Museums often look after thousands of objects, the V&A for example has 2,263,314 items in the Museum’s collections, but only a small proportion of those items are actually on display. The British Museum has a mind-blowing 8 million objects, with only 8,000 on display, a tiny 1% of the whole collection. I am always intrigued when a new exhibition opens to see these artefacts that have managed to escape from the stores to see the light and delight new visitors who never knew such objects existed. But how do the curators choose objects from the thousands that sit in boxes wrapped in tissue paper? How do they narrow down database searches that pull up hundreds of relevant objects?
Looking for answers behind the ‘First World War in the Air’ displays I spent time chatting to Adam Shepherd, Head of Collections Management, to understand how the objects were selected. The RAF Museum asked members of the public to help choose objects by running a social media campaign ‘100 First Air War Objects’, making use of Flickr and Pinterest, and asking users to vote on their favourite items.
The vote went out in November 2012, two years before the ‘First World War in the Air’ gallery was opened. Working with the objects and the public in this way allowed the museum to engage with a wider audience, it improved accessibility to objects normally kept in storage and also helped curators determine the content of the new exhibition. It helped keep up interest in the project and gave the public a sense of ownership of the final displays.
It was interesting talking to Adam and hearing how the different photo-sharing sites connected the museum to different types of users. You can still look at both websites and see the types of objects that garnered the most interest. The RFC dog jacket was by far the most popular item with 6,334 views on Flickr. It was worn by a Yorkshire terrier belonging to an officer of the Royal Flying Corps who had an RFC tailor make it. It is adorned with RFC Pilot’s wings, Captain and Observer badges. On Pinterest it was also a very popular item but beaten by perhaps surprisingly a utilitarian women’s Army Auxiliary Corps dress. This perhaps saying as much about the type of people using the different platforms as the objects themselves.
Whilst a campaign like this is great for engaging users with the visual appeal of objects it always needs to be balanced by the curator experience. I asked Adam what was the most important object from the 100 chosen, he told me about Hugh Dowding’s control column. You can see the hole in the metal caused by a bullet that came incredibly close to ending the life of Hugh Dowding. Dowding later went on to lead RAF Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain. It is important because it captures a moment in time that could have change the whole outcome of the war.
Whilst the visual look of an object can capture our imagination it is vital to never lose the stories behind all the objects. In total 52,000 votes were cast, the final top 10 items are listed below and they can all be seen on display in the Grahame-White Factory.
1. RFC Dog with Jacket View this object here
2. Anti-airship Incendiary View this object here
3. Fums Up! Lucky Charm View this object here
4. Map of London anti-Zeppelin Defences View this object here
5. German aircraft rudder View this object here
6. German grave marker for Arthur James Fisher View this object here
7. Victoria Cross of Lt Frank H McNamara View this object here
8. Gosport Tube mouthpiece View this object here
9. A Boddy Life Jacket View this object here
10. Photo of WRAF motorcyclists View this object here