Tag Archives: curatorial

Volunteer Week: Curatorial Volunteer Muriel

Here at the BPMA we are lucky to have some wonderful volunteers who provide invaluable assistance to us, helping catalogue items, assisting with conservation projects and preparing collections for the move to The Postal Museum. One of our Curatorial Volunteers, Muriel Bailly, gives you a sneak peak at what it’s like to volunteer at the BPMA.

While packing uniforms today I found a 1988 5p coin in a pocket!

While packing uniforms today I found a 1988 5p coin in a pocket!

Since September 2014 I have been volunteering at the BPMA, assisting Curators Emma Harper and Joanna Espin packing, auditing, recording and labeling the collection, ahead of the museum’s move in 2016.

Over the past months I have had the chance to gain hands on experience working with a wide variety of unique objects including prints, uniforms and evidence from the 1963 Great Train Robbery.

Pink ribbon= objects audited and freshly packed = Productive day

Pink ribbon= objects audited and freshly packed = Productive day

By working with such a varied collection, I have become familiar with conservation issues and procedures for different materials and have gained experience in object handling which will be crucial for my career development.

I work with all sorts of objects like these handstamps which I need to repack.

I work with all sorts of objects like these handstamps which I need to repack.

I am currently working full-time as a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection and hope to pursue a career in curating. The Curatorial Volunteer opportunity at the BPMA was a rare opportunity to gain hands-on, practical experience of collection management in a very competitive sector.

I also help clean objects - have you ever seen the top of a telephone kiosk?

I also help clean objects – have you ever seen the top of a telephone kiosk?

Volunteering has already helped me gain more responsibilities in my job where I was recently given responsibility for the handling collection and I am confident it will lead to future career development.

If this has piqued your interest then visit the volunteering page of our website to see a list of our current volunteer vacancies.

Behind the object: the seemingly, uninteresting GPO truncheon

In this post, we asked Curator Emma Harper to talk about her favourite object. You will be surprised about what she came up with!

Asking a Curator to pick their favourite object is a bit like asking a child what they’d like to be when they grow up, in most cases the answer will change from day to day!

Should I choose the earliest letter box in our collection used in trials on the Channel Islands; the pneumatic rail car that was used to test the idea of using an underground railway to move the mail; or perhaps our recent acquisition of the diary of Post Office Rifleman, Thomas May, written when he was fighting in France in 1915.

Truncheon issued to GPO staff, 1848 (Curator Emma's favourite object)

Truncheon issued to GPO staff, 1848 (Curator Emma’s favourite object)

All of these are fascinating objects which help to illustrate the many interesting stories that our collection can tell. Instead however, I have chosen a truncheon. Now this may seem a lot less interesting than the items I’ve listed above but it is often the unassuming, apparently ‘boring’ items that can surprise us and this item, in my opinion, does just that.

A runner-up for Emma's favourite object: 19th century pneumatic railcar.

A runner-up for Emma’s favourite object: 19th century pneumatic rail car.

It is a fairly plain wooden truncheon with the handle painted white and the rest painted black. If you look closer however it not only has ‘GPO’ [General Post Office] inscribed on the back but also bears the coat of arms of the City of London, Queen Victoria’s cipher and a date ‘10/ APRIL/ 1848’. 1848 has become known as a year of revolutions and this particular date in April was the date of the Chartist’s mass demonstration on Kennington Common and procession to present their third National Petition to Parliament.  The Chartist movement was named after the People’s Charter which demanded political and electoral reform and in particular called for all males over the age of 21.

William Edward Kilburn - View of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common.

William Edward Kilburn – View of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common.

It was feared by the government that the Kennington Common rally would spark revolution not just in London but across the country and that government organisations such as the General Post Office could well be targeted. As the Illustrated London News stated on 15 April 1848: ‘the speeches of those gentlemen [the Chartists] had led the public to anticipate some serious disturbance of the peace of the metropolis, the Government and the civil authorities had made some extensive and well-arranged preparations to suppress effectually any violation of order or tranquility, should such be attempted.’ As a result, the government issued GPO staff with truncheons, including the one now in our collection, in order to protect themselves and Post Office property.

In the end the day passed off with relatively few violent outbreaks and, as far as I know, no direct attempts on the GPO.  While it may never have seen action, I hope I have shown how even the plainest of objects can add to our knowledge and understanding of history and our collection.

-Emma Harper, Curator

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

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

Volunteer Flora and the ‘box of doom’

My name is Flora, and I’m an MA Museum Studies student at the University of Leicester. Over April, I spent some time at BPMA, helping to audit and pack objects in preparation for the move.

Flora auditing and packing the museum collection.

Flora auditing and packing the museum collection.

I spent most of the time at Freeling House, delving into the archive downstairs. This included badges, ties, postcards, letters, publicity leaflets, and lots of other things. The postcards were particularly interesting, especially trying to make out the messages on the back of some of them. Less fun was counting a large number of duplicate badges for disposal – the total was 666 (as well as a small saxophone badge and a clip that looked as if it was from a pair of dungarees), so I think that definitely qualifies as a ‘box of doom’. We also found an old sign ‘In Case of Alarm of Fire’, with separate instructions for male and female employees (women were supposed to file out in pairs – I wonder what happened if there was an odd number?!).

Two days a week were spent out at the Museum Store in Debden, which is home to the larger (and often more unusual) objects. I can’t quite decide on my favourite; it’s a tie between the model of the HMS Queen Mary (complete with tiny moving lifeboats), parts of the Travelling Post Office (including a water boiler and food heater), or the Post Office ‘L’ Plates – I had no idea that the Post Office used to teach their own drivers.

Model of the HMS Queen Mary.

Model of the HMS Queen Mary.

One day involved packing lots of vehicle parts, helpfully listed as ‘assorted unknown parts’; luckily, another volunteer with an extensive knowledge of cars was on hand to help us identify what we were actually packing. There were definitely a few more challenges out in Debden – lots of oddly shaped objects that, just as you thought you’d finally wrapped them up, would burst back through the acid-free tissue paper and make a bid for freedom. I also got to dust a couple of post boxes and post vans which was fun – leading to complaints from my mum about my reluctance to dust at home.

I also spent two days down in the corner of the archive checking the old uniforms for signs of moth activity. There were a few false alarms (including a set of disintegrating shoulder pads in one of the jackets), but luckily, no signs of infestation (I did find one jacket with a few worn patches, but decided that moths probably haven’t yet developed the intelligence to eat in a completely straight line!). The range of uniforms hiding in the corner was astounding: I found Danish uniforms (both town and country, and summer and winter – clearly the Danes like their uniforms), as well as Canadian and Swiss ones. There were also Foreign Office uniforms, from when the General Post Office won the contract to dress some departments of the Civil Service as well as their own employees. It was amazing (and slightly terrifying) to be touching fabric that was over one hundred years old in some cases, but it was all remarkably well preserved. I also never realised quite how heavy overcoats were, especially the thick woollen ones.

Flora condition checking the uniform collection.

Flora condition checking the uniform collection.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here, and it’s been a great introduction to the practical side of collections documentation and management (rule number one: the collections database CALM is anything but!). I’d also like to say a huge thank you to Emma and Sarah for putting up with me (and for the plentiful supply of tea, biscuits and occasional cake out at Debden!)

See our Volunteers page to find out about volunteering at BPMA.