Remarkable Lives issued today

A new set of stamps issued today another selection of remarkable individuals from the realms of sport, design, economics, heroism and the arts. The set commemorates individuals born 100 years ago this year. Notable figures include a footballer, actors and molecular biologists, to boast a few.

Remarkable Lives First Day Cover

Remarkable Lives First Day Cover

Dr David Lawrence, writer, researcher, architectural historian and lecturer at Kingston University and designed by Purpose, the Filler Card provides a brief look at the ten remarkable individuals featured on the stamps.

Kenneth More, 1st class.

Kenneth More, 1st class.

Joe Mercer, 1st class.

Joe Mercer, 1st class.

Joan Littlewood,1st class.

Joan Littlewood,1st class.

Dylan Thomas, 1st class.

Dylan Thomas, 1st class.

Barbara Ward, 1st class.

Barbara Ward, 1st class.

Alec Guinness, 1st class.

Alec Guinness, 1st class.

Abram Games, 1st class.

Abram Games, 1st class.

Roy Plomley, 1st class.

Roy Plomley, 1st class.

Noorunissa Inayat Khan, 1st class.

Noorunissa Inayat Khan, 1st class.

Max Perutz, 1st class.

Max Perutz, 1st class.

The Special Stamps are available from 25 March online at www.royalmail.com/remarkablelives, by phone on 08457 641 641 and in 10,000 Post Offices throughout the UK.

Mail Rail gets the green light

Last week we received some very exciting news with regard to our plans for the new museum as Islington Borough Council approved our planning application to develop a stretch of the old Post Office Underground Railway – Mail Rail – into a unique subterranean ride.

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Waiting in the Dark ©Jonathan Bradley 

The announcement resulted in a great deal of media coverage for the BPMA including pieces on the TimeOut, Daily Mail, Wired and BBC News websites.

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Staff working on Mail Rail 

The decision means that, as part of a visit to The Postal Museum, due to open in central London in 2016, visitors will be able to explore the hidden world of Mail Rail under Mount Pleasant through an interactive exhibition and a 12-15 minute subterranean ride through 1km of the original tunnels, following the same route that much of the nation’s mail took for nearly 80 years from 1927-2003.

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The BPMA’s vision for Mail Rail 

The Mail Rail ride is part of the BPMA’s project to create the Postal Museum which will reveal the extraordinary stories of British social, communications and design history through the universally iconic postal service. By opening up almost 400 years of records and objects from the reign of King Charles I to the present day, The Postal Museum will reveal unusual and exciting episodes from British history. It will showcase curious items including a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, original evidence from the Great Train Robbery trial, a Victoria Cross and flintlock pistols used to defend Mail Coaches in the 19th Century.

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delivering…The Postal Museum 

We are still waiting on the outcome of an application for £4.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a decision on which is expected in May this year, which will allow us to start construction work on the Postal Museum, now including the Mail Rail ride. This is obviously a very exciting time for us here at the BPMA and we look forward to sharing our progress with you over the coming months. 

The remarkable (postal) life of Tony Benn

The BPMA is saddened to learn today of the passing of Tony Benn. Benn served as Postmaster General under Harold Wilson 1964-66 and was instrumental in establishing our predecessor the National Postal Museum, which closed in 1998. There are many things he will be remembered for including the building of the Post Office Tower, introduction of the Post Bus, creation of the Girobank and overseeing the introduction of postcodes. Possibly the most famous and controversial action, however, was his attempt to remove the Queen’s head from stamps.

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Tony Benn as Postmaster General

This revolutionary idea came about as part of a now infamous partnership with the artist and designer David Gentleman. In 1964 Benn launched an appeal for ideas to widen the scope of commemorative stamps to, in his own words, “celebrate events of national or international importance, to commemorate appropriate anniversaries and occasions, [and] to reflect Britain’s unique contribution to the arts and world affairs”.

In responding to this appeal Gentleman raised with Benn the issue of removing the Queen’s head, as he felt that its inclusion often caused problems for designers in terms of space for their work. This appealed to Benn’s socialist leanings and he encouraged Gentleman to submit his designs without the monarch.

