Cleaning the artefacts is a tricky business for Melton museum staff
Melton’s Carnegie Museum may have been closed for the last week but there has been a hive of activity inside the Thorpe End building.
Staff have been busily, and skillfully, cleaning the thousands of artefacts which are on display all year round.
Many of the items are hundreds of years old and some, like an ancient axe, date back more than 10,000 years.
Employees are taughts how to handle everything with care, particularly some of the more delicate exhibits.
Zara Matthews, market towns museums manager for Leicestershire Council, which funds the Melton’s historical treature trove, touched a wooden case and smiled as she explained: “We’ve never damaged anything during our annual cleaning so far.
“Some of the things are incredibly fragile but we train our staff on how to do it.
“They need to know the safe way of holding a painting, for example, and also to be aware that they need to walk the route they will be taking before they move an object to make sure its safe.
“We need to take care with the taxidermy exhibits, the stuffed animals, and ensure they wear gloves because some of these pieces are very old and may contain poisons such as arsenic or mercury.”
The museum reopened to the public on Tuesday after being closed since Saturday January 19. Visitors will notice exhibits being shows off in new display cabinets and with improved lighting and labelling.
Before the reopening Zara gave an insight into the task face by staff as they sift through the thousands of items: “It’s a bit like emptying your kitchen cupboards at home.
“You are pleased when you’ve done it but then you think ‘how on earth am I going to get all these things back in them?’”
The older exhibits, such as the archaeological pieces dating back to the bronze age and to Roman times, were taken away for specialist cleaning at the county council’s Collection Resources Centre in Leicester.
As we chatted, staff were cleaning an dusting exhibits in the recreated Attenburrow Chemists shop, a fixture in Melton from the mid-19th century until the 1980s when it closed.
The shop was run by three different generations of the same family and was located where the Boots optician shop is now, on Cheapside.
Museum support officer Amy Barrs said: “The shop didn’t change much from the 1800s to the time it closed.
“We get a lot of customers coming in and saying they remember visiting it.
“The glasses and pots in the shop are very fragile so we have to be extremely careful when we are cleaning them.”
The museum has only been open since 1978. The building was previously occupied by the Carnegie Library, the town’s first free library, which was established in 1904 when £2,000 funding was given by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
Before this, a museum operated from 1847 at the Bede House on Burton Street, although this was a private collection of exhibits.
A popular display item which attracts people from far and wide is the two-headed calf, which was born locally in 1900 but only lived for a few hours.
It was preserved by a vet and exhibited in his Elgin Lodge practice in the town.
Public viewings during both world wars raised money for the war effort and even helped pay for the building of a Spitfire in the 1940s.
Dotted around are exhibits showcasing Melton’s food heritage, with historic equipment for making pork pies and Stilton cheese, and also several items illustrating the town’s link with hunting, including a hunt jacket and jodhpurs from early last century.
Zara said: “It is important we have exhibits about pork pies and Stilton because that is what many people think of when they think of Melton Mowbray.
“Foxhunting has also played an important role in shaping the town from the 19th century through to now.”
Some of the items on display are particularly curious, such as a collection of pieces preserved from Leicestershire’s Victorian police force.
There is a rattle to attract attention, hand cuffs, a violent-looking cosh and an ornate truncheon, which was used to keep order in unruly crowds or to restrain a dangerous criminal.
These are some of the exhibits which are shared around the county’s five libraries as examples of local history.
Melton Carnegie Museum regularly put on temporary exhibitions and the next one coming up, at the end of March, showcases the products of Leicestershire toy company, Palitoy, which has given us Action Man, Tiny Tears, Play-Doh and the Star Wars figures, to name just a few.
The building continues to be a popular destination for people of all ages in the Melton borough as well as tourists and visitors.
Zara added: “We had a total attendance of more than 15,000 last year which I think, for a museum of this size, is pretty good.
“It’s a great place for children to come with the schools, the Scouts and the Beavers or with their parents or grandparents and for older people who want to reconnect with the past.
“We are in a good location. It’s a little walk from the town centre and we just tell everyone we are right next to McDonald’s so they can’t miss us.”
Melton Carnegie Museum is open from Monday through to Saturday, from 10am until 4.30pm.