Dress dating

Yesterday we invited Helen Johnson, Museum Development Officer, to Nuneaton Museum. We wanted her to help us date a beautiful black silk dress belonging to a local heritage group. Helen has an expertise in period costume and was looking at a number of features that might suggest when the dress was made and worn.

Helen specialist

The dress consists of a beaded bodice and full skirt. Helen looked to see if the stitching was handstitched or machine stitched. She looked at the shape of the sleeves, the fullness of the skirt, the height of the collar, the beaded shoulder decoration and the V-neck design of the bodice front.


Accurate dating was not easy as the dress has been used for amateur dramatics over the years and been adapted several times. However, the original style suggested a date between the mid 1880s and the early 1890s.


Thank you Helen for all your help!




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A welcome to our medal researchers

Today we have been very excited to welcome David, John and Mick from the ‘Orders and Medals Research Society’ to the Museum.

They are helping us to find out more about our medals and check that the information we have recorded about them is accurate.

John Mick and David medal specialists2

They are specifically looking at a collection of 50 British War and Campaign medals that were collected by a man called Albert Melly. Albert was the younger brother of Edward Melly who founded Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery. He collected medals ranging in date from the late 1700s to the First World War, including campaigns in East and West Africa, South Africa, the Crimea, the Baltic, New Zealand, North-West Canada, Egypt and China. Recipients included a Nuik Sharif Khan from the 3rd Sikh Infantry and Rafln Gajbir Shapa from the 8th Gurkha Rifles.

This specialist research has been made possible through the Expert Eye project, created by West Midlands Museums Development, which helps museums to identify expertise to find out and tell stories from collections which have not been previously told.

David, John and Mick’s research will tell us more about the Museum’s medals and unearth some of the personal stories that will help us to connect with them today.

When we see a medal, it is sometimes easy to forget that this static item actually represents a real person who had real experiences fighting in war.

Medal specislists work

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Set in Stone

This month our Hands on History session absolutely rocked – that is, by being about objects made out of rock. Now, you may think you know just about everything that can be made from stone, but some of our objects may have surprised you. Many thanks to all of you who came and visited us on Saturday and we hope you also enjoyed the opening of our new Mindfulness exhibition! If you could not make it, I’d like to share with you some of our more popular pieces to whet your interest in our stone objects.

The first is this impressive obsidian dagger from the Admiralty Islands. Obsidian is a fantastic glass, formed from the cooling of lava. As a glass, it is an amorphous solid, which in simple terms means that it has an irregular structure as opposed to the more rigid and orderly structure of most other solids. It is this quality that makes obsidian so sharp. Whereas even a finely honed steel blade will have variations in its edge due to the way its structure breaks apart, obsidian fractures along its irregularities presenting its sharpest possible edge.

Obsidian Dagger 2

This sharpness was recognised very early in human history and, where it can be found, obsidian has been used to cut things for thousands and even tens to hundreds of thousands of years. As networks of trade developed, obsidian was one of the key trading objects due to its utility. This example, however, was formed, collected, and used near its volcanic origin north of Papua New Guinea, but it has still managed to find its way here through a bit of trade.

The other object I’d like to share is a carved stone junk. This is not, as some might expect from that description, a piece OF junk, instead, junk is a word that refers to a type of Chinese sailing vessel (the derivation comes to English through Portuguese based on the Malay word for these ships). These had a wide array of forms and functions, from small river-capable vessels to huge ocean-going treasure ships and pleasure craft to cargo ships. The most notable attribute of the junk, its fully battened sails, appear not to accompany this piece. These sails have crossbars at intervals which span the whole sail and keep it more rigid than the sails of conventional Western sailing ships. Why they are not present on this figure is unknown to us.

Soapstone Junk 5

As with our dagger, the detail and craftsmanship on this piece is astounding. Each of the figures have their own individualised facial expressions which give the piece a great deal of character. One can almost imagine conversing with them and enjoying their company as they sail across the sea.

Again, though, this was just a pair of the many fine stone objects we had out for our visitors’ viewing and handling pleasure. Do let us know what you think of these objects and let us know what other materials you would like to see featured in future Hands on History session.

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Goodbye Peaky Blinders

Today we took down our lovely Peaky Blinders costume exhibition. We dismantled Aunt Polly, took the arms off Ada, wrapped up Alfie and packed Arthur deep inside a cardboard box!

My absolute favourite costume from the exhibition was this gorgeous pink coat and dress, worn by Grace Shelby. It was wonderful feeling the weight and textures of all the wonderful fabrics that were used for the clothes. Alfie’s costume in the exhibition consisted of an overcoat, frockcoat, waistcoat, shirt and undershirt! I hope it was cold when he was filming as he would have got so hot in all of that! The weight of all five layers was immense.

