Tag Archives: curator

#AskaCurator: Day in the life of a BPMA Curator

This Wednesday Curator Joanna Espin will be available to answer any questions you might have on Twitter for #AskACurator day! In today’s blog, she gives us an idea about what it means to be a BPMA Curator.

The main purpose of my job is to prepare the museum collection to move to our new museum.

Opening a box

Opening a box

I arrive at about 8:30am and my first task is to check the work progress spreadsheet, which shows all of the shelves in the repository and is colour coded to mark which shelves are ready to move and which ones are yet to be completed.  We are 93% of the way through housing aisles B-F and need to be at 100% by the end of the year.

Aisle F

Aisle F

This is my first job as a Curator and it is a fantastic opportunity to handle and house an amazingly diverse collection. I have re-housed so many interesting objects, including original evidence from the Great Train Robbery. I follow a strict procedure for auditing the collection, re-housing objects and updating their location.

Before it has been prepared for the move.

Before it has been prepared for the move.

As I am still quite new to the role, a part of the day may be dedicated to training. I have recently received manual handling training, and can proudly say that I can move a telephone kiosk when called to do so!

I moved to my current role from the BPMA Philatelic team and I spend one day a week with the Philatelic department, assisting with preparations to move the stamp artwork collection to a new storage facility. Our next task is to tie approximately 600 boxes with pink archival tape, to ensure the security of the boxes during the move.

I finish work at about 5pm. At the weekend I go home to Yorkshire and spend some time in the countryside with my border terrier.

Chester outside of the BPMA

Chester outside of the BPMA

Have any questions for me or the rest of the curatorial team? We would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below and we will answer you on Wednesday.

-Joanna Espin, Curator

Ask A Curator

Once again BPMA staff will be participating in Ask A Curator Day, which takes place on Twitter this Wednesday. Ask A Curator Day is an opportunity for members of the public to ask curators anything they like.

Tweet our curators this Wednesday.

Tweet our curators this Wednesday.

Four members of our Collections team will be available to take your questions between 10am and 2pm on 18 September.

10am-11am – Vyki Sparkes, Curator
Vyki has been a Curator at BPMA since 2009. You may remember her podcast on The Post Office and the Blitz, and her blog on the lioness that attacked a mail coach.

11am-12pm – Chris Taft, Head of Collections
Chris oversees BPMA’s Archives and Curatorial teams, and is particularly knowledgeable about Mail Rail. You may remember Chris’ blogs detailing how rolling stock from Mail Rail was retrieved and conserved.

12-1pm – Julian Stray, Senior Curator
Julian has an encyclopaedic knowledge of letter boxes, postal vehicles and much much more. His blog detailing how he restored an Air Mail pillar box is one of our most popular of all time.

1-2pm – Joanna Espin, Philatelic Assistant
Joanna joined the BPMA team at the start of this year, and has already established herself as one of our top bloggers. Her recent blogs looked at how royalty and literature have been depicted on British stamps, and why France’s latest Marianne stamp was controversial.

Ask our Collections team questions on Twitter on Wednesday 18 September 2013 by following @postalheritage and using the hashtag #AskACurator.

Of even more boxes and reams of pink tape…

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.

Coronation Day Flight Mailbag. (2007-0057/9)

Coronation Day Flight Mailbag. (2007-0057/9)

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.

Dead Letters Box from Walton on the Naze Post Office. (2002-572/3)

Dead Letters Box from Walton on the Naze Post Office. (2002-572/3)

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.

Illuminated Badge. (E6709)

Illuminated Badge. (E6709)

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!

Telegram Messenger wearing an illuminated badge. (POST 118/0424)

Telegram Messenger wearing an illuminated badge. (POST 118/0424)

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?’

Telephone sign. (OB2001.39/2)

Telephone sign. (OB2001.39/2)

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.

