A year in review for #ExploreArchives | Library and Archives

It’s been a busy and varied year for the Museum’s Archives and Records Management service. There have been some staff changes, but our team of two staff (Kate Tyte and Ruth Benny) and some volunteers have still managed to answer 455 enquiries, host 133 visits and retrieve 955 items from the stores for our researchers to use.

Photo showing Kate Tyte seated at the back of the Archives with drawers open in front of her

Kate Tyte, Museum Archivist, working away in the stores

But just what are all these people researching? We’ve had enquiries about the Loch Ness Monster, the Challenger expedition, archaeological excavations, genealogy, meteorites, a botanical expedition to Peru in the 1950s, a model of a woolly rhinoceros, the origin and manufacture of glass jars for wet specimens in the 1800s, the Piltdown man hoax, UFOs (yes, you read that correctly) and taxidermied dogs.

PhD researchers are currently using the archives for projects on Walter Rothschild’s collecting practices, collecting human remains, Victorian attitudes to dinosaurs, and other interesting topics. The Museum’s scientists often need our help to find out about individual collectors and the history of particular specimens. Interpretation staff creating new displays and exhibitions, or writing articles and creating events, have been investigating the history of parts of the Museum that are changing: the external grounds project, Hintze Hall displays, Dippy and the blue whale skeleton. The press and public have also asked about the same areas.

Museum Visitor Assistant Gianluca said, ‘Everybody is talking about Dippy “retiring” [n.b. not retiring… going on a national tour!], but how many people know how, why and when it got where it is now in the first place?’ The archives service provided him with the answers to the questions, so he can answer all the visitors’ questions about Dippy.

A black and white photo from the archives showing the officers seated not the deck of the ship

Officers seated on the deck of HMS Challenger during the 1872 to 1876 expedition

Dan Green also found the archives very valuable this year, saying ‘As an Interpretation Developer the Museum archives have been a vital resource in researching my current project. It is a treasure trove of original correspondence telling fascinating stories of individuals, to amazing archive architectural drawings of our beautiful building.’

Regular archives researcher Karolyn Shindler often writes articles on the Museum’s history for the museum member’s magazine, evolve. She said, ‘Where would we be without the Archives? They contain the heart and spirit of the Museum. Through letters and papers the amazing personalities once associated with the Museum can be re-discovered, together with their passion for science, links to their specimens – invaluable for today’s scientists – and what they thought about their colleagues and acquaintances… It’s a phenomenal resource. A huge thanks to our terrific archivists Kate Tyte and Ruth Benny, and their predecessors, for their professionalism, enthusiasm – and forbearance!’

One of the most interesting enquiries I received this year asked if the Museum had ever held ‘Mrs Noble’s cage’. An 1842 article in the London Illustrated News describes how Mrs Noble (the wife of a ship’s captain), was shipwrecked and captured by the Chinese, who paraded her around as a curiosity in a small cage. The cage was eventually brought back to England as a macabre souvenir; it was confiscated by customs, and disappeared. Sadly there’s no record of the Museum having ever owned this, but if anyone knows any more about it we’d love to hear from you.

Image of the poster

Our poster for Science Uncovered this year

With the help of our volunteers we’ve also managed to catalogue 2,999 items from our retrospective cataloguing onto our database. These items are now all searchable on our online archive catalogue. One of the most interesting discoveries I made during this project relates to the recent past.

Back in the 1990s designers proposed that the Earth galleries should have a huge column of ice as their centrepiece. It’s probably a good thing the Museum selected a different option because our visitors love taking a dramatic escalator ride up through the gigantic model globe in the Earth Hall and a column of ice would probably have been a lot more difficult to maintain!

The archives have also been involved in some outreach activities including this year’s Science Uncovered event. 1,005 visitors came through the doors of the Earth Sciences Library to look at our archive and library displays, and chat to library and archive staff about the highlights of our collections. That’s a fifth of all the people who visited the Museum for Science Uncovered.

A blog about a year in the Museum Archives wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the amazing work done by our volunteers, as briefly mentioned above! This year we have had four incredible volunteers working in the archive: Daisy, Ceri, Rumi and Katherine.

Our volunteers have worked on an array of tasks in the past year: cataloguing important correspondence, learning cataloguing standards and techniques including how to use CALM for archives, writing research guides on popular topics such as Dippy and the Museum’s Mammals Hall, accessioning records into the archive from the modern record store, and repackaging archive collections. (N.B. CALM is the catalogue system that we use for the business archives of the Museum.)

Our two current volunteers (Rumi and Katherine) have been with us for several months now and have learnt lots about what it’s like to work in the archive sector. Rumi is a graduate who loves history and joined us as a volunteer to gain an insight into the field before applying for archive roles. Katherine recently finished her A-Levels and wanted to get some experience before going to university (she hopes to study Archaeology); she was keen to work in an important national museum and learn more about a career in the heritage sector.

Photo of two volunteers sitting at their desks smiling at the camera

Our volunteers, Katherine and Rumi

Rumi and Katherine have already catalogued a vast amount of early 20th Century palaeontology correspondence and have really enjoyed the challenge of reading difficult, scrawled handwriting. Rumi is cataloguing letters from 1917 and has particularly enjoyed deciphering ones relating to the infamous Piltdown man hoax!

We are taking part in the Explore Your Archives 2015 campaign all week. Follow #ExploreArchives and us via @NHM_Library on Twitter to see more great examples from the Museum Archives!

Written by Kate Tyte (Acting Museum Archivist and Records Manager)