Room Guide and Housekeeping Manual Group volunteer, Scotney Castle, Kent
A volunteer at Scotney Castle since 2008 Henry Middleton is an experienced Room Guide and a dedicated member of our Housekeeping Manual Group. Following a 30 year career as museum curator and director, Henry is putting a lifetime of expertise to great use by continuing to help us care for extraordinary objects in unusual circumstances.
The house at Scotney Castle opened to the public in 2007 and I started as a Room Guide in the spring of 2008. It’s an unusual property for the National Trust. When Christopher Hussey bequeathed the estate to us, we received not only woodland, farmland, a garden and the house, but also many thousands of assorted artefacts. From the cellars to the attics each room is full of belongings, every cupboard and every drawer.
The Housekeeping Manual Group
Soon after I began volunteering, the staff set up projects to investigate the contents of the house more deeply. I began to work with the Housekeeping Manual Group (HMG) where they were looking for volunteers to make records of each of these new objects.
We’re trying to maintain the collections in good condition for as long as possible, working towards the Trust’s motto ‘For Ever, For Everyone’.
To do that successfully high quality condition monitoring is essential, providing a baseline against which all future measurements can be made. We record the condition of every item so that, as years go by, staff can see whether there’s been deterioration in an object. If there has, then they can take steps to arrest it.
Drawing that baseline
We use a sheet containing a brief description of the object and its individual identification number. We make a sketch drawing onto which we then highlight any damage. We’re not trying to create an artistic depiction of the object. It’s the damage that we’re interested in but you can’t just draw a crack or a chip - you need the context.
The process varies hugely depending on the nature of the object. An ornate piece of wooden furniture for example may require more than one drawing from a number of different angles. This might take an hour or more. On the other hand a plain simple drinking glass might take five minutes. The variety makes the task more interesting.
We’re often asked why we don’t simply take a photo. You get an awful lot of detail in a photograph the majority of which is extraneous to our needs. All the surface texture, the colour, the light and shade or a detailed pattern, disguises where that damage might be.
A lifetime’s experience
I worked in museums for over 30 years as a museum curator and director. An interest and knowledge of historic, artistic and cultural artefacts and making them available for the benefit of future generations, is a familiar ethic for me.
" I think it enriches people’s lives if they know more about their environment, be that natural or built."
I’ve long been a supporter of the National Trust and my wife has been a life member for many years. It’s good for people to be aware of the enormous amount of work that goes into maintaining a place like this and how that all fits in with the wider goals of the National Trust. I think it enriches people’s lives if they know more about their environment, be that natural or built.
Enjoying the rewards
You might say Scotney’s almost like a second home. It’s a place that I go to every week and a place that I simply enjoy being in. Of course it’s not just the house, there’s a garden which one can wander into and enjoy, the surrounding estate too.
One has an opportunity to handle the collections and get to know them in greater detail which is a rare pleasure. It’s exciting to go into the property at the beginning of the day, walking into the rooms when there’s no one else there. When it’s yours for those few minutes it allows you to soak up the history of the place and the people who’ve lived their lives there.
So much more to do
At various stages during the process I’ve thought that perhaps we’re getting to the end of it. But then someone comes along and opens some more cupboards...
I was counting the records the other day and realised that we now have around 20,000 of them. I think there’s certainly a few thousand left to go and I don’t like to leave a job unfinished. It might be a case of ‘til death do us part - I definitely won’t get bored.