Behind the scenes at 
the museum

131503b  Looking at two of her favourite items,  Karen Snowden, head of collection for Scarborough Museums Trust, among the unseen treasures in the Trust's storeroom beneath the Woodend Creative Workspace.  Photo by Andrew Higgins    08/04/2013
131503b Looking at two of her favourite items, Karen Snowden, head of collection for Scarborough Museums Trust, among the unseen treasures in the Trust's storeroom beneath the Woodend Creative Workspace. Photo by Andrew Higgins 08/04/2013

From Congolese pygmies to pygmy antelopes, from ravens to rams, from mummies to mothers – they’re all in the Scarborough Collections.

Trout, tigers, tin boats, shops’ bells, spiders, squirrels, foxes, photographs, postcards and dresses are all to be found in this cave of wonders.

One of the most intriguing items is the Galapagos tortoise originally from Floriana – or Charles Island, named after Charles Darwin.

If the collection sounds like a jumble – a higgedly-piggedly stashed treasure trove ready for adventures in pith helments and armed with butterfly nets and magnifying glasses to be explored – think again.

While it’s not possible to have all the thousands of items in the Collections on display at any one time, they are kept in temperate, orderly conditions in the basement of what is now Woodend Creative Workspace in The Crescent.

The public can view them – on guided tours once a month. That does not, though, lessen the anticipation or the excitement of discovery.

Head of collections at Scarborough Museums Trust Karen Snowden said: “The Scarborough Collections comprise thousands of objects, ranging from the everyday to the extraordinary.

“Some items are of very little historical importance; others are of international significance. But they’re all fascinating in their own way.

“Scarborough Museums Trust has two public venues – the Rotunda, the William Smith Museum of Geology; and Scarborough Art Gallery – and, as with many museums, it’s impossible to display all of our items at any given time. The tours are a great opportunity for people to see things they might otherwise not have chance to.”

Simply walking to the cavern which houses Scarborough Collections is interesting. Woodend was once home to the literary aristocrats, the Sitwells.

Visitors pass what were the servants’ quarters, the kitchen and wine cellar.

The store was designed to the museum’s specifications and is kept at a temperature to suit the artefacts – cool to ensure rot does not set in.

Examples of natural history, seaside paraphernalia and artefacts from the town’s fishing heritage fill the room.

There are stuffed exotic birds, tiger heads, and fish kept in cases with the name of the fisherman engraved on a front panel. It is easy to imagine them in pride of place on the wall of the drawing room of a Victorian home.

Some of the exhibits are kept in plastic boxes in metal moveable stacks – all catalogued.

To imagine how exciting and astounding it once was to look at some of these exhibits, one has to think back to a time before television, the internet and areoplanes.

Experts and students use this resource for research– these rocks, stuffed animals and birds are invaluable to natural historians, geologists and scientists.

How they got there and why they are still relevant to scientists in 2013 is the theme of the tour.

Geologist Will Watts, who leads the science tour, said: “In these days of instant information from the internet, people might think that our collections of stuffed animals, butterflies and moths, shells and fossils, and so on, are redundant.

“But when it comes to scientific research, nothing can compare with studying an object in the flesh, and that’s why collections like ours are important.”

Mollusc scholars come to the store to look at the specimens collected by self-educated William Bean.

As to where the mass of items in the collections come from – it is various sources.

People give things to the musuem and in some case swhole collections were handed over. Other items have been bought.

Jonathan James Harrison was an explorer and hunter. He brought Pgymies to Britain where they were presented at court.

He lived at Brandesburton Hall, near Hull. When he died his collection was bought by Scarborough Corporation.

The Scarborough Collections is the name given to all the museum objects acquired by the Borough of Scarborough over the years.

They are all in the care of the charitable Scarborough Museums Trust.

The tours take place on the final Tuesday of each month, Each tour takes around an hour, and participants are asked to meet at Scarborough Art Gallery at 2pm before heading next door to Woodend Creative Workspace, where the Collections are housed in modern storage facilities in the basement.

Tours are themed including one led by ornithologist Jim Middleton which focuses on the birds in the taxidermy collection.

Places on the tour cost £2 each, and are limited, so booking is recommended.

To book, or for further information, call the art gallery on 01723 374753.