Tag Archives: museum

Under the Bonnet of the BPMA’s Online Catalogue

Here at the BPMA we’re making major changes to the way our online catalogue looks – and works. There will be more details soon, but today I’ll show you three of our planned improvements:

1. Streamlined Catalogue Data

Matt's been working with two different versions of our catalogue database at once, to help get it ready for its new-look relaunch.

Matt’s been working with two different versions of our catalogue database at once, to help get it ready for its new-look relaunch.

Since February I’ve been fine-tuning the data and structure of the entire BPMA catalogue. I’ve refined old catalogue entries to bring them into line with our current descriptive standards. I’ve rearranged fields to free up space for exciting new content. And I’ve reformatted the way the date is written for every single record in the catalogue. That’s over 120,000 records. I had to use lots of computer tricks to make all these changes in just a few weeks, rather than editing the records one by one. A career in archives can be a really good test of your IT skills!

2. Enhanced Thumbnail Images

We're enlarging all our catalogue thumbnail images by up to 400% to bring you a better experience when using our online catalogue.

We’re enlarging all our catalogue thumbnail images by up to 400% to bring you a better experience when using our online catalogue.

About 25,000 entries in the catalogue have thumbnails: small photos or scans showing you what the object or record looks like. In 2014 there are more high-resolution computer screens and faster Internet speeds than even a few years ago. We want our online catalogue to have larger, brighter thumbnails than we’ve used until now. Web visitors will be able to see our collections in even more detail.

I’ve been hunting down every digital image of the BPMA’s collections, converting them into new thumbnails at a higher resolution and an increased size.  Wherever possible, our new images will be 700 pixels wide on their shorter side. In the past six weeks I’ve created thumbnails for 22,000 objects and records. Only a few thousand left to go!

3. Improved Online Experience

A sneak preview of the new browser panel from our online catalogue (layout subject to change). Each line is a link to a different level of the hierarchy.

A sneak preview of the new browser panel from our online catalogue (layout subject to change). Each line is a link to a different level of the hierarchy.

We’re currently finalising the new online catalogue interface. It’ll offer new ways to navigate our collections, including user tagging, and sorting search results by different criteria. You should also be able to browse the entire Archive by its hierarchy (example shown above), which will show how any one record relates to all the others. There’ll be all-new guidance pages for first-time users, which I’m writing this week.

This is my final blog post here, as I’m leaving the BPMA at the end of May. It’s a privilege to have been part of the BPMA’s amazing work.

–  Matt Tantony, Archivist (Catalogue Systems)

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!

New display panel to be installed at our Search Room this week

We have recently been working with a designer to produce a new display panel, which is due to be installed this week in the Archive’s entrance lobby. This will show visitors our vision for the new museum we are planning both at Calthorpe House – down the street from the Archive’s current location at the corner of Mount Pleasant – and in part of the old Post Office Underground Railway network, Mail Rail.

Artist's impression of how the Mail Rail exhibition might look.

Artist’s impression of how the Mail Rail exhibition might look.

As you may be aware, our museum collection is currently held in storage in Debden, Essex. Due to lack of display space public access to this collection, a wonderful array of historical post office vehicles, letter boxes, uniforms and equipment, is severely limited, and the new museum will allow us to showcase these fantastic treasures in the manner that they deserve. There will be an interactive exhibition space with five zones charting the development of the Post Office and Royal Mail over the centuries, as well as a dedicated learning space which will be able to hold 10,000 school pupils and teachers every year.

Proposed exterior of the new postal museum at Calthorpe House.

Visualisation of a proposal for the exterior of the new postal museum at Calthorpe House.

The new museum will also contain a state-of-the-art search room and archive repository with brand new research facilities, and we will also be opening a section of Mount Pleasant’s subterranean Mail Rail depot as a permanent exhibition space charting the history of moving the mail.

Next time you visit us, please take a moment to view the display and see what we have in store for the future, and do feel free to let us know what you think of our plans.

