Bringing carriage collections to life – a guide to interpretation

In this guest blog post Natalie Heidaripour, Museum Resilience Project Officer, Archives & Heritage, at Staffordshire County Council tells us about the launch of a new website and guide on interpretation for historic carriage collections.

One of the historic carriages at Staffordshire Museum Service being photographed

At Staffordshire Museum Service we’re currently working on the Arts Council funded ‘Moving On’ project, a new programme of outreach work that aims to open up our collection to different audiences. A key part of this project was the digitisation of our nationally important carriage collection, using high-quality 360-degree photography and arranged through Art UK.

The photography involved negotiating each of these fabulous vehicles out of their storage location and onto a revolving turntable in a courtyard. This took place over two (very long, but exciting) days with the fear of rain spurring the team on!

One of the carriages being moved onto the turntable

The images were edited by a professional photographer who used specialised software to knit the stills together, creating images that could be rotated. Hosted on a new website for the carriage collection, these images allow virtual access during periods when the carriages are not on permanent display. Each carriage can be explored in detail alongside a wealth of information about the individual vehicles and the history of the collection. Students at South Staffordshire College also produced creative content as part of a work placement project, including illustrations, video and audio clips, which are also included on the website.

To share our experience of this project and of previous interpretative work, Staffordshire Museum Service commissioned A guide to interpreting horse-drawn carriages held in museum collections. As moving objects in static displays, carriages are often difficult objects to interpret. This guide is intended for professionals caring for carriages who may not be experts in this area, and who may be working in mixed collections. Gathering together best practice in the interpretation of carriages, the guide helps museums bring these objects to life. Rather than an encyclopaedia on carriages, the guide contains the key facts, as well as suggestions for where to find more information.

One of the final photographs

Museum interpretation consultant Steve Slack wrote the guide, in collaboration with professionals working with carriage collections from across the museum sector. Steve initially researched carriage collections and more general transport museums, speaking to staff, accessing audience evaluations of displays and conducting visitor observation, as well as using online reviews and responses to collections. This was followed by a workshop for people working with significant carriage collections.

The workshop focused on the outcomes of Steve’s research and sought to establish consensus around effective interpretative techniques. It was an extremely useful day in which we explored some of the key issues encountered, and how they have been overcome in ways that also ensure care of collections. Visitors are often keen to touch and even get into carriages. In most cases this is not possible, so we explored useful techniques for limiting damage whilst also engaging more general and family audiences. Solutions included barriers which incorporate interpretative material or using replica carriage seats so that visitors can ‘experience’ the carriage ride. Key interpretative themes for engaging a more general audience focused on contemporary parallels and the social history aspect of carriages.

The outcomes of this workshop provided the structure for the guide and gave a fantastic insight into the range of innovative techniques that are being used in very different sites and collections.

We hope this guide, which is freely available on our website, will inspire new ways into carriages and will be of use to anyone considering redisplaying and reinterpreting carriages in their collection.