Lantern slide with postman, kiosk and sign. (2011-0443/6)

Lantern slide with postman, kiosk and sign. (2011-0443/6)

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

New acquisitions

A few weeks ago we were very fortunate to have a visit from someone wishing to donate a group of material to the BPMA museum collection. The group of material related to a Thomas William Ernest May, the donor’s father. We have subsequently been able to trace something of his Post office service through the Archive records. May joined the Post Office in 1910 as an Assistant Postman and just a couple of years later, in 1913, was appointed as a Sorter at North District Office in Islington, very quickly transferring back to his old role as postman but at the North West District Office. Just one year later with the outbreak of the Great War as it was known, Thomas, like many other Post Office workers, joined the 8th Battalion London Regiment known as The Post Office Rifles at the age of 20. He later returned to work at the Post Office, rising to the rank of Assistant Superintendent by the time of his death in 1953.

The objects donated to the BPMA relate both to May’s time in France with the Post Office Rifles as well as his Post Office work. Amongst these are several very personal objects, including a green leather bound pocket journal given to May before he embarked for France in 1915. It includes a map of Flanders, various helpful French and German phrases, a calendar for 1915 and different methods of working out your position in day and night: all to aid the soldier should he get lost or separated from his battalion. The journal itself is written by Thomas in pencil and covers his posting to France as well as his thoughts and feelings in the midst of campaigns on the front line. We are hoping to work on a project to scan and transcribe this journal to chart May’s time during the war, so do look out for that on this blog in the coming years, as well as many other items relating to the Centenary of the Great War.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

There are also photographs of May with other members of the Post Office Rifles, both in official uniformed shots as well as more informal photos of them with their brooms and rifles. May received the 1914-1915 Star Medal and the British War Medal, both campaign medals routinely given to those who served and they are also included within the collection as is the slightly more unusual Silver War Badge. The Silver War Badge was given to soldiers who had to return from the war due to injuries, the badge states ‘FOR KING AND EMPIRE SERVICES RENDERED’. It was to be worn on civilian clothing and was proof that they had been honourably discharged and meant they could avoid being given a white feather for supposedly shirking their duty.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

As previously mentioned, May returned work at the Post Office following his experiences in the war and the final object of this blog dates from 14 March 1929 when he was still at the North District Office. It is a large hand-illustrated card in the form of a postcard and shows a man pushing a child in a pram on the front in a street scene with a cinema and dancing hall in the background. The caption reads ‘You will have to cut all that out now! Daddy’ and features ‘Hearty Congratulations and Best Wishes from NDO’ on the birth of his daughter, who has now generously donated these objects to BPMA.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

This is such a wonderful group of personal items relating to Thomas Ernest William May and we are very grateful to his daughter for donating them so that Thomas’ story can be added to the others told through our collection.

– Emma Harper, Curator (Move Planning)

Mail Rail Trains Conservation Project

Our project to conserve two of the Mail Rail trains in our collection is now almost complete; the photographs accompanying this blog give some idea of the work done. Today we present an interview with one of the volunteers, Don Bell, who has helped complete this work and who has been trained up by George Monger, the conservator employed to do this work.

The 1930s train prior to the conservation work, showing lots of surface grease.

The 1930s train prior to the conservation work, showing lots of surface grease.

Why did you get involved with the BPMA as a volunteer?

I used to work for Royal Mail as a Delivery Office Manager (DOM) and originally became aware of the Museum when working as a DOM in Tottenham where the old Museum store used to be. I was asked to get some Posties together to pose with pillar boxes from the collection to promote the 2002 Pillar Box stamps issue.

As DOM at Winchmore Hill I also became involved in volunteering and charity work further, including the setting up of a local fundraising charity.

I have also always been interested in the museum and vehicles in particular.

Don Bell working on one of the train units.

Don Bell working on one of the train units.

What does your role as a volunteer involve?

Cleaning and preparing the Mail Rail vehicles and applying a layer of wax to the trains to act as a protective barrier. I also help care for few of the other vehicles in the collection supporting the work of the BPMA curators at the Museum Store.

