Trip to Cliffe Castle

July 17th, 2019

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Faceless images of previous inhabitants draw in the gaze of visitors at Cliffe Castle in Keighley. The large stained-glass window in which they feature is placed in the golden entrance hall, shedding light over the staircase and into the building. It was first created in the late 19th century, when the Butterfield family called the castle their home. They lived here for some one hundred years, until Sir Frederic, the last male heir, died in 1943. In his will, he ordered the destruction of the window, and as it seems any documentation of it.

Two Wednesdays ago, the volunteers of the Sunny Bank Mills Archive went on a trip to this Yorkshire estate. The outing was part of the West Yorkshire Archive Accreditation Scheme, an initiative that brings together volunteers of different sites. After starting with some tea, the visit included a talk and a tour.

We were led through the gardens, the house, and not least the golden entrance hall, where this past spring a new window was placed. The lack of documentation meant there was no way of knowing exactly what the window had looked like. It was decided that the new window should acknowledge this fact and invite questions about what had happened to it. The design, therefore, became a detailed composition of family members and acquaintances, but left out any of the Butterfields’ facial features.

As Rachel explains, conservation has changed a lot over the years. Where the preferred option used to be to show exact copies – albeit imagined or not – of what things used to look like, the trend nowadays seems to be transparency. Faults and gaps are no longer hidden. The majority of history is made up out of question marks. If the job of archives and museums is to explain what is known about the past, then surely this should include showcasing what isn’t known as well.

Here at Sunny Bank Mills Archive, the work that’s being done is mostly preservation rather than conservation. Documents and objects are being cleaned and protected, so as to ensure their existence for the future. No big decisions on restorations of stained-glass windows will be needed to be made here. But deciding how to present the collection by means of putting a select few items on display can be just as important in evoking an image of the past. This is the lovely task ahead of us here at Sunny Bank Mills Archive, as we discover more and more about the collection we have here: to share yet a bit more about the reality of history with the people that come here.

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