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Example of a stamp with the Queen’s head

Both Benn and Gentleman fought hard for this radical change to stamp design suggesting that the Queen’s head be replaced with the words “Great Britain” or “U.K. Postage” as can be seen on examples such as Churchill design below. However by the end of 1965 the Queen, having initially entertained the idea, decided in no uncertain terms that she wanted her head to remain on stamps.

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The Churchill stamp design without the Queen’s head

A compromise was put forward to address Gentleman’s initial issue of space that resulted in a new small cameo silhouette, created from Mary Gillick’s sculpture for pre-decimal coinage, being included on pictorial stamps instead of the full Queen’s head image. This gave designers much greater leeway and changed the form, appearance and subject matter of stamps for over 20 years, allowing for a wider variety of images to appear including the first British Christmas stamps designed by children.

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With new small Queen’s head image

Gentleman had won his battle, but for Tony Benn his socialist idea of removing the Queen’s head off of stamps was never realised. He had however challenged the system, and as a result implemented the first major change to stamps in many years.

How will we record the printing plates, stamps and rollers? Brief introduction to 3D imaging technologies

A couple of weeks ago, we introduced our 3D scanning project, Stamp printing plates, dies and rollers: from vault to view, in partnership with UCL. Mona Hess, Research Associate and PhD candidate at UCL, is the 3D specialist for this project. Mona has been working with museums for the past 10 years, creating three-dimensional digital models and physical replicas through 3D printing (such as these busts of Darwin and James Watt). She is interested in opening up archives and collections, giving visitors access to hidden objects. In this post she will introduce the different techniques we will be using to capture some of our hard-to-photograph philatelic material.

The BPMA’s philatelic collection goes far beyond stamps. It also includes plates, stamps and rollers, all of which are difficult to photograph. Many of these objects, especially the plates, rollers and dies can’t be on display to the public. There are conservation and security issues that prevent them from coming outside of the vaults. Despite this we still want philatelists, researchers, enthusiasts and visitors to be able to see and interact with these objects digitally.

Mona Hess face to face with the 3D digital model of Mrs.Flaxman

Mona Hess face to face with the 3D digital model of Mrs.Flaxman by the British artist John Flaxman, who used to be a professor at the UCL Slade School of Art. Copyright Mona Hess, UCL CEGE.

The creation of these 3D digital objects can be produced by ‘3D imaging’. We will be using “non-contact optical surface imaging”. The surface of the object will be recorded from all angles, and the model can be turned, zoomed and panned, almost as if you would have the real object in your hand.

For creating three dimensional images of printing plates, dies and rollers we will apply and combine different technologies:

  • Photogrammetry and ‘structure from motion’ is based on photography. We will produce a set of images while walking around the object. Usually the camera settings, background and lighting does not change while we do that. A software programme is then able to compute the common points to create a three-dimensional surface of the object with the colour, called ‘texture’. To be able to apply a scale to the object we need to include some known lengths in the photographs. This method is versatile with regards to object type imaged the equipment is very mobile, and the equipment affordable.
Photogrammetry of an Egyptian Cartonnage Mask from the UCL Petrie Museum of Archaeology.

Photogrammetry of an Egyptian Cartonnage Mask from the UCL Petrie Museum of Archaeology. Copyright Mona Hess, UCL CEGE.

An Egyptian is placed under the PTM/ RTI dome at UCL with 64 different light positions.

An Egyptian artefact is placed under the PTM/ RTI dome at UCL with 64 different light positions. Copyright Mona Hess, UCL CEGE.

  • Low cost 3D laser scanning can use sensors usually intended for gaming, like the Xbox Kinect. These sensors have inbuilt range sensing with human gesture recognition (natural user interfaces) that allow for objects to be captured using infrared signals. From initial tests we know that this technique is able to record the shiny surfaces of the printing plates. The information will give an overall picture, but not enough detailed information of the surface.
A low cost 3D sensor is used to 3D scan a Sepik Yam mask from the UCL Ethnographic Collection.

