So much more than dusting!

How CAMdfas volunteers are helping to record the contents of the David Parr House

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It all began back in the Autumn of 2014 when Audrey took a tour of the David Parr House which was included in the Curating Cambridge event.  Audrey told our group of what she had seen and we (the CAMdfas Dusting Divas) decided to offer our services for any aspect of the project which would prove useful.

The timing was also right for the group as we were in the final stages of our latest project.  We had already dusted and checked ancient books in two Cambridge University libraries and we all felt the David Parr House project offered a different challenge.  It was an opportunity to be involved in a very interesting venture from its beginnings.  We hoped it would bring new experiences and we would learn more about local and social history through finding out about the house, its contents and the people who had lived there.

It was a warm and bright spring afternoon when Tamsin welcomed us for a discussion and our first look at the David Parr House.  How dark it seemed after the bright sunlight outside but as our eyes adjusted, we found it hard to take in our surroundings.  We all knew this type of terraced house but the décor was far beyond our imagination.  What to look at first?!  What we thought was heavily patterned wallpaper in the William Morris style, turned out not to be wallpaper at all, but skilful hand painting.  Wood panelling and stained glass were in the hallway.  The furniture, pictures, etc. were all of a bygone age.  The more we saw of the house and the more Tamsin told us of its history, the more eager we became to play a part in its preservation.  Would we be up to the challenge?  Our experience of book dusting and noting bookworm had not prepared us in any way but we were keen to learn new skills and be part of this project.

In July 2015 work started at the house in earnest with learning the cataloguing protocol, practising with the camera and light box and light dusting.  We began upstairs in the back bedroom.  A decision was made not to catalogue the large items of furniture or the wall and floor treatments.  This simplified things slightly but it was not a simple job.  Space is very limited.  Many points needed to be discussed and agreed before pencil went to paper in the practice cataloguing book.

To our horror, nothing seemed easy.  Even erecting the light tent proved beyond our capabilities at first!  We worried constantly that we were not cataloguing items correctly and our photographic skills were not too good either.  The only part we excelled in was the light dusting.  However, practice makes perfect (or so we hoped) and, as time went on, we grew in confidence, each taking a role we were comfortable with: Wendy was our leader, Diane was very organised and had the neatest hand-writing, Sue was good with the camera, Audrey was a whizz with the fiddly numbering system and Pam was an all-rounder.   But what a time it was taking us!  A whole morning could be spent on recording the contents of a box or drawer.  What was the best way to photograph a handkerchief?  By itself or in the drawer in which we found it?  Such decisions!  Exclamations of “Do you remember this?” and “Ooh look at that!” were constant.  Newspapers recording events such as the Queen’s coronation in 1953, old paper bags from Cambridge stores which are no longer in business, hand embroidered tablecloths – we are never certain of what we are going to find.  A jigsaw puzzle had to be completed so we could photograph and record it.  Luckily it consisted of only a few pieces but we are still in dread of finding a 1,000 piece one!

We met every Thursday morning from July to December from 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.  There are no facilities at the house so we took advantage of the café opposite (Hot Numbers) for a coffee and comfort break.  The unusually mild autumn meant we could continue much further into the cold months than originally anticipated.  This enabled us to complete work in the back bedroom and to start work in the front bedroom.   The back bedroom had been characterised by lots of small objects in boxes and drawers, the front bedroom was a change of items as well as setting – a cupboard full of paper ephemera, newspaper cuttings, special birthday cards and drawers of needlework and textiles.

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By mid-December it really was too cold to stay in the house any longer and so a new phase began – being trained to input the data we had recorded onto a catalogue database called Modes.   We took it in turns to practice entering records.  Our efforts were displayed on a large screen.  This was a great help as what one of us had forgotten, another had remembered.  Little by little, facts fell into place.  We did not claim to be computer experts but we felt confident in using a computer.  That was until we were faced with a laptop with a built-in mouse pad which seemed alien after our own home computers.  Shelley’s patience never wore thin and with her encouragement we began to make headway.

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In the early months of 2016 we continued to meet at Shelley’s warm house and, sustained by her delicious coffee, we began a further stage in our volunteering work – research.   Boxes of items salvaged from Frederick Leach’s City Road workshops required emptying, and the contents needed cleaning and recording.  Brushing off years of dust, we uncovered numerous tins and jars containing varnish and paint, a wealth of ‘tools of the trade’ many bearing the names or initials of their owners which gave them a special significance.  There were pieces of jewelled-coloured stained glass, carved wood, books and journals.  Many of the items left us guessing as to where they came from and what their use could have been.  Hopefully, our research would provide a few answers.   We found a watercolour of battleships in a bay at sunset or sunrise (we weren’t certain) but it had the artist’s name and was dated 1915, there was a wooden box containing a jointed wooden figure wearing a cloth apron together with a small painted wooden table (a mechanical toy, may be), then there was a beautiful gilded wooden cherub head with wings which had ‘left bottom’ written on the reverse side.  Where did that come from?  Our research is only just starting but we look forward, with the help of Google and Grace’s Guide,  to unveiling a few mysteries.

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The David Parr House reopens for tours in April when it is warmer and so we shall also return to the house then to continue the recording.

Wendy, Audrey, Diane, Sue and Pam aka The Dusting Divas

I would like to take this opportunity to thank our wonderful volunteers for the time and effort they have spent on helping us at the David Parr House this year. They have tackled numerous tasks, often in difficult conditions, with unfailing good humour and enthusiasm. Their commitment and willingness to getting stuck in has made my job as volunteer co-ordinator so much easier and more fun. Thank you! Shelley Lockwood