– Robin Sampson, Archives/Records Assistant

The Great British (Letter Box) Bake Off

The recent series of The Great British Bake Off (GBBO) has been something of a talking point around the BPMA offices: our staff are known for their love of cake so understandably Tuesday evenings have become sacred TV nights for a lot of us, as I’m sure they have been for you. Cake, in my opinion, forms a vital part of any museum – just think of all those museum cafes offering everything from scones to chocolate cake to fuel your visit around the galleries.

This does not mean that I was expecting to find a cake on the shelf in our Museum Store…but that’s exactly what I did find within a few months of my starting at BPMA, whilst working on the Wilkinson Collection. The Wilkinson Collection is a collection of letter box related items and this cake fitted that description as it was a Swiss roll iced and decorated in the form of a letter box.

Letter Box Cake found in the Wilkinson Collection.

Letter Box Cake found in the Wilkinson Collection.

Food of any sort, whilst welcome to feed the staff, is less welcome as part of the collection. Food encourages pests which can damage other parts of the collection, particularly the archive and textile collections which is why eating and drinking is limited to a specific area of our offices and not allowed in our Search Room. Add to this the fact that the cake was 20 years old (admittedly still in its packaging) and this one object was immediately a threat to the rest of the collection. As a result, we made the decision to dispose of this item.

However, in addition to the cake, we also found the recipe for it which you can find below! I’ve often been tempted to make this, the basic instruction of ‘Make a Swiss Roll in the usual way’ would fit nicely into any technical challenge on the GBBO, whilst the final result would, I’m sure, be a showstopper. If anyone out there would like to take up the challenge of making this letter box cake do send us your photos!

Letter Box Cake

Swiss Roll
Apricot jam
Red colouring
Almond icing
Chocolate butter icing

Make a Swiss Roll in usual way* and brush sides with warmed jam.
Add red colouring to all but a small quantity of the almond icing and roll out thinly to a strip long enough to cover the roll, making join at back.
Mould some almond icing to form top and flap of box, and attach these with jam and butter icing.
Cut a square of the uncoloured almond icing and stick it on to the front.
Using chocolate butter cream and a plain writing nozzle, make marks to represent times of collection, etc.

*There are several on the BBC website, including a chocolate roulade by GBBO’s Mary Berry.

– Emma Harper, Curator

If you’ve been inspired to bake the cake, here are some pictures of pillar boxes to inspire you as you ice it.

Venture to our Museum Store on 24th August to find out more about Mail Rail…

On Saturday 24th August we will be holding an open day at our Museum Store in Debden, just 20 minutes from the hub of Stratford, London.

Behind its unassuming façade, the Museum Store houses a wonderful collection of the BPMA’s larger exhibits, each with a story to tell. As part of the Hidden Treasures 2013 event come and find out about a hidden strand of postal history – the Post Office Underground Railway.

Loading a Mail Rail locomotive at the platform, taken from the tunnel, 1969. (POST 118/CT00357)

Loading a Mail Rail locomotive at the platform, taken from the tunnel, 1969. (POST 118/CT00357)

The Post Office Underground (London) Railway, or Mail Rail as it was later called, opened on 5 December 1927 and ran under the streets of London transporting mail across the capital from sorting offices to railway stations, 22 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Postmen loading bags from conveyor into containers to use on the Post Office underground railway. (POST 118/381)

Postmen loading bags from conveyor into containers to use on the Post Office underground railway. (POST 118/381)

One of many unique features of the system is that it was driverless and as such was hailed by the press as a ‘Robot Railway’. The railway played a pivotal role in the transportation of mail in London and continued, rarely interrupted, until 2003. This was due in no small part to the great skill and knowledge of the engineering and maintenance teams. The BPMA holds three rail cars in its collection, one being the only known complete example of the original car used in 1927.

1930s Mail Rail train after conservation.

1930s Mail Rail train after conservation.

Visitors will have a chance to see these and other objects relating to the railway and hear about the history of the Post Office Underground (London) Railway through our short Curator-led tours. Throughout the day you can also explore the rest of our stored collection, as well as take part in activities, enjoy some refreshments in the form of tea and biscuits, and watch film footage all connected to the fascinating Post Office underground railway (except perhaps the biscuits…).