We hope that those of you who have been watching enjoy the new series of Peaky Blinders currently on TV.

peaky blinders dismantling

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Wall-hanging celebrating George Eliot

George Eliot wall-hanging

We are currently displaying a beautiful contemporary wall-hanging, made by members of the Women’s Institute, in our George Eliot gallery. The hanging is about author George Eliot’s life and the places in Nuneaton and its surrounding area that were special to her. It has been made to commemorate the bicentenary year of George Eliot’s birth and the centenary of Warwickshire Federation of Women’s Institutes.

The wall-hanging includes depictions of South Farm where she was born, Griff House where she grew up, All Saints Church which she attended in her childhood, and other local places that provided inspiration for locations in her novels.

It is on display at Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery from Thursday 12th September to Sunday 15th September.

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Journey to Japan

Last Saturday our Museum Access Assistants journeyed to Japan without leaving Nuneaton via a selection of Japanese objects from the museum collections including a Japanese clockwork flytrap, a miniature teaset, a kinchaku (money pouch), a Satsumaware vase and a cigar case.

From left to right: Japanese miniature tea set, Satsumaware vase, clockwork flytrap, kinchaku, cigar case


The Japanese objects are pictured above in situ, ready for sharing with visitors  in our monthly Hands on History session. While the clockwork flytrap fascinated visitors with its unusual design and unique purpose, it was the Japanese cigar case that drew the greatest admiration, specifically for its decorative beauty.


Cigar case with gilt frame and metal clasp


The cigar case features a different pictorial design on either side, employing mother of pearl, tortoiseshell and coloured horn applied to an ivory base. The materials are precisely and minutely carved to depict flowers, trees, birds and greenery.


Two peacocks and mother of pearl and tortoiseshell blossom tree


One side of the cigar case presents two peacocks under a blossom tree. The mother of pearl blossoms have a silvery appearance and catch the light captivatingly as illustrated in the detail below. In traditional Japanese art peacocks are imbued with religious and optimistic symbolism, considered as symbols of wisdom with the power to prevent the faithful from straying into evil.


Mother of pearl blossoms


The opposite side of the cigar case shows three smaller birds among flowers, leaves and branches. The portrayal of birds and flowers has a far-reaching history in Japanese art and is called kacho-e. Kacho-e first appeared in Japan during the 14th century, inspired by the Chinese Sung and Yuan dynasty paintings being imported into Japan at that time. The first kacho-e were created by Buddhist monks, who produced ink drawings featuring lotus, plum, bamboo and birds.


Three small birds, mother of pearl flowers, leaves and branches


Decorative appeal has not been overlooked for the interior of the cigar case, of course. A gilt clasp pushes in to open up the two halves of the case, revealing two compartments overlaid with brocade style fabric that lifts up, behind which cigars would be kept.


Cigar case interior


In Japan, tobacco smoking evolved as an aspect of the Japanese tea ceremony, in which many of the traditional objects used to burn incense began to be adopted for tobacco smoking.

Thank you to everyone who came along to our session! Our next Hands on History session is called ‘Set in Stone’ and will take place on Saturday 21st September.

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Captivating Currency

In our Hands on History session this Saturday, we’re going to have a good look at some of our varied and interesting examples of currency.

Currency is, at its most basic, a medium of exchange. It comprises the notes, coins, and digital numbers we all use to process our transactions in our day to day lives. However, unlike ‘money’, currencies do not have an inherent value, but are instead agreed upon tools recognised and backed by governments. (There is an interesting discussion here, but it is not our focus today). Importantly, units of currency tend to be small so as to be easily portable, relatively durable so as to be continuously usable, and generally divisible so that you can use them for big or small things. There are some exceptions, as tends to be the case when you are discussing the plethora of unique solutions the human brain can create, but these general points cover most currencies.

The notes, coins, and cards we use today meet these criteria and are quite familiar to us, but these are not the only things that have been or can be used. Among others, we’ll have out for your viewing and handling pleasure some ‘knife money’ from China and some ‘shell money’ from the Solomon Islands. Most of our objects, however, will take the form of notes coming from a variety of regions and times. You’ll have to stop by to find out more.

There is one group in particular I’d like to talk more about, just because it was very surprising for me to find in Nuneaton. We have in our collection a few examples of currencies used in the Confederate States during the American Civil War. Even coming from the States myself, I had never learned much at all about the Confederate economy, so this was for me a very welcome and interesting bit of research.

As we’ve stated previously, a currency need not have intrinsic value, but exists instead as a medium of exchange. In order to do that, however, its strength needs to be backed and recognised. The South printed a substantial amount of currency in order to support its war efforts, but the trade with Europe needed to sustain the Confederate economy was not forthcoming. Having only promises to prop up their rapidly inflating currency, confidence waned. The many different bills printed showcasing many of the participating states are wonderful for us now as historical objects, but proved to be less useful at the time.

If you want to learn more about these objects, or any of the other currencies we will have on display, do drop by and meet with us in the museum on Saturday the 20th of July between 11:00 and 16:00. We’re also keen to hear about your experiences with currencies and hope to learn from you, our visitors, as well.

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