Some of our regular blog readers may remember my previous blog post on the Museum Store audit. Since a year has passed since the start of the project, I thought I would add a quick update and share a few of the items that I have uncovered along the way.
During my first few weeks on the project, I worked on a number of shelves containing mailbags; a seemingly endless number of bags… of all shapes and sizes from small orange ones to large hessian sacks with bold, black stencilling. Among them were several bags commemorating notable dates, including this example marking a Coronation Day flight from Sydney to London on 2nd June 1953.
As with any new subject, when I first started at the BPMA back in 2011 there were many terms that meant very little to me – one example was the phrase ‘dead letters’. So you can imagine my amusement when the shelf I was auditing one afternoon held a real ‘Dead Letter’ box, which had come from a Post Office in Walton on the Naze. For me, one of the wonderful things about working directly with the collection is being able to tie elements of postal history to ‘real’ objects that can add that extra level of understanding.
I was particularly taken with this illuminated badge, partly because I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. That it had once lit up was clear – you could see the connecting wires at the end – but exactly how it would have been used had myself and Barry – one of the BPMA volunteers – puzzled.
We speculated whether it might have been attached to the front of a telegram messenger’s motorcycle, but that’s didn’t feel quite right. Duly audited, repacked and the badge returned to its shelf, I made a mental note to try and find out more. One of my colleagues in the Curatorial team said that he had previously seen a photograph with someone wearing a similar badge in the Archive. It was shortly after that I realised the answer was – quite literally – in front of me, as we have an enlarged version of the photograph on display at the Museum Store that I had been walking past each morning!
The badge was used by telegram messengers at mainline train termini, presumably to help you spot one on a crowded platform if you wished to send that last-minute telegram. It was great to see the item in use and even more satisfying to – at least partially – answer the question ‘What was this used for?’
A similar thing occurred when auditing a ‘TELEPHONE’ sign and metal bracket. That it was a rather lovely item was certain, but I did wonder what one might have looked like when it was in active use.
Whilst preparing a short talk for a local Rotary club in June, I came across my answer – a lantern slide image of a postman entering a K2 telephone kiosk, with a ‘TELEPHONE’ sign, like the one I had wrapped a few months previously, attached to a post on the left hand side. It can be easy to forget that museum objects had a working life, particularly if they are removed from their original context, so it was nice to have a visual clue as to how these signs would have been used.
A year on from the start of the project, I am delighted to report that the number of shelves audited and repacked has steadily increased to 290 shelves (or 57%) of our small mobile racking. This has been due in no small part to the assistance of volunteers Don and Barry, as well as the further help of my colleague Emma and the efforts of placement student Flora, who spent some time working at the Store during her student placement in April 2013.
Given the scale of the project, progress could occasionally feel misleadingly slow but the sight of steadily multiplying bays filled with pink tape shows that all that effort has produced a tangible result. More importantly, by assessing the condition of items and ensuring their packaging materials are suitable, we are ensuring that they are protected from their environment and remain in a stable condition to be enjoyed by visitors and researchers in years to come.
- Sarah Jenkins, Project Coordinator