There will also be a chance to see the BPMA’s most recent touring exhibition on The Great Train Robbery, which took place on a Travelling Post Office 50 years ago this August. The exhibition looks at the events of the robbery itself, as well as the vital role played by the Post Office Investigation Branch in the subsequent investigations, as reflected in our Archive.

Travelling Post Office bag apparatus. (POST 118/5744)

Travelling Post Office bag apparatus. (POST 118/5744)

There’s plenty for all the family and the event is free for all, so please do drop in throughout the day between 10am and 4pm. Full details of the event are available on our website.

– Emma Harper, Curator and Hannah Clipson, Community Learning Officer

Mail Rail: A Photographic Exhibition is currently showing at Royal Mail Archive, Clerkenwell, London. Entry is free.

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 Celebration Event

Last Thursday we hosted our fourth annual BPMA’s Volunteer Celebration Event. The event is held as a small token of our gratitude to the wonderful and giving folk who kindly donate their time, knowledge and energy to assist us in our work.

This year’s roster is made up of 29 magnificent folk who have been providing invaluable assistance across a range of jobs, including:

  • Rehousing material in preparation for moving the archive to Calthorpe House
  • Surveying London war memorials and checking the accuracy of existing data- especially valuable given next year’s WW1 centenary
  • Updating the information in our databases with their own specialist knowledge
  • Aiding with condition checks of our textile collection
  • Cleaning, listing and rehousing papers from the Solicitor’s Office so that they can be safely moved and catalogued
  • Collating and analysing the results of an audience research project, so that we are better able to understand the reach of our work in general
  • Providing a watchful eye and compiling monthly reports on our Travelling Post Office exhibition at the Bressingham Steam Museum and Gardens in Norfolk
  • Managing the on-site shop at the Museum Store in Debden
  • Sorting and cataloguing material that has since become the POST 136: Parcel Services series
  • Exploring the stories behind our photographic collections and the events they document, and adding to our Historypin channel
  • Digitising, cataloguing and rehousing a series of glass plate negatives of portraits of Post Office officials from the 16th-20th century
  • Rehousing colour transparencies from the1960s to the 1990s and re-sorting items that have previously been misfiled or inaccurately described
  • Helping develop workshops for primary schools
  • Auditing and repacking the Museum Store
  • Assisting with the conservation of Mail Rail cars

This year’s event featured BPMA Director Dr Adrian Steel presenting our volunteers with a certificate of appreciation and gift bag. Some of those that attended are pictured below with Adrian.

Don Bell’s interest in vehicles is very handy when it comes to identifying boxes of miscellaneous vehicle parts! Before joining the audit project in September 2012, Don also volunteered with Conservator George Monger on the conservation of the Mail Rail Cars.

Don Bell with Adrian Steel.

Don Bell with Adrian Steel.

Flora Fyles is an MA Museum Studies student who was able to put her theoretical training into practice whilst assisting with a condition check of some of our textile collection, which sped up the overall process no end.

Flora Fyles with Adrian Steel.

Flora Fyles with Adrian Steel.

Tom Norgate acquires and mounts new philatelic material – this year he has created pages relating to iLSM Processed Mail and Post & Go.

Tom Norgate with Adrian Steel.

Tom Norgate with Adrian Steel.

Ana Paula Hirata Tanaka is a qualified architect, but this was the first time she had worked with architectural plans in a conservation context – approaching them as fragile items to be carefully, and minimally handled, rather than as ‘working’ drawings.

Ana Paula Hirata Tanaka  with Adrian Steel.

Ana Paula Hirata Tanaka with Adrian Steel.

We hope that those who were able to attend enjoyed themselves, and that everyone who has generously helped us out over the past year has an idea of how much they are appreciated.

We couldn’t do it without you!

– Deepa Sebastian, Team Support Officer

Visit our website to find out how to become a BPMA volunteer.