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The Royal Navy Submarine Museum Torbay Decant | Part One

Behind the Scenes at the NMRN

Often we have some very large projects behind the scenes here at The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) which are a bit harder to share with you.

As the new storage facility was finished at Storehouse 12 in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in 2020, it now means the museum is able to move many of its artefacts into a much more suitable home.

If you followed us in 2019 and 2020 on social media you might be aware that the first big move of artefacts was the Royal Marines Museum (RMM) collections.

Once those items were moved our focus then turned to the collections in the Torbay building at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport. This took place over the end of 2020 and start of 2021.

Collections Assistant Ed Mayhew has diligently been working on both of these projects and has kept a diary while moving the artefacts from the Torbay building for us.

This means we can share with you some insights into what a move like this means for the museums, the curators and many other teams involved in the care of the collections.

Over to Collections Assistant Ed...

Torbay Decant Part 1

Project Background

This project is, simply, moving the collections from the Torbay building at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport into Storehouse 12 in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Storehouse 12 is the NMRN library building, the upstairs of which used to be derelict. But it has now been refitted with proper temperature controlled storage facilites and has become a permanent home to many collections.

The reason for the move is that the Torbay building was rapidly deteriorating, putting the collection inside at risk. It is very similar to the project completed last year to relocate the collection from the Royal Marines Museum (RMM) into Storehouse 12, just on a smaller scale. 

The Torbay project feels very different to the RMM project. For the latter we had a team that worked on the collections for a full twelve months documenting everything and packing it ready to move, at the end of which we headed over to Torbay to make a head-start on the same process.

Project Challenges

Unfortunately, we didn’t finish this before the RMM collection was moved in March 2021 and Covid-19 hit.

This meant that when the Torbay project started in earnest in October last year there was still a lot of work to be done, with a smaller team, and with two move deadlines on the horizon already: one at the start of November, and another at the start of December.

Thankfully, as the work was all hands-on and the collections were at risk and had to be moved we were able to keep working through the Government's Covid-19 restrictions. Everyone obviously adhered to social distancing, wearing masks and regular hand washing throughout the entire project to help protect those involved. The work that had been undertaken at Torbay during the RMM project meant the vast majority was documented, it just needed packing.

Getting Started

Taking a van load of supplies with us, Sadie Wilson (Senior Conservator and lead on the project), and myself (Ed Mayhew, Collections Assistant) headed over to start.

Firstly, we went to every collections store in the building and highlighted what work was needed in each room, and what our packing priorities were.

These priorities were based on the objects that needed the most packing so that they were stable enough to move and these were: small or fragile objects, unglazed art, models, and glass plate negatives.

We both started in the largest store, and then I left Sadie to carry on in that store while I set off around the building and packed all the objects in smaller rooms in, before finally reaching the object store upstairs where all the models were.

40 Models to Pack

There were over 40 models to pack; we knew this would be time consuming as most would need bespoke boxes created for them, so it was important to start in there as soon as possible.

There were some quick wins early on: we re-used as many bespoke model boxes as possible from the RMM project as possible, we packed smaller models into crates, and medium sized models into large boxes (4’x2’) bought for the purpose.

This helped us tick off a decent number of models and I was halfway through the 40 before I began making boxes out of correx (an inert packing material, basically corrugated plastic).

Predictably, as soon as I started making these boxes from scratch the packing speed dropped considerably, with the easier boxes taking about two hours, and the more complicated ones up to three or in one case four.

The latter ones required a lot more planning and problem solving, I’d build the basic box shape and then have to decide how best to build upwards in order to protect the fragile masts and rigging. Annoyingly, yes, some submarine models have masts and some even have a little rigging!

As time consuming and slow as this process was, it was really fulfilling. I really enjoy the practical aspects of this kind of work and finding creative solutions like this was really rewarding.

Help, Support and a Second Lockdown

While I was packing models Sadie carried on packing the largest object store, and we had help from team members, Mesha and Bria, with wrapping the unframed art work. Other members of the team were also in at this time to pack their offices and the areas they’d been allocated.

Days before the move the second national lockdown was announced and a few of us were wondering what that meant for the move, but it impacted on us very little, everybody continued wearing face masks, washing hands and keeping distanced as they had before, we stuck to the same dates, and the contractors had their own working “bubble” so could carry on unaffected.

With a little prep in the quarantine store in Storehouse 12, and a final meeting to go over the move plan, we were ready. As much as we could be in the time anyway. The priorities we had highlighted were all packed, although there were still objects in each store that could be packed if we got the chance.

The First Move 4-10 November 2020

Our contractors, Jamie Briggs, arrived bright and early, and after quickly scoping out all the stores, settled on the largest object store as the place to begin which confirmed the preliminary plan.

Without Wi-Fi the only way to record the objects going on and off the truck was a basic paper record, team members Amy Adams and Alex Geary stationed themselves at the lorry so they could label as objects were loaded. The contractors moved quickly so it was easier to have one person labelling and calling out numbers to the other to write them down - the numbers on the labels would then be checked off when the lorry was unloaded at Storehouse12. What a team effort! 

In amongst the loading, I was packing as many things as I could that we hadn’t had time to pack before, and others that hadn’t been as accessible (or as visible!).

The lorry quickly filled, and their smaller van too, and the contractors left for the dockyard with several of the team in tow.

I stayed at Torbay to continue packing, and the contractors had left one of their team behind to do the same. They were specifically focussing on wrapping glazed art and helping with the library, and team members Heather Johnson and Alex Geary carried on packing the library. There was still much to be done! 

The next two days were very similar. On Monday it was back to using the lorry, and the last of the packing was finished ready for the final day of the move on Tuesday.

Once this lorry was loaded, the final load for this stage of the move, and as there was no more to pack up at Torbay, I followed them to Storehouse 12. Progress!

This was the first time I had seen the quarantine store since I had emptied it before the move, Sadie had told me it was filling up quickly, but it was still an eye opener to see everything we had moved all in one room.

After helping the contractors unload everything and with the first move complete, we all headed home for a well-deserved rest!

The empty old Torbay store and the collections in new storehouse 12.

Post-Move

The long term plan is to move as much as possible from the quarantine store into the object store to make as much space as possible for the second move.

But, my next focus is to...

  • familiarise myself with where each stores-worth ended up on the shelves
  • highlight areas of the collection that are quickly resolvable
  • redistribute weight on the shelves
  • make sure the cages are loaded with the parts of the collection that were originally earmarked for those spaces
  • start thinking of solutions for some of the more awkward parts of the collection

In a month the contractors return and we plan to move the archive, uniform, and the remaining objects. We would have moved these with the rest of the collection but, there was simply no more room in the Quarantine store! So we have another tight deadline, and myself and Sadie will be working through the November 2020 lockdown to make enough space in the quarantine store so that the rest of the collection is out of Torbay and no longer at risk.

Torbay Decant Part 2

As you can see from Ed's account, there's a lot of work that goes into the move and care of the collections. It can even in normal times face many challenges, let alone the added complexity of multiple lockdowns and a global pandemic!

Join us next week for the second part of Ed's blog. 

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