Cottonian Collection projects

Since receiving Designation status in 1998, the collection has been the subject of various projects.

  • Designation project
  • Furniture project
  • Expert Eye
  • The Cottonian – University of Plymouth Research Initiative
  • Plymouth’s Greatest Gift; Unweaving the Cottonian Collection
  • Collaborative Doctoral Award: Reading Plymouth’s Cottonian Bequest

Designation project

Black circular logo with Designated Outstanding Collection around the edge and a capital DMost significantly, a number of core activities were undertaken between 1999-2002 to improve awareness and access to the collection.

During 1997 the government introduced the Designation scheme, initially administered by the Museums & Galleries Commission and now transferred to the Arts Council. The aim was to recognise collections and museums of outstanding importance in non-national museums in England. The Cottonian Collection was designated in 1998.

The Designation Challenge Fund provided financial support for various projects, all aimed at increasing public access to the collection. The projects included cataloguing and documentation, photography and digitisation and resulted in enhanced access to the collection both in gallery and online.

Furniture project

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery was awarded £49,945 from the Arts Council England’s Designation Development Fund to carry out some much needed research and conservation work on the historic furniture.

The furniture dates from the 17th and 18th centuries and stores thousands of the collection’s volumes and prints. This project was the first phase in a series of improvements to the gallery in which the collection is displayed.

In addition to conservation work, the funding also enabled research to be carried out on the pieces by noted furniture historian, Dr Adam Bowett. An illustrated catalogue, free online resources, improved documentation, gallery interpretation and public events were all produced on the back of his findings.

  • Find out more about the work undertaken by visiting our blog.
  • Read the results of our findings in our Cottonian Furniture Guide:

Cottonian Furniture Guide 2014 [PDF – 12.8MB] – this is a large file and could take a long time to download.

Expert Eye

As part of our Research Initiative partnership with University of Plymouth, we asked staff from the University to select one object in the Cottonian Collection and interpret its significance for the Museum’s visiting public, both in the context of the collection and beyond, into contemporary debates on art, literature and history. Subjects included William Gell’s Pompeiana, and Sir Charles Eastlake’s Materials for a History of Oil Painting.

A Tale of Two Texts, on display in 2012

Dr Annika Bautz (Lecturer in English), chose Sir William Gell’s book Pompeiana, which was first published in London in 1817. The Cottonian Collection holds the first and second editions of this book, the first volume of which was bought by William Cotton III shortly after his return from his Grand Tour of Italy. Pompeiana was a lavishly illustrated archaeological account of excavations at the Ancient Roman city by the greatest living expert on Pompeii.

Though Pompeiana itself was far too expensive to be read by more than the elite, this work became the basis for Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s immensely popular historical novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). It is through Bulwer’s text that Pompeii took hold of the Victorian popular imagination. The novel sold in huge numbers and inspired songs, opera, paintings, book illustrations, performances in the circus. The exhibition shows how the story worked in its cultural context to produce many of the myths and clichés still familiar to us today: decadent Romans, virtuous Christians and lion-fighting gladiators.

Find more information in the handout below.

Expert Eye – A Tale of Two Texts [PDF – 157KB]

The Cottonian – University of Plymouth Research Initiative

We have worked with faculty and students at University of Plymouth’s Centre for Research in Humanities Music and Performing Arts (HuMPA) to investigate and better understand the history of the Cottonian Collection. Recent collaborations have included:

  • Research and publication on Sir Joshua Reynolds’ early life and career, with reference to the Reynoldsiana contained within the Cottonian Collection
  • Women, Sex and Words. Students on the University’s Eighteenth Century Studies MA curated a display of eighteenth century literature and prints from the Cottonian Collection to accompany our exhibition Women in Art
  • The Expert Eye (see section above)

Plymouth’s Greatest Gift; Unweaving the Cottonian Collection

Young Explainers Gallery Session at Plymouth City Museum and Art GalleryYoung Explainers was an annual programme run by Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery and in connection with University of Plymouth. The programme brought together students from a wide range of disciplines to curate their own project; from Art History, English, History, Fine Art, Classical Civilisation, Business Studies and Graphic Design.

During 2013 their project looked at the Cottonian Collection. Their role was to rediscover the bronzes, casts, and oil paintings from the collection: researching to uncover information; compiling two gallery guides; delivering four talks concerning the themes of the collection; creating a children’s event, and a hosting launch event.

Find out more about the background to the Cottonian Collection, its oil paintings, sculptures and mythological stories with these free downloads originally produced by the Young Explainers in 2013 for the Museum and Art Gallery.

Download the MP3 files to hear more about the Collection, or read the accompanying transcripts which also provide additional information to the MP3s.

Mythology in the Cottonian Collection transcript by Olivia Davies and Eleanor Barker. [PDF – 186KB]

Oils in the Cottonian Collection transcript by Katherine Neusten. [PDF – 191KB]

Plymouth’s Greatest Gift transcript by Victoria Smith. [PDF – 178KB]

Sculpture in the Cottonian Collection transcript by Kristin Annus and Eleanor Barker. [PDF – 133KB]

Collaborative Doctoral Award: Reading Plymouth’s Cottonian Bequest

In May 2013, we successfully collaborated with University of Plymouth to apply for and win a coveted Arts & Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) – one of only 31 awarded nationally.

Entitled ‘Reading Plymouth’s Cottonian Bequest: Manuscripts, Books and practices of Collection 1740 – 1863’, the CDA was  an exciting new development of our two organisations’ joint Cottonian Research Initiative, which aimed to investigate and understand the holdings of the Nationally-important Cottonian Collection.

The CDA funded a post-graduate student over three years to research and publish a PhD thesis focused on the collection. This was the first time that such a sustained period of research has ever been undertaken on the collection and it was the start of closer working between the Arts and Heritage Service and the University.

The research findings also fed into an exhibition held at the Museum in 2015. Through this new research, we wanted to show a different view of the Cottonian to the one that was on display at the time.