The 1980s train is being worked on with assistance from Don Bell.

The 1980s train is being worked on with assistance from Don Bell.

Have you learnt anything particularly surprising or interesting?

It was surprising to see the different colours of paint underneath the top coat on the Mail Rail trains, these coming from different eras, including paintwork for the film Hudson Hawk on one of the trains. [Mail Rail trains were re-painted as underground Vatican mail trains for the film]

When you volunteer you go in different directions, I am interested in the vehicles and would rather get my hands dirty than volunteer in admin – with this project, anything I can learn about conservation is a plus.

George [The Conservator employed by BPMA on this project] opened my eyes – he explained that the covers over the electric units would have got very hot in the vehicles working life and the paint bubbled. My original instinct was to clean it all off but George explained that you should preserve what’s left – not everything has to be pristine but rather should reflect the vehicles as they were.

Detail of a break wheel of one of the trains after cleaning.

Detail of a break wheel of one of the trains after cleaning.

What is your involvement in the Mail Rail story?

I can remember helping out from time to time as overtime at the W1 Delivery Office, sometimes you got called down to help out and then would get roped into helping load the trains.

The 1930s train after the conservation work has taken place and a special conservation-approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent further corrosion.

The 1930s train after the conservation work has taken place and a special conservation-approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent further corrosion.

What is your favourite object?

All of the Post Office vehicles, having worked in deliveries for all of my working life starting as a Telegram Messenger and continuing for 40 years.

I think there is so much potential if you could take the vehicles out on the road! The Mobile Post Office would be great for fundraising and advertising the Museum.

A filmed record was made during the conservation process in the BPMA's Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

A filmed record was made during the conservation process in the BPMA’s Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

Interview by Claire English

The BPMA would like to thank The PRISM (Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material) fund, administered by Arts Council England, and the AiM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Grant Scheme for kindly donating towards the Mail Rail conservation project.

If you are interested in volunteering for BPMA please visit the Volunteers page on our website for further information.

Ask A Curator

On Wednesday three members of our Curatorial team will be taking over our Twitter account as part of Ask A Curator Day.

Our curators manage our existing collections and actively acquire new objects to add more detail to the story of the British postal service. The objects within our collection include letter boxes, stamps, postal vehicles, paintings, hand stamps, archive documents and much more.

The three curators tweeting will be:

11am-1pm – Sarah Jenkins, who works with our collections including the recently digitised lantern slides.

1-3pm – Chris Taft, our Senior Curator. He has recently been working on our Mail Rail project to preserve rolling stock from this fascinating underground railway.

3-5pm – Emma Harper, who is organising the curatorial aspects of our move to a new home at Calthorpe House, and has previously worked with the Wilkinson Collection of pillar box memorabilia.

Chris Taft poses with Mail Rail rolling stock recovered from the underground tunnels at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in London.

Chris Taft poses with Mail Rail rolling stock recovered from the underground tunnels at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in London.

If you have any questions for our curators tweet them on @postalheritage this Wednesday. Don’t forget to include the hashtag #AskACurator.

Open Day with the Post Office Vehicle Club

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Post Office Vehicle Club (POVC) whose members document, preserve and operate a wide range of postal and telephones vehicles. On Saturday 15th September there is a rare opportunity to see some these vehicles exhibited alongside items from our own collection at an Open Day at our Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

The Museum Store is where we house our larger exhibits, including letter boxes, sorting equipment, furniture and vehicles. Until we are able to provide a full museum experience at our new home at Calthorpe House the Museum Store offers the only opportunity to get up close to our collection. We run regular guided tours of the Store but these are very popular and only a few tickets are available for the remainder of this year. The Open Day will offer a great opportunity to see items from our collection as well as some of the vehicles preserved by POVC members.

Morris series Z telephone utility in original wartime colours with blackout markings.

Morris series Z telephone utility in original wartime colours with blackout markings.

