I love this picture: An empty exhibition, not a single soul. Don’t get me wrong, it is a great exhibition, but where are all the people I hear you say? Where are the visitors? Now if you look at the picture below you can see where they all are. They have been drawn in, not by amazing graphics, great display cases or cool objects, they have been drawn towards people, museum volunteers. Visitors have popped into the museum and been enticed by the simplest of things, the chance to talk to someone and get hands on with history.
There is a new free display on at the Museum of London, it is called ‘Delivering the Past’ and looks at the archaeological discoveries made in excavating the site of the General Post Office (GPO) on the North-Western edge of the city near St Paul’s.
New discoveries are made in London all the time. Crossrail has provided a string of mainstream news stories from mammoth bone to plague skeletons. But discoveries are also made by looking at digs from the past. The Museum of London archive in Hackney is home to many of these discoveries. The GPO site in particular is one of the largest single sources of artefacts in the archive, with around 2,500 boxes of material.
The objects on display from this site were dug out of the ground in 1975, 41 years ago. Now a lady should never discuss her age but lets just say me and this dig have a lot in common. So I have quite an affection for the objects discovered. Whilst some of us still look good 40 years on, many items from this site need a little tlc and repacking. Just because they are getting on in years doesn’t mean they should be neglected.
Objects from this site tell us stories going back over 2,000 years of history. They tell us about the big London events, such as Queen Boudica’s revolt, but they also tell us about someone, a Dandy maybe, who just loved his curly pipe. They open a little door on Londoners of the past and you don’t have to be a curator or academic to get your hands on the evidence, you can sign up to become a volunteer or as the museum likes to call them, an ‘Archaeological Ambassador’.
You still have until the end of this week (Friday 30th September) to sign up and help. You can see the difference a volunteer can make below, a box untouched and a box repacked to modern standards. Working in this way makes the material, not only easier to find and study, it also protects it for the future. This is where volunteers come in, I have done this work myself on another site and it is absolutely fascinating.
Along with repacking, you may also get to do some public engagement work and object handling sessions. It is an amazing opportunity and if you have any time I definitely recommend you get yourself down to the museum pronto to sign up. You don’t need a degree or a background in history, just a sprinkling of enthusiasm and a little free time. You are given support and training so you don’t need to worry if you have never done anything like this before.
Of course you don’t have to sign up, you can just pop along any weekday 10-4 right up to the 16th December and chat to volunteers who have been doing this work. You can take a look in the boxes, you can see some of the amazing finds from Roman times that resurfaced 40 years ago and are here today being gazed on with fresh eyes.
And don’t forget the exhibition itself , it runs until 8th January! The curly pipe, on display for the first time, is an absolute stunner. What I really love about the exhibition is it shows how archaeologists work, it shows documentation and the level of detail involved in recovering the past. The very best bit is that you have an opportunity to be a part of that story.
There are not many places you can go from ‘Visitor to Volunteer’ in just a few short steps, not many places you can hold history in your hand and pass that story on to the next generation of Londoners. If you can’t make it to the museum by Friday, keep an eye out on the museum website there will always be opportunities to join the Museum of London team as a volunteer and share your passion for history and London with others.
With thanks to volunteer Sheila who showed me some of the objects on my visit.
Delivering the Past is a free exhibition at the Museum of London and runs from 9 September 2016 – 8th January 2017 – https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london/whats-on/exhibitions/delivering-past
For more on the objects from the GPO site please take a look at this blog from the Museum of London –
Keep an eye on the website for more volunteering opportunities –
For a look at the GPO site today this blog has some great photos –