Week 2 – Museum of London & Bromley Museum – Time to go solo

What can go wrong? We have biscuits!
What can go wrong? We have biscuits!

I guess today is what this project is all about. I know how to pack pot and write labels, but today is a bit different, today I am in control, I am in charge, I am looking after our new recruit, I am organising the work and I am worried.

I want today to go well, I want to get some work done, I want my volunteer in arms to enjoy herself, I want today to be a success.

Normally when I work with the Museum of London, I turn up, everything is prepared, the planning is done, the materials are ready, the work is organised. I simply do what needs to be done, I enjoy the experience of handling Roman artefacts, I take pictures, I chat with my fellow volunteers, I let this strange experience wash over me. I go with the flow. I contemplate the distance time has put between today and 2,000 years ago. I listen out for my ancestors, I quietly reach for their life, the objects they have left behind in Keston are the stories I need to interpret.

On this project I have been thinking more about what we are doing and why we are doing it. I have hit a hurdle, a moment of self doubt really early on. After our first meeting one of our volunteers decided they didn’t want to go ahead with the project. Totally understandable, they balance lots of roles and perhaps felt this wasn’t the best use of their time. All of a sudden this project I was so excited about was ever so slightly tainted. Was my enthusiasm misplaced? Do I love packing Roman pot a little too much? Am I mad to ‘waste’ all this time? I doubted myself. It is like organising a night out with friends, you check out all the pubs, a nice restaurant, a club, you plan, you tell your friends. You want them to enjoy it, have a good time, a great time, a memorable night. You give them all the details, explain the best bits and then at the last minute someone pulls out. You feel disappointment, a bit flat, are all your plans for nothing, maybe you have got it all wrong.

So today is important for me, more than I realised. Our Museum of London guide has left us to go solo, he is busy training up his next batch of volunteers. One of the volunteers who is familiar with this work and completed a previous project at the Museum of London is off on holiday in Italy, enjoying first hand our Roman ancestors. So, that leaves me and my new recruit. I hope she turns up….

I have a minor panic as my youngest son is unwell. I may not be able to make it. His Nanny comes to the rescue. Nanny’s care is top notch. I suddenly feel responsibility to get to Bromley Museum to make it work.

I have promised cake, my new recruit has brought biscuits. We are on the same wavelength. I am sure the day will go well. I am much more aware today of planning the work, making sure we have a variation of items to look at, Roman pot, wall plaster, shells and bone. I want the work to be well placed and interesting. We take a trip to the store, bring up a few new boxes. Have we got enough supplies, bags and staples? We chat, share pictures and hand over finds. Compare and contrast. This aspect doesn’t seem to change, I think it is my favourite thing. The way our conversation is becoming part of the history of the objects in front of us. It is like these porous pieces of pot are soaking up the 21st century.

I am no expert but not all of these are Roman!
I am no expert but not all of these are Roman!

I find myself surreptitiously watching my co-worker (I don’t want to freak her out!). Is she enjoying herself? Is she bored? Am I the only one who is completely fascinated and absorbed by the objects in front of us. It has made me think about engagement in a whole new light. It is not enough to love the objects on your own. It is a great start but it is not enough. How do you share that appreciation? How do you open those objects up to others? How do you help tell the story in a way that others can connect with whilst also getting a job done and work completed?

We share this piece of Oxfordshire ware 2nd to 4th century AD. Fab!
We share this piece of Oxfordshire ware 2nd to 4th century AD. Fab!

I am sorry this post feels a bit unsure, a bit unclear, but I am trying to find my way. I feel very connected to these objects, their stories grab me, but not everyone will feel that way. They may need a guide, a helping hand. I think engagement with archaeological objects is all about story telling. We have dug these objects out of the ground, they may sit in a museums store, an archive, but we can’t leave them there. We have to use them. They are all stories waiting to be told. They are books on a shelf, they are murder mysteries, adventure tales, loves stories and tales of lives lived. This role of engagement is so precious, it is the role of story teller, but it is even more than that. If the objects are like books, they are books of many different languages. Not everyone can take one down from the shelf and read straight away, they may need the key, the right language.

At my daughter’s school the older children help the younger ones to read. Neither are experts, but they work together, enjoy the experience, they unlock the story and they become friends. They are called ‘reading buddies’. I think that is what we have to be, we have to take these stories and work with others to reveal the hidden history. It makes me smile just to think about it.

This project is about taking a bit more responsibility and control. I know I love the objects, now I have to learn to share that love. I can’t wait for the coming weeks, it will be a test, I don’t think it will be that easy for me but I can’t wait to share my passion for these precious things. I want to open the boxes, bring out the objects, share my fascination and interest for all things Roman. Maybe if I am lucky, open up the story so others can share it too. What good are objects in boxes on shelves. If you leave our history there you might as well put it back in the ground. I am ready and I am excited, I will put those early doubts to one side. I have tales to tell of our ancestors and the objects they have left behind, I don’t have all the answers but I don’t think that will matter. I think engagement may become as enticing and addictive to me as those first days of handling history were.

I love this piece of wall plaster, not obviously pretty but beautiful to me
I love this piece of wall plaster, not obviously pretty but beautiful to me

Today has been my first step in beginning to own this project. I enjoyed it, a new experience. There are more new experiences to come in the next few weeks and I can’t wait to see how they will unfold.

A job well done
A job well done

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