Tag Archives: preservation

Media Matters in the Archive

Last month on the BPMA blog, I wrote about how we catalogue archives. Since then I’ve primarily been working in the areas of the Archive concerned with Post Office media campaigns, PR and communications (POST 108 and POST 118). In this month’s cataloguing update I’ll tell you about some of the challenges presented by this material.

Matt contemplates the range of media types to be catalogued.

Matt contemplates the range of media types to be catalogued.

The picture above shows a sample of (mostly duplicate) archives from the boxes I’m cataloguing in the POST 108 backlog. As you can see, these archives aren’t just paper! I’m cataloguing VHS training videos, audio tapes of press interviews, and reams of promotional publications sent out to staff, business clients, and the press. There are also CD-ROMs containing digital documents. The reel you can see resulted from a 1980s Royal Mail programme to microfilm thousands of paper reports from earlier years, and I’ve got a box of nearly 60 reels to catalogue!

All these relatively new media are at odds with the traditional image of archives as being old and paper-based, but they’re archives all the same. At the moment we still have the technology to access information held on obsolete media like VHS tapes, but how will they be accessed in the future when no one is making devices that play them? In the longer term, it may be necessary to migrate audio/video/digital archives to new media. For now, though, I’m concentrating on cataloguing these hundreds of archives as rapidly as possible, ready for them to be opened in line with the 20-year rule.

A big task for me in the coming weeks is to catalogue several hundred files produced during the publication of Courier, the Royal Mail Group staff magazine that’s still published today. These files are being transferred from the POST 108 backlog to POST 118, joining related archives already on the catalogue, and the work is being ably assisted by our new volunteer Leanne, who joined us in September.

The files contain all the photographs collected during production of each monthly Courier edition in the 1970s and 1980s. The photographs don’t merely illustrate high-level business stories; they were also collected to accompany articles on local news from all over the UK. Best of all, the files include the images that were rejected for publication. Thanks to the Archive, they have escaped oblivion.

A sample of uncatalogued photographic files from the Courier archives.

A sample of uncatalogued photographic files from the Courier archives.

The immediate priority is preservation. As you can see from the image above (a handful of files from one of seven crates!), the photos were originally stored in batches inside office dividers. Some sets of prints, like the one on the bottom left, are still in their original glassine envelopes. This isn’t optimal for long-term preservation – photos can stick together over time – so I’ll need to transfer them to individual polyester pockets stored within acid-free archival folders.

There are cataloguing challenges, too. While many photographs were taken by Post Office staff, many more were simply bought from third-party agencies. It’s not always possible to determine copyright ownership, as some prints are unlabelled. My job as an archivist is helped by the slips attached to many prints, identifying their subjects and the Courier editions for which they were selected. The bottom-right print in the photograph above is an example. Unfortunately, standard practice was apparently to date images by month… but not by year! Ultimately, even after cataloguing is complete, it may be necessary to cross-reference these photographic files with the published Courier editions held in POST 92 to exploit this resource fully.

Repackaged and catalogued Courier photographs. This portrait (POST 118/14028.jpg) shows Dorothy Fothergill, appointed Director of the London Postal Region in 1971.

Repackaged and catalogued Courier photographs. This portrait (POST 118/14028.jpg) shows Dorothy Fothergill, appointed Director of the London Postal Region in 1971.

With hundreds of archives in the POST 108 backlog that need special packaging and cataloguing, there’s a mountain of work to do! Once it’s finished, though, it will enrich the picture of the Post Office’s more recent history. This is just one part of the ongoing cataloguing work being undertaken by colleagues and volunteers at the BPMA.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

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.

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.

BPMA Open Afternoon

Join the staff and Friends of the British Postal Museum & Archive at our annual Open Afternoon on Tuesday 6 December 2011.

Interior of Travelling Post Office

Interior of Travelling Post Office, 1935 (POST 109/375)

See a showcase of our fascinating collections, take part in a range of activities, talks and tours, and find out more about who we are, what we do and what we’ve been up to in the last year. Events will run from 1pm until 8pm, and everyone is welcome to drop in at any time and share a mince pie with us!

Activities include…

Hands-On Family Research: Was your ancestor a postie? Our Archive Search Room Team will show you how to research your family tree.

The Post Office in Pictures exhibition – for the first time in London! View the iconic photographs of the Post Office at work in the community sourced from the BPMA Archive.

Behind the Scenes Tours: Discover the treasures of the Archive – from GPO Posters to philatelic gems – led by our Archive & Curatorial Teams.

Tour of our Archive collections which fill over 2.5 miles of shelving and cover social, postal and design history from 1636 to today – at 2pm, 4pm and 5.30pm.