A low cost 3D sensor is used to 3D scan a Sepik Yam mask from the UCL Ethnographic Collection. Copyright Mona Hess, UCL CEGE.

  • Therefore we will also use High resolution 3D colour laser scanning on selected objects. The Arius 3D colour laser scanner is installed fixed in an air-conditioned room and used for high-quality digitisation of museum objects.  While this will give us a very detailed surface geometry, all objects will need to come to UCL.
The high-resolution 3D colour laser scanner at UCL is set up by Mona for the scanning of a relief of Mrs Flaxman by the British artist John Flaxman, who used to be a professor at the UCL Slade School of Art.

The high-resolution 3D colour laser scanner at UCL is set up by Mona for the scanning of a relief of Mrs Flaxman. Copyright Mona Hess, UCL CEGE.

As you might have gathered, the printing plates, dies and rollers will be difficult objects, so multiple techniques may be enlisted for each object. We will have to combine recording methods to find out how we can represent the fine engraving used in the dies and the overall geometry of the plates.

We would like to invite you at the end of the project to get your hands on the digital 3D models and tell us what you think about them. It is important for us to know how detailed these objects should be and depending on how you want to use them (i.e. on your mobile phone) the resolution can be lower.

If you are interested to know more about the technology, please visit Science of 3D where we explain the science behind our optical 3D imaging.

Stay in touch with me by following @Mona3Dimaging .

-Mona Hess, UCL

For the time being, we would love to hear your thoughts on this project. How would you use these 3D objects? Would you like to see them in an exhibition? We look forward to hearing what you have to say!

From Vault to View: Object Selection

Earlier this year we announced  our 3D scanning project with UCL to capture objects from our philatelic collection. Over the past month, the Philatelic team has been selected just a few objects from its vast collection to scan. Joanna Espin, our Philatelic Assistant, introduces the objects in this post.

We have a large collection of three dimensional objects to do with the production of postage stamps; ranging from metal dies and transfer rollers, to printing plates. There are also three dimensional objects to do with the design of stamps and other aspects of postal operations. We have chosen a range of objects, of various sizes and materials, which are important to understanding postal history.

The objects selected are some of the most treasured in the Philatelic collection, and concern the history of the Penny Black, Machin Head and letterpress printing.

Wyon Medal, 1838

The Wyon Medal was the inspiration behind the engraving of Queen Victoria featured on the Penny Black.

Wyon Medal front

Wyon Medal front.

Wyon medal reverse

Wyon medal reverse.

‘Old Original’ Penny Black Die, 1840

The ‘Old Original’ Penny Black die, from which all Penny Black plates and most Penny Red plates were made.

‘Old Original’ Penny Black Die, 1840.

‘Old Original’ Penny Black Die, 1840.

Elizabeth II Machin head plaster cast, 1966

Arnold Machin intended his portrait of Queen Elizabeth to allude to the Penny Black: both were designed from a relief portrait and both monarchs are wearing the George IV State Diadem.

Elizabeth II Machin head plaster cast, 1966

Elizabeth II Machin head plaster cast, 1966

Machin Stamp roller, 1968

This object’s shiny surface has prohibited successful digital rendering. 3D scans would, in connection with the Machin curved plate, explain recess printing.

Machin Stamp roller, 1968

Machin Stamp roller, 1968

Machin curved plate, 1968

The 1968 high value Machin £1 stamp recess printing plate.

Machin curved plate, 1968

Machin curved plate, 1968

Edward VII Die, 2d Tyrian Plum, 1910

Almost 200,000 sheets of this iconic stamp were printed yet only one was ever used, as King Edward VII died before the stamp was issued. We plan to scan the die and box.

George V Die for striking leads. 1½d postage British Empire Exhibition, 1925

This object incorporates interesting shape, detail and colour. It connects with the 1924 Wembley slogan die and letterpress printing.

