Museum of London – caring for our history

I am so excited, I have just had the most amazing morning being shown round the Social and Working History Collection at the Museum of London store in Hackney. I am applying to be accepted onto a collection care course which begins in 2014. Having spent time volunteering at the Museum Of London earlier in the year I couldn’t wait to go back for more as I had such a brilliant time. The collection care course would fit in really well with my other volunteer role at Bromley Museum and give me the skills to work on their collection.

On my return to Eagle Wharf Road it was no surprise to come across knowledgeable, passionate and friendly staff and volunteers ready to share their expertise backed by Arts Council funding. The morning began with a brief introduction to the course details and programme. 10 weeks of basic conservation cleaning and collections care, aiming to give museum staff and volunteers the skills and confidence to undertake basic collections care within their own museums. Emphasis was placed on understanding when not to attempt cleaning of objects and the clear message this course does not make you a full fledged conservator! It is more about giving you the skills and confidence to make decisions about how to treat artefacts whilst always understanding your own limitations and when to call in a professional.

The 10 weeks begin by looking at the ethics behind collections care which underpins all the work the Museum of London undertakes. The important role condition reports play in the assessment of objects and how to safely handle objects, often steps that are taken for granted. The programme then progresses covering how to treat different materials, wood, metal, ceramics, and paper. We were introduced to a couple of volunteers who had completed a trial project and they talked us through their end of project objects. They had chosen these items and decided their own treatment plan which they then got to carry out and present their work and methods to the group. It highlighted the problems encountered from composite materials and decisions that need to be made on appropriate cleaning techniques.

The first object we were shown was fascinating, a wooden cash register with brass fixtures, a plaque and glass panels. This highlighted approaches to cleaning that I had never thought about before. Cleaning an object sympathetically to reflect its age and use, not just to look as shiny and new as possible. If an item was in everyday use it should be cleaned so as to reflect that. The next object a typewriter, with dust and dirt removed, but ink spots remain to highlight it was a working item and to keep the links to the life it has lived. I had also never considered how decisions on cleaning techniques need to take into consideration where the object is going to end up. Back to the store? Out on display? Is it a working object? Thought processes I had not really considered before.

All this was a taster of what was to come, a tour of the Social and Working History Collection. I cannot describe what an amazing Aladdin’s cave we viewed. Bays and bays of objects from humble kitchen utensils, toasters, and food mixers that graced our grandmother’s kitchens to advertising signs, typewriters, a hansom cab, a juke box, milliners blocks, stained glass windows, tables, chairs, a complete Victorian(?) bay window, a telephone box, printing presses, industrial machines and tools. Our heritage, London’s past, present and future. Local streets to London thoroughfares. Your history and my history sitting on shelves, each item abutting the next all clamouring to be looked at, shouting to tell their story. Not just a tale of origins and usage but often of discovery and salvage.

I was only there a short while but came a cross a sign for Walter Tarry tailors from 102 Bromley High Street, my local high street. I can’t wait to go and seek out the number, see what shop is there now, imagine gentlemen not too dissimilar to today’s shoppers(!) buying their new clothes.

I curse myself for not having my camera phone with me but in hindsight I may never have left the store, everywhere I looked there was a picture to take a story to uncover. I just wandered dumbstruck at the riches before me. They are not rare jewels or ancient remains but often items we take for granted. If not saved for future generations they become a distant memory a reminiscence and as time stretches away if they are not kept and cared for they become hazy in our minds, lost in the march of time, hard to imagine and place.

I won’t know if I have a place on this collection care course for a few weeks. I hope I will be given the opportunity to return to the Museum of London’s store. Not just to learn new skills and meet new people, to share the staff’s enthusiasm and passion (which is addictive on its own) but I want to spend time with our history. Not a history of Romans and Anglo-Saxons this time, but the history of everyday life, a London my parents, grandparents and great grandparents knew with the objects they used, the places they went to and the World as they saw it.

As we leave the store we see the latest acquisition, an evocative, fabulously large sign ‘Welcome to the ‘Stow’ from Walthamstow Stadium used for greyhound racing. Opened in 1933 and closed in 2008, no doubt the land will be developed into flats. I think immediately of Catford Dogs (opened 1932 closed in 2003) where my parents took me and my brothers as kids. Gone now, demolished in my life time, I will never take my kids there. How to describe the excitement, allowed up late, betting 50p or £1 on a greyhound, the stadium lights bright and garish in the night, the ‘lure’ an artificial hare or rabbit racing round the outside of the track, a bowl of chips for tea, steep concrete steps outside, winning back a few pennies to go in your piggy bank. Should we take a sign like ‘Welcome to the ‘Stow’ for granted, let it be lost not worthy of saving? Or do we grab it with both hands, care for it, clean it, look after it for future generations? 

'Welcome to the 'Stow' sign in situ at Walthamstow Dog Track
‘Welcome to the ‘Stow’ sign in situ at Walthamstow Dog Track. © Museum of London

I see that sign and it means so much to me, a link to my past. Caring and protecting collections keeps those links strong, and I hope I get the chance to learn skills that will allow my children to come to the Museum of London in future and not just hear about how things use to be but see it for themselves with objects that are well loved, shared and protected.

A welcome link to our past, a new loving home at the Museum of London. © Museum of London
A welcome link to our past, a new loving home at the Museum of London. © Museum of London

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The Museum of London Social and Working History Collections at Mortimer Wheeler House, Eagle Wharf Road, London, N1 7ED can be visited on request, please contact
enquiries.later@museumoflondon.org.uk on 020 7814 5750.

With thanks to Dan and the Collection Care team at the Museum of London for the photographs.

If you would like to get an idea of the kind of larger objects the Museum of London has in their collection you may like this video, a vehicle ballet and logistical triumph ! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwtMwW7IB00

You can see some great pictures of Catford and Walthamstow Stadiums on the Derelict London website –

http://www.derelictlondon.com/sportsgrounds.html

2 comments

  1. Fantastic! I feel as if I’m back in the stores again, surrounded by all those wonderful objects. I saw you scribbling away as we walked around and you’ve really captured the essence of the place. It really is a treasure trove!

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