Tour of the Philatelic Studio led my our Curator, Philately at 3.30pm.

Booking welcome; subject to availability.

The History of the Christmas Card: Learn more about the origin of this custom with material provided by our Cataloguing team.

Preservation Surgery: Ask for advice from our conservator on caring for your own collection of family history records, postal history, stamps or photographs – bookings welcome!

Learning Activities Sample Sessions: Find out how our Access & Learning team engage school children and young people in our postal heritage with a range of activities and resources.

Mail Trains: Watch the classic Auden-Britten film production Night Mail (1936), talk to our curators about the Travelling Post Office and join a talk about the history of delivering the mail by rail at 7pm.

Still from Night Mail

Still from Night Mail

For more information and for booking a place on a tour or the Preservation Surgery, please call 020 7239 2037.

Two new ways to get involved with the BPMA!

by Deborah Turton, Head of Access & Development

A significant part of the British Postal Museum & Archive’s work is ensuring the ongoing preservation of the collections we hold. Our Archive alone fills over two and half miles of shelving, containing items including leather-bound minutes of Post Office business, staff records, postal maps, Post Office architectural plans, plus things you wouldn’t expect – such as telegrams from the sinking Titanic and evidence from the Great Train Robbery – all demonstrating the wealth of Britain’s postal heritage.

To enable postal enthusiasts to get more involved in our work and to gain an insight into our ongoing preservation and conservation programmes we are today launching our BPMA virtual gifts scheme. The aim of the scheme is to better demonstrate what is involved in maintaining our collections and to give our audiences the opportunity to play a part in making that work happen. Our first gifts focus on two current preservation priorities: stamp artwork and GPO posters.

Preserving stamp artwork

Stuart from the Cataloguing team scans unadopted artwork from the 1994 Greetings stamps

Stuart from the Cataloguing team scans unadopted artwork from the 1994 Greetings stamps

Behind every stamp issued lies a range of early stage, final and un-adopted designs, trials, and essays: precious yet often delicate pieces of original art. The BPMA has an ongoing stamp artwork programme dedicated to preservation mounting, digitally scanning, and cataloguing this unique artwork. A £25 philatelic virtual gift will not only be a unique gift for philatelists, but will help support our efforts to preserve this material for generations to come.

Preserving posters

Tom Eckersley poster fridge magnet

Please pack parcels very carefully, designed by Tom Eckersley

The BPMA is undertaking a similar programme of work for our collection of over 6,000 posters. From the 1930s onwards the Post Office became a leader in the field of poster design, commissioning some of Britain’s leading artists and designers: Tom Eckersley, Jan Lewitt and Edward McKnight Kauffer to name but a few. Publicity campaigns used posters to communicate now familiar messages including ‘Post Early’, ‘Pack Your Parcels Carefully’, and ‘Always Remember To Use Your Postcode’.

Many of our posters are fantastic examples of Twentieth-Century graphic design and deserve to be better known. To achieve this, the BPMA needs to ensure they are protected against future wear and tear and to create digital scanned reproductions that can be used to promote awareness of the posters through educational outreach and commercial licensing. A virtual poster gift of just £30 covers the cost of protectively housing a poster and the production of a high resolution digital scan of one of these much loved items.

A small ‘Thank you’

Each BPMA virtual gift comes with a greetings card to which the sender can add a personal message. Also included is a small thank-you in the form of either a free fridge magnet based on a Tom Eckersley poster design or a BPMA Commemorative cover – plus the knowledge that the gift is supporting Britain’s postal heritage for generations to come.

BPMA eBay for charity

eBay for Charity

eBay for Charity

Another way for enthusiasts to get involved is through the new BPMA eBay for charity page. We know that a lot of philatelic collectors trade on eBay so we are hoping they will think of the BPMA when they do so. Anyone selling items on eBay can choose to donate a percentage of the final selling value to a charity of their choice. Plus supporting charities entitles sellers to a free credit on their basic insertion and final value fees. Buyers also have the option of making a donation to their favourite charity at the checkout.

All BPMA eBay for Charity listings will also get a blue and yellow ‘eBay for Charity’ ribbon logo alongside the item in search results and the BPMA’s mission statement and logo will appear in the listing – all highlighting the seller’s personal commitment to preserving and promoting access to Britain’s postal heritage. Listings will also get extra visibility through the eBay for Charity pages. The eBay for charity web pages explain how it all works and list the full range of good causes the scheme supports.

We are always looking for new ways to involve people in our work preserving and celebrating Britain’s postal heritage and are always pleased to hear from those keen to support our work. Further ways to get more involved with the BPMA are included in the Support us section of our website.