George V Die for striking leads. 1½d postage British Empire Exhibition, 1925

George V Die for striking leads. 1½d postage British Empire Exhibition, 1925

Downey Head ½d Skin, 1911

The first definitive stamps of King George V’s reign were based on a photograph taken in 1910 by W. & D. Downey. The Downey Head skin we plan to scan is an important part of the history of letterpress printing.

Downey Head ½d Skin, 1911

Downey Head ½d Skin, 1911

Edward VII embossing punch, 1902

Successfully capturing the detail and embossing on the punch would enable effective demonstrations of embossing technique.

Flintlock Pistol, 1816 – 1841

This object demonstrates the diversity of the BPMA Philatelic collection. A 3D rendering of the pistol will highlight the engravings on the end of the barrel, which state that the gun was for official GPO mail coach use.

Flintlock Pistol, 1816 - 1841

Flintlock Pistol, 1816 – 1841

Aerial Handstamp, 1911

The world’s first scheduled airmail service began in 1911 as part of the celebrations for the coronation of King George V. This handstamp, commemorating the event, has wide historical appeal. The object’s shape and material make it ideal for 3D scanning, as reflective surfaces are notoriously difficult to capture.

Aerial Handstamp, 1911

Aerial Handstamp, 1911

Slogan Die, Wembley, 1925

Issued as part of the celebrations marking the British Empire Exhibition, this slogan die has wide historical appeal and, due to its shape and material, is another interesting object on which to experiment 3D scanning techniques.

We will initially test various techniques, a process expected to take several hours for each object, and compare the results to existing two dimensional photographs. The processes to be employed are highly experimental and will shape recommendations for a standardised approach to 3D imaging. The results will enable ground-breaking access to treasured objects in the Philatelic collection and, ultimately, audiences will virtually handle important postal history objects.

Stay tuned next week to find out about the different techniques we will be using!

-  Joanna Espin, Philatelic Assistant

Time to take stock – Curatorial Stocktake 2014

Each year the curatorial team at the BPMA block out time in our diaries to focus on auditing our collections and collections management activities. This year we undertook what we call our ‘stocktake’ over two weeks in January.

The cornerstone of stocktake is our audit, which takes three forms:

  • The ‘random’ audit – this is auditing 25 objects which are selected through the use of random number generators from nearly 20,000 catalogue records
  • A detailed audit of one particular group of objects within our collection
  • An oral history audit

Undertaking these audits ensures that our collections management procedures, such as location and movement control, are properly implemented throughout the rest of the year.

Our vehicle collection at our store in Essex.

Some of the larger objects at our store in Essex.

For the random audit, two members of staff have to go to each location recorded on the catalogue record, and check that the object is as in situ, and as described. These objects can be in any of our storage sites, or out on loan. The objects this year ranged from umbrellas to handstamps. Despite one location discrepancy, all objects were located, and our collections management system CALM was updated with improved descriptions.

Lamp Boxes

For the detailed collections audit, this year was the turn of the lamp boxes – in previous years we have audited our silverware, medals, and weapons.

Here, every lamp box catalogue entry had to be checked against the corresponding objects in our store. We took all of our lamp boxes down from their shelves in the museum store so we could measure and weigh them, and examine in more detail.

Curator Emma measures the lamp boxes

Curator Emma measures a lamp box aperture

This audit highlighted that one box had been incorrectly numbered – that is two catalogue numbers had been given to the same box some years previously. We carefully checked our accessions register and earlier collections listings and consulted with our collections sub-committee before reaching this conclusion. We also identified some outstanding disposals of lamp boxes that were duplicates of items already in the collection, and in poor condition. These had been marked for disposal after a thorough collections review several years ago, but had not been progressed any further. These boxes will now be disposed of in accordance with our deaccession and disposal procedures.

Lamp boxes at our store in Essex.

Correctly labelled lamp boxes at our store in Essex.

We re-ordered the boxes so they are chronologically stored, relabelled each one with its number so it is clearly identifiable, and gave them a clean too. We have three lamp boxes on display in our Museum of the Post Office in the Community which will be audited soon on our next visit.

Oral Histories

Did you know that we also actively collect oral histories, related to the history of the mail service? We also check these as part of stocktake, donning our headphones to check they are located correctly and that no strange gremlins have corrupted the files.

