Fenland town's museum is on the move - but there is a mountain of work for volunteers to do first
Chatteris Museum is on the move and six months after it closed its doors to the public work continues a pace to pack everything up ready to go.
The popular town museum has been in its current location in Church Lane since the 1990s but limited space has made life difficult and at present the museum is also restricted in when it can open having to check with the town council, which shares the building, to organise events to ensure they don't coincide with meetings.
In June last year the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority announced it was giving £771,000 of match funding to buy the former Barclays Bank in Park Street and convert it into a suitable new home for the museum.
Then in September Chatteris Town Council, which has pledged £34,851 towards the costs of the project, submitted a planning application to Fenland District Council for the bank's conversion.
The aim is for the groundfloor to become the museum with accommodation on the first floor being let out and providing revenue.
Since then it has been all systems go behind the scenes. When the museum closed to the public a troupe of dedicated volunteers set about packing up all some 11,000 to 12,000 of its artefacts.
It is hoped the move will take place in late this year with plans for the museum to re-open to the public either around Christmas or early in the New Year.
Sue Spooner, whose husband Andrew was a past curator, is leading the band of volunteers who are meticulously checking, cataloguing and packing every item.
She said: "It is a mammoth task, we started six months ago and we are slowly processing every item. Those that were on display are being checked and packed, and those that were in storage are also being checked, repacked and catalogued.
"Every item has to be checked and recorded and then packed carefully so it is not damaged in transit. We have to keep everything in storage at the right temperature - heat, light and moisture can cause untold damage.
"With the many dozens of costumes we have going back to the Victorian era we have to also make sure they are safe from the dreaded moth.
"Everyone has been carefully checked and catalogued by our volunteers and they are all carefully stored in specially made calico bags that were made by seamstresses in the town many years ago."
Each box is carefully numbered as it is packed and is colour-coded to show its weight so volunteers don't hurt themselves lifting particularly heavy items.
Claire Leny has the unenviable task of logging every item on to the museum's database, making sure the record includes exactly which box the item has been packed into and including any information about who donated the item.
The database is key in ensuring easy accessibility to all the myriad items that have been donated to the museum down the years since it was first formed in 1942 by the then clerk of Chatteris Urban District council, Charlie Dobbs.
Sue explained: "He started collecting items and putting them on display in a glass cabinet in the council offices, which were located in Grove House at the time.
"And from there it just grew, and grew until it became a museum. It was run on a bit of an ad-hoc basis and the records were not as carefully maintained as they are these days.
"In fact we are proud to have accredited museum status now, which means we conform to a set of regulatory standards.
"The history of many of the objects donated in the early days has been lost, but these days we keep very careful records and we have also become more choosy in the things we accept because we simply do not have the storage room to take absolutely everything we are offered
"We try to take things that are especially relevant to the history of Chatteris and that help tell its story as a town to our visitors.
"The move to the new building will enable us to tell the story of Chatteris using our amazing collection of items and the plan is to try to tailor displays and exhibitions to coincide with events in the town.
"For instance we have a bowl that looks like nothing special but in fact it belonged to the wife of Rocky Thompson the man who produced the rock and sweets for the fair and who lived in Chatteris.
"She was known as the 'Rock Queen' and she used the bowl to mix her sweets, it would be nice to have that on display when the fair is in town as it would be relevant at that time."
As the volunteers slowly work their way through the hundreds and hundreds of curated boxes they are unearthing little gems of the town's history.
One such item is a banner commemorating the Queen's coronation.
Sue said: "It has been hand stencilled but when you look at it closely you realise, in typical Chatteris style, it has been recycled from when her father was crowned king.
"Someone has carefully changed the G in George to an E and they have added an S in front of the word he to make it she. Unfortunately there is one big clue that it has been reused and that's the crown at the top of the banner, it is a king's crown, rather than a queen's crown - it is fascinating really and if we had been open this summer for the Platinum Jubilee it would definitely have had pride of place in an exhibition."
Other gems include a miniature copy of the common prayer book found hidden in the back of a German made cuckoo clock.
Sue said: "It is a wonderful little object, I didn't notice it when I first looked in the back of the clock as it looked like it was part of the clock itself, then I realised it was in fact a little book. Unfortunately it is one of those items donated at Grove House so it's history has been lost, but it would be interesting to know the story behind it."
Some objects that have been unearthed have had volunteers totally baffled, there is not description and their use is hard to work out.
Gerry Dawson said: "We find ourselves being distracted by some of the things we find, we spend hours trying to work out what they are and what they were used for, it can be quite a guessing game."
Gerry is particularly interested in the museum's massive sewing machine collection having been an engineer looking after the sewing machines at the fashion-house Burberry when it used to be based in Littleport.
Don Smith found himself volunteering at the museum about six months ago as a way of learning more about his adopted home, having moved to the town from Kent eight years ago.
"It has been fascinating to learn about the town and it's history. For instance I found an old rivet when I was packing and it said it belonged to the dock gates. I didn't understand why there would be a rivet for dock gates in Chatteris museum, but a bit of research and I learned about the dock, located in Dock Road, where barges would be loaded with items - it has been a real learning experience and of course the people are really nice here too."
Another interesting find, unearthed by volunteers curating the museum's enormous stock of paper-work such as bills and receipts from local businesses, was a book of tokens.
Sue said: "It is labelled tobacco duty relief, we had to Google what that was and it turns out it was a token book given out by the government to pensioners when tax went up on cigarettes and tobacco. This one dates to 1958 and belonged to a Mrs M Hammond. There was one token for each week - it was something none of us were aware of."
Ledgers found discarded in a skip from the local Co-op 30 years ago are another interesting find and Andrew Spooner is convinced will prove a gold mine of information for local families carrying out research into family trees, as they date back to the 1920s and have names and addresses of people who were members of the Co-op at the time.
It is expected the packing will continued through the spring and into the summer, but hopefully by early autumn it will be almost complete and then it will be time to make the move and volunteers will then have the unenviable task of deciding which items are worthy of display in the new museum.
Andrew said: "We have a lot of work ahead of us to look at what we have and to make decisions about items we want to keep and what we might want to get rid of.
"We need to try to restrict ourselves to items that are especially relevant to Chatteris. There is a process whereby unwanted items are offered to other museums where they may have more relevance and that's something we will be looking to do - we may have something that is just the missing piece another museum needs to complete an exhibition.
"But what we hope once the move is complete and the new museum is open is that local people will once again come through our doors to learn about our town and it's history - it is what makes everything worthwhile."