from biological deterioration. Through this project the public will be able to see online some of these artifacts for the first time, which will be a wonderful experience for anyone interested in art, heritage, and Dartmoor itself.

We started our project by analyzing a large number of excel sheets to choose which artifacts in the collection to photograph.

Photographing the Hems collection

We subsequently started to photograph some of the bosses, and I had the huge privilege to hold one of them, wearing special white gloves, with Tom Cadbury, RAMM’s curator who was handling the collection, standing very close by. It was a square, curved, chunky, heavy, very old object, made of dark oak, marked by time. It was not particularly elegant, but it had an incredible aura. As I held it, carefully, slightly nervously perhaps, I wondered about its story – where it came from, how it came to RAMM, what was in its place now. Hopefully our project will throw some light about the mysterious history of this beautiful flowery boss, and many more artifacts in the remarkable Hems collection.

References

Halloran, J., Hornecker, E., Fitzpatrick, G., Millard, D., and Weal, M. (2005) ‘The Chawton House experience: Augmenting the grounds of a historic manor house’, paper presented at Re-thinking Technology for Museums: Towards a New Understanding of People’s Experience in Museums, Limerick, Ireland, June 2005.

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