Tara at Topsham
The research team visited Topsham Museum several times across 2019, meeting with volunteer collections manager Rachel Nichols and other volunteers who guided us through the history of the Museum’s Vivien Leigh collections.
Working at Topsham is a very different experience to researching within other museums and archives. The Museum is set in a beautiful part of the South West, contained within a period house transformed into public space. The house faces the estuary on The Strand, a narrow street of historic buildings following the water’s edge. A little further in the opposite direction can be found all of Topsham’s charms: its antique shops, bookstores, craft stores and numerous petite cafes.
We were reliant on the huge generosity of the voluntary staff who run the site who welcomed us to spend a few afternoons immersed in their collections which are housed in the attic rooms of the house. Volunteer collections manager Rachel Nichols pulled boxes of dress artefacts from beneath a beautifully decorated four-poster bed in another room of the house which contained more Vivien Leigh materials that we first imagined.
From these boxes emerged a variety of dress and fabric items, including hats, travel suits and dresses, and even a silk square used by Vivien Leigh to cover her undergarments at the end of the day (a story often repeated in biographies of the star).
In the attic collections we found a substantial amount of paper documents charting the history of Vivien Leigh’s presence in the Museum and her connection to the region. This included: information about accessions; copies of letters sent to and from Vivien Leigh’s daughter Suzanne Farrington; scrapbooks charting Vivien Leigh’s career made by her sister-in-law, Topsham Museum founder Dorothy Holman, and a great deal of information about figures who had previously not been familiar to use in the history of the Museum’s curation of Vivien Leigh artefacts.
Chief among these was Ann McMenamin, the Topsham Museum Steward who originally discovered the Gone with the Wind nightdress tucked away in a drawer in the Museum in the early 1990s. Ann McMenamin worked to produce new research about the dress and develop the Vivien Leigh exhibitions and holdings on site.
The photos collected here offer a sense of the unique atmosphere of the Museum and the unusual materials it contains. Click on the images for more information about how we worked with a range of artefacts, including capturing dress and other items for 3D modelling.