Adorn: What Didn’t Make the Cut?

16 Aug 2019

Glynn Davis, Lead Curator: Adorn

Over two and half years in the planning, development and delivery, Adorn: Jewellery the Human Story is the first exhibition to open at Colchester Castle for quite some time. It features over 300 objects that all have a story to tell and speak to the exhibition’s core message: why have we chosen to decorate ourselves with jewellery for thousands of years?

However, this isn’t simply a display of Colchester Museums’ jewellery collections. Below I’ve highlighted six objects to reveal a bit about the curatorial development and thinking behind the Adorn exhibition, and why some star objects sadly never made the cut.


Keeping On Message: ‘The Ardleigh Pommel’


In planning the exhibition, several key messages were defined at the outset that would help us navigate our collections, keeping us ‘on message’ as we generated a narrative around the objects going on display. Once a ’long-list’ of possible objects had been created, those that didn’t support these key messages were the quickest to not make the ‘short list’. One example is The Ardleigh Pommel. This is a star object in the collection, especially as Colchester Museums has little precious Anglo-Saxon metalwork in its collections. Despite being a fabulous example of gold filigree decoration (with metalwork design being a subject explored in the exhibition), the simple fact of this not being an obvious piece of jewellery unfortunately ruled it out.


All that Glistens Is Not Gold: ’Tin Ore’ Specimen


Adorn has allowed the curatorial team to undertake focused research into the collections – a real treat in our busy schedules. This was time well spent as it revealed fascinating stories around many of the objects. One such example concerns the gold ball earrings from the ‘Fenwick Hoard’, on display in the ’Fashions of the Empire’ section of the exhibition. When looking to establish how common these are from Roman Britain, we found only one other published example…from Colchester! However, not all objects are what they seem. This specimen was labelled ‘tin ore’ and had originally been included in our ‘Materials & Making’ section. Under closer scrutiny it didn’t look like any comparable tin specimens. After a bit of digging by our Museum Manager Tom, this specimen seemed most likely to be Arsenopyrite and had to make its way back to the stores (with an updated label).


Things Change: 1920s ‘French’ Lipstick


Two and a half years is a long time to develop an exhibition – ideas presented at the start looked very different by the end! From the outset Adorn was always going to feature thematic sections, where objects would be used to explore big ideas, allowing a break away from a chronological approach to jewellery. ‘Your Stories’ is one section that evolved radically over the course of time. Originally entitled ‘A Night out in Essex’, we wanted to showcase what people wore on a night out, exploring the idea of ‘choice’ in how we present ourselves. An initial idea was to create a tableau featuring a dressing table, with collections painting a picture of someone getting ready for a night out on the town. This lipstick is one of my favourite objects, but as this part of the exhibition dramatically shifted to a different form of display, we couldn’t find anywhere for it to reappear.


Forgotten But Not Gone: Medieval Rotating Gold Signet Ring


Adorn features over 300 objects, but our original ‘long-list’ at the start of the process had even more! With such an object-dense exhibition, it was incredibly important to keep track of what was being selected from our stores, what they were being curated alongside and how they remained relevant when things changed around them. Despite regular meetings and master spreadsheets, some objects escaped our sights and, dare I say it, were forgotten along the way. This medieval ring was one such example, owned by John Sumpter MP who was a merchant and twice mayor of Colchester in 1422 and 1424. It remains on display as part of Colchester Castle’s permanent exhibits, so at least isn’t hidden away in our stores.


No Room At The Inn: Roman Jet Bead Necklace


Although objects are initially chosen to fit in with the theme and narrative of an exhibition, there are also many practical considerations as to whether they are appropriate for display. Adorn is running for seven months and our Conservator, Cym, had to check that a change in environment – including light, humidity and temperature – were not factors that would adversely affect the short-listed objects. Sometimes there are even more practical reasons for excluding something from display. In the case of this Roman jet necklace, it wouldn’t fit in the case! It was only after mocking up the displays with exact plinth measurements that this necklace, despite our best efforts with a range of mounts, didn’t make the cut for our ‘Black Gold’ section of the exhibition.


It’s Good but it’s not Quite Right: Roman Intaglio (Amphitrite Riding a Dolphin)


Adorn is an exhibition with hundreds of objects and hundreds of individual stories. Many of these stories are connected through themes that the curatorial team mulled over for months. We continually tweaked objects here and there to make the strongest link to the ideas that we wanted to share with our visitors. One section of the exhibition that has many layers of meaning is ‘Hoop & Bezel’. This section explores the popularity of the ring – an item of jewellery that hasn’t changed in its overall form for thousands of years. This section is sub-divided by three further themes or groups: Love, Marriage & Friendship, Memorial & Memento Mori and Myth & Magic. Although there are many Roman rings and intaglios (engraved gemstones that would be mounted on the bezel of a ring) in the collections, we still wanted to keep the subject matter focused. So whereas intaglios featuring the well-known Roman gods Jupiter, Minerva, Mercury and Mars did make the cut, lesser know gods such as the Greek goddess of the Sea, Amphitrite, unfortunately didn’t. This might seem pedantic, but hopefully demonstrates the great thought and consideration that went into every single object to really focus the exhibition’s themes.


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