On display will be 18 vehicles from POVC members including a wartime Morris series Z GGY 20 telephone utility (in original wartime colours, complete with blackout markings), the unique Commer Avenger/Harrington mobile telegraph unit SLO 24, a newly restored Minivan mailvan PTV 231M, and a Bedford HA mailvan KCJ 759P. A selection of Morris Minors and BSA Bantam telegram motorcycles are expected, while two Morris JB mailvans from the 1950s are promised along with a restored Dodge Spacevan television detector van CNJ 423T in arctic blue livery.

Dodge Spacevan television detector van in arctic blue livery.

Dodge Spacevan television detector van in arctic blue livery.

The Open Day with the Post Office Vehicle Club is a free event to which all are welcome. For the enthusiast there will be illustrated presentations from POVC members and our Curator Julian Stray, whilst children will be able to enjoy a range of family-friendly activities.

Pillar boxes at our Museum Store in Essex.

Pillar boxes at our Museum Store in Essex.

For further details of the event and information on how to get to the Museum Store, please see our website.

Mail Rail Conservation Project Update

Some of you may remember from previous blogs, beginning with coverage of the retrieval of two of the trains from the Post Office Underground Railway tunnels below Mount Pleasant, that the BPMA are currently working on an exciting project to restore our three ‘Mail Rail’ train carriages.

We are pleased to report that conservation work on the first of the Mail Rail trains held by the BPMA is now almost complete. The whole train has been be closely inspected, cleaned where relevant and treated with a special wax to prevent any further deterioration.

Train prior to the majority of the conservation work taking place showing lots of the surface grease.

Train prior to the majority of the conservation work taking place showing lots of the surface grease.

A special conservation approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent future corrosion.

A special conservation approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent future corrosion.

A similar programme will now be commenced on the 1980s train. Like the 1930 train this will be worked on from one end to the other with much of the surface grime and grease being removed to allow the vehicle to be displayed safely. The surfaces however will not be restored to an as new condition and the trains will continue to reflect their working history.

The Post Office Railway was renamed Mail Rail in 1987 and some of the trains were branded accordingly such as the 1980 train held by the BPMA.

The Post Office Railway was renamed Mail Rail in 1987 and some of the trains were branded accordingly such as the 1980 train held by the BPMA.

The next challenge is to consider how we tackle the final train in the Store, the original 1927 rail car. This rail car is much smaller than the others and raises some interesting questions. Up until now we have very much been conserving, rather than restoring the trains. However with this train it has been heavily restored in the past with some original features removed. There is also a question as to the correct colour this train should be painted. Presently it is green but in early use it was probably a grey colour. In order to decide what level of work to do on the train we must first undertake some further research.

The 1927 four-wheeled car is now going to be given a full assessment and research undertaken to help determine the best course of action with this and whether to undertake a full restoration or simply conserve what is there.

The 1927 four-wheeled car is now going to be given a full assessment and research undertaken to help determine the best course of action with this and whether to undertake a full restoration or simply conserve what is there.

This is where the benefit of the BPMA holding the Royal Mail Archive alongside the museum collection becomes invaluable. Over the coming weeks we will be using documents in the Archive to try and gather as much information about these trains as possible. Once we have been through the research we can consider what approach to take, whether to restore the trains to something like it was in the past, or to simply conserve what we now have, much as we have done with the other two trains.

The Post Office Railway train has motive units at each end and were connected by a central main body that would have carried the mail.

The Post Office Railway train has motive units at each end and were connected by a central main body that would have carried the mail.

Once this research phase is complete we shall have a much clearer ideas of the best approach to take and will understand better the time-scales.

We would like to thank supporters of this project, Arts Council England through the PRISM Fund, the AiM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Scheme, and a number of individuals who help to make this work possible.

Chris Taft – Senior Curator

Join the Mail Rail Mailing List and be the first to know what’s going on underground! Contact our Fundraising & Development Officer, Claire English: claire.english@postalheritage.org.uk.

