Anna Szilagyi

Collections Officer, Clandon Park

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Anna Szilagyi - Collections Officer, Clandon Park

A member of the Clandon Park project team since early 2018, Anna’s primary role is to take care of the collection and architectural fabric that was saved and salvaged after the fire and to manage the salvaged collection store. As the project progresses she’ll be working with the team to assess each item and, when the time comes, help move the collection back into the rebuilt and restored Clandon Park.

The basement spaces at Clandon Park, Surrey

The role of Collections Officer means, simply, that I look after the collection. This includes items that were rescued from the house on the night of the fire and those that were excavated during the archaeological salvage. I also work with some surviving elements of the architectural fabric of the building such as the ceilings and cornices. All of these objects are kept in an external store and so part of my job is to manage that store. 

Every day is different depending on our priorities. When I’m at the store we do the work that every National Trust mansion does, such as checks for pests and monitoring humidity and temperature. I help facilitate visits to the store and the site, assist with the visitor experience wherever the collection is involved and run collections management tasks such as records enhancement or research. There’s plenty going on to keep it interesting.

Current collections work

We’re just finishing looking at historic inventories to try to identify the exact provenance of each object we have. It’s important that this information is captured for the future; we need to know where things came from and if they were indigenous to the house. I’ve been working with an early career volunteer who’s interested in working in museums so it’s been great to share the work with him and try to teach him a little of everything that I’ve learned. 

Salvaged items from the collection on display in the basement spaces at Clandon Park in 2018
Collection items on display in the basement spaces at Clandon Park, Surrey
Salvaged items from the collection on display in the basement spaces at Clandon Park in 2018

We’re still trying to identify some objects, or fragments of objects, and recently we’ve been looking at metals. That process can often begin with an unrecognisable twisted piece of metal, requiring us to do a little detective work. We look for tell-tale marks, a piece of engraving for example. Then we’ll search our records for the salvage quadrant (the exact location in the house where an item fell) which were recorded for every salvaged object. These clues narrow down our search and we hope to identify as many items as possible. 

A memorable object for me early in the inventory process was a Chinese porcelain wine pot, coloured in red, green and ochre, that dates around 1662-1722. I found unidentified fragments in a number of different trays and was really proud to be able to bring it back together. It’s pomegranate-shaped with a tiny bronze squirrel clinging to it and seeing inside has made me appreciate its craftsmanship and quality even more.

It’s always so rewarding when you can give an object back its identity; give it context and personality again. Suddenly it’s no longer just debris.

The pomegranate-shaped pot broken into more than 10 pieces which were salvaged from the debris after the fire
Fragments of a Chinese porcelain wine pot slavaged after the fire at Clandon Park, Surrey
The pomegranate-shaped pot broken into more than 10 pieces which were salvaged from the debris after the fire

What comes next?

A big focus for us will be assessing the significance of each item. We’re looking at what their role was in the house and what their value is to the collection - not a financial value but how well they tell a story. We’ll have help from external consultants to assess their condition so we can figure out, firstly, whether they can be restored and, secondly, how much that will cost.

We have around 600 saved objects in good condition, although everything needs some level of work because of smoke or water damage. We then have another 600 salvaged items with massively varying levels of damage. 

" Prioritising the restoration of items is very much driven by their significance. If we know that an object perfectly embodies Clandon and helps us demonstrate something significant to visitors, then we’ll make sure that we do everything we can to restore it. "
- Anna Szilagyi

An overwhelming start

I started at Clandon in January 2018 and at the beginning it was overwhelming. You can’t imagine until you see them, the sheer amount of items that are in that store. I had part of my interview there; I can remember having no words but being aware that I should be saying something. 

My first big exercise was the store inventory, an item-by-item cataloguing of everything we had. That initial work supports everything that I do now. I started to feel that I understood fully what was needed, that I knew the collection, understood what we had and didn’t have and where everything was.

An overwhelming task; the collections store at Clandon Park houses around 1200 saved and salvaged items
The collections store at Clandon Park
An overwhelming task; the collections store at Clandon Park houses around 1200 saved and salvaged items

A rewarding role

I’m very lucky to get to meet people who are the best in their field. I’m in the early stages of my career but everyone has been so approachable and made me feel like a part of the team. That’s been so important to me because that’s the way we learn best, by working and talking with people who are more experienced than us. 

Once the project is complete I'm most looking forward to seeing visitors come back. I’m excited to see people return to enjoy the house and landscape, to be amazed, to learn something and to see all the work that was put into it. That would be so special and I think the best satisfaction I could get.