Other work undertaken in stocktake included:

  • A review of approximately 100 items collected in 2010 from the now closed Twickenham delivery and sorting office, making disposal and accession decisions
  • Ensuring all collections records accurately reflected disposals of furniture undertaken in the past
  • An audit of all loans out; that is loans we make to other places, and updating of loan records and calendars
  • Preparation of the hard copy 2013 Accession Register, a requirement of SPECTRUM standard, by our UCL Museum Studies intern
  • Checking all of our removal slips to make sure that any discrepancies in locations (between where CALM says the object is, and where it actually is!) is identified and recitifed

With all of the other essential demands on our time during this fortnight – from returning loans such as the mail coach, to delivering talks and articles and facilitating filming requests – stocktake was a very busy time!

-Vyki Sparkes, Curator

A Project Archivist Farewell

I’ve just completed my final task as Project Archivist: appraising and cataloguing a vast deposit of records on the Army Postal Service (APS). The files focus mainly on the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS) and its successors, and date from before the First World War to the 1970s. I’ve catalogued nearly 500 files, volumes, photographic collections and plans.

Matt presents a small selection of the Army Postal Service files he's been cataloguing.

Matt presents a small selection of the Army Postal Service files he’s been cataloguing.

There have been challenges along the way. I’ve had to battle an onslaught of Armed Forces vocabulary:  being able to tell a sitrep from a sapper was essential, and woe betide an archivist who confused the DAPS with a WOLO.* My geographical knowledge has also been tested: the deposit included files on British and Allied Forces’ postal arrangements in India, North Africa, the Middle East and Far East, with many locations identified by their old colonial names. The most unexpected item was a manual from an Army post office in Kiribati!

The deposit’s greatest strength is its rich insight into the APS during the Second World War and its aftermath. Virtually every theatre of operations is covered. There are Directorate-level files on postal arrangements during the Siege of Malta (POST 47/1034), the Battle of Madagascar (POST 47/871), the Dunkirk evacuation (POST 47/925) and the D-Day preparations (POST 47/747), to name just four. The handover of postal and telecommunications services to the government of newly-independent India is also documented.

Public confidence in the APS was vitally important during the War. This letter concerns one of many press visits to postal facilities organised by the Armed Forces and the Post Office. [Extract from POST 47/1028.]

Public confidence in the APS was vitally important during the War. This letter concerns one of many press visits to postal facilities organised by the Armed Forces and the Post Office. [Extract from POST 47/1028.]

The files also hold lots of personal stories about the careers of REPS officers. POST 47/780, for example, partly records a falling-out between the APS staff at HQ First Army and Allied Force HQ during the Tunisian Campaign and the interception of ‘artistic’ postcards that were being received by First Army soldiers. And if you ever wanted to know how many bugles were held by the Post Office Cadets at the Home Postal Centre in Nottingham in 1947, POST 47/942 will tell you.**

A list of band parts on loan to the Post Office Cadets in 1947, attached to a letter concerning a shortage of bugles. [Extract from POST 47/942.]

A list of band parts on loan to the Post Office Cadets in 1947, attached to a letter concerning a shortage of bugles. [Extract from POST 47/942.]

The APS files have been catalogued in POST 47 and 56. The deposit also contained large amounts of non-postal material on the REPS more generally. These have been catalogued as a separate ‘REPS collection’. All these files will appear on our online catalogue in the coming months.

This is the end of my year-long, grant-funded Project Archivist post. I’ve catalogued over 1,500 files from all over the Archive in that time. But I’m not leaving the BPMA! Instead, I’m regenerating into a new incarnation as a catalogue systems archivist. I’ll be doing lots of data-processing work and beta-testing our shiny new online catalogue before it launches later this year. Watch out for an update from me on this blog in the Spring.

- Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

* Sitrep = situation report; sapper = the Royal Engineers’ equivalent to a private; DAPS = Director Army Postal Service; WOLO = War Office Liaison Officer.

** Two (one substandard).