Supported using public funding by Arts Council England

Mail Rail open day

Final preparations are now being made for the special open day taking place on Saturday 21st April 2012 at the BPMA’s Museum Store at Debden. The open day, which will start at 10am and run throughout the day till 4pm is themed around the Post Office underground railway, or Mail Rail as it became known. During the day while the rest of the Store will be available to visit special focus will be made on the story of the narrow gauge, driverless, electric railway that moved mail under London from 1927 to 2003.

Post Office underground railway - train waiting at loop crossing. (POST 118/386)

Post Office underground railway - train waiting at loop crossing. (POST 118/386)

The BPMA now holds three rail cars in its collection, one being the only known complete example of the original 1927 car. Two of the rail cars are being actively conserved and there are plans for the third. During the event on Saturday there will be chance for visitors to witness conservation first hand and to speak to the conservator undertaking the work. BPMA curators will also be on site to answer questions about the railway and there will be some formal talks and tours about the network and also the pneumatic rail system that preceded Mail Rail. The only known survivors of the 19th century underground system will also be on display.

The 1927 car above ground in the Mail Rail yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London. The car was used to transport mail on the Post Office underground railway from its start in 1927.

The 1927 car above ground in the Mail Rail yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London. The car was used to transport mail on the Post Office underground railway from its start in 1927.

Throughout the day there will also be film showings and also activities for visitors of all ages. Others with an association with the railway will also be on site including one of the engineers who works on the railway maintaining it today.

There will also be a display of smaller artefacts from the BPMA’s extensive collection and many images from the Archive. Some more modern images of the network today will also be on display as part of an art photography project currently being undertaken by Jonathan Bradley Photography.

The event is free for all and is drop in throughout the day. Full details of the event are on our website.

Chris Taft – Curator

Great British Railway Journeys and Mail Rail

Anyone who watched this evening’s Great British Railway Journeys will have seen the Royal Mail’s underground postal railway featured. In the episode presenter Michael Portillo visited the Post Office (London) Railway, as it was originally called, and was given the rare opportunity to take a short ride on one of the trains. Today Mail Rail, as it is more affectionately known, remains closed and is not normally open to visitors, but due to the interest in the network, and to try and give as many people as possible a flavour of the railway, the BPMA guided Michael on his journey across this part of London.

A Mail Rail Train, circa 1990s

A Mail Rail Train, circa 1990s

The postal underground railway, despite closing down in 2003 after many of the stations it served above ground were no longer operating, and after the Travelling Post Office stopped running from the mainline London stations, holds great fascination for many. For this reason the BPMA are currently working to conserve three of the original railway cars in its collection, and are also planning on hosting a special Mail Rail themed open day at the BPMA Museum Store in Debden, near Loughton. The one day event, aimed at all the family, and specialists and non-specialists alike, will take place on Saturday 21st April 2012 from 10am till 4pm. Throughout the day BPMA staff will be on hand to help guide visitors round a series of events and presentations about the railway.

Mail Rail removal from Mount Pleasant, May 2011

Mail Rail removal from Mount Pleasant, May 2011

There will be an opportunity to listen to talks about the history of the railway, and its predecessor, the pneumatic railway, with a chance to see the only two pneumatic rail cars known to exist from the 1860/1870s London trials. There will also be film showings including never before seen film of the railway with its driver-less electric trains running for the final time. Curators will also be available to guide visitors around the Museum Store and explore some of the objects related to the railway in the BPMA collection, including the three rail cars that are undergoing or about to undergo conservation. During the day there will also be activities aimed at younger visitors.

Booking is not required but larger group wishing to visit are encouraged to contact the BPMA in advance to make their visit easier.

There is lots more information about the Post Office (London) Railway on the BPMA website and further details about the event will also appear on our website nearer the event.

– Chris Taft, Curator

The BPMA thanks The Arts Council England PRISM Fund, and the AIM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Scheme for their support of the Mail Rail Conservation project.