“A tribute of esteem and affection” Mark Lambert (PhD Student University of Nottingham)

The second in our blog post ‘poster papers’ for the Who Cares Conference (Science Museum 6th November 2015) from Mark Lambert, a PhD student at the school of Geography, University of Nottingham.

My PhD research, which looks at railway preservation between 1948 (the year in which British railways were nationalised) and 1975 (when the National Railway Museum (NRM) was opened in York) has brought me into contact with ‘unloved’ objects relating to and once owned by John Scholes, the Curator of Historical Relics at the British Transport Commission (later the British Railways Board) between 1951 and 1974. The objects in question are an engraved cigarette box and a series of photographs depicting John Scholes within the Museum of British Transport at Clapham (which he ran between 1961 and 1973) which were given to him by members of the Consultative Panel for the Preservation of British Transport Relics (a group of representatives of transport enthusiast societies) at the organisations’ tenth anniversary dinner in 1968. Whilst the objects are immaculately preserved, they are not displayed- yet the story which can be teased out of them about the NRM’s pre-history, and particularly about the ways in which the NRM’s collections were first amassed and displayed- is a fascinating one. This story is particularly important now, as this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the NRM’s opening.

The Consultative Panel for the Preservation of British Transport Relics was formed in 1958 as an advisory body to the nationalised British Transport Commission (BTC). The Panel met regularly (at least every quarter), working with the BTC- and thus with Scholes- to select items for preservation and assist them in the establishment of the British Transport Museum in Clapham, South West London, which opened fully in 1963. Perhaps the most significant activity conducted by the Panel was the listing in 1961 of 19 steam locomotive types for preservation (to which 8 were added by the BTC itself); many of these, such as No. 4468 Mallard and No. 92220 Evening Star, went on to become part of today’s national collection. Some of these locomotives, including Mallard, were first displayed at Clapham.

The personally inscribed cigarette box and photographs presented to John Scholes at the 10th anniversary dinner- held at the Great Western Hotel, Paddington on 18th October 1968- illustrate the close personal and professional relationship between him and the enthusiasts of the Consultative Panel. The gifts were funded through contributions from Panel members in order to recognize Scholes’ “superlative achievements as Curator of Historical Relics”. The cigarette box was described as “a tribute of esteem and affection by the societies represented on the Panel”. It is inscribed with Scholes’ initials- JHS- and the following dedication:
“Presented to John Scholes
At the 10th Anniversary Dinner of the Consultative Panel for the Preservation of British Transport Relics
By Associate Societies
In appreciation of his services to transport preservation
18th October 1968”

The “album of photographs of Mr Scholes, taken against various backgrounds of the collection at Clapham”- which has now been broken up into separate photographs – was presented to him “as a souvenir of the occasion” *. The photographs depict a smartly dressed Scholes in a series of different poses within the Clapham museum, each of which places him in a position of authority, whether talking to a group of schoolchildren, relaxing with his arms crossed staring thoughtfully at an unseen object, or simply striding across the space between exhibits. In these photographs, Scholes’ persona takes on an air of almost effortless control- the museum is his domain, and a space which he is comfortable in and knowledgeable about. The photographs evoke the ghostly space of this now long closed and demolished museum, which had a strong connection both to Scholes and to the Panel (which continued to meet there even after it closed in April 1973).

Today the cigarette box and photographs are part of, respectively, the Miscellanea and Curiosities and Photographic Collections at the NRM. The story which these objects can tell us about railway preservation in the 1960s is not as prominent as the stories told in museum space- such as the tale of Mallard’s speed record-breaking run on 3rd July 1938- which we know and love. However, I would suggest that these objects have an important role to play in illustrating the close bonds between enthusiasts and professionals which underpinned the designation and display of railway objects in this formative era of preservation, with the personal relationships of care, love and devotion between Scholes and the Panel mirroring the care, love and devotion which the enthusiasts felt for the locomotives and other transport artefacts which they were responsible for preserving.

* We have asked for permission for photographs to be reproduced on this blog and will update accordingly if permission is granted.

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Forgetting about, letting go, and disposing of ‘stuff’: connections between the Unloved Collections and Curating Profusion projects Jennie Morgan, University of York

For our upcoming conference we have asked for contributions of blog posts in lieu of posters. Our first post comes from Jennie Morgan at the University of York.

Disposing of objects may be considered the ultimate intervention for dealing with ‘unloved’ (and typically unseen) museum collections. As museums grapple with the challenge of balancing ongoing material accumulation with restricted space and funds, difficult decisions are necessarily being made about what to keep for the future, and why. Holding onto certain things, while getting rid of others, may sit uneasily with the traditional logic and public perception of museums – institutions that are usually associated with ideals of guardianship, collective memory-making, and retaining for perpetuity. Yet, the ability to responsibly ‘let go’ has become a key topic of discussion (at least within the UK, see for example this report by the National Museum Director’s Conference). Critical reflection on disposals encourages new understandings about what museums are for – as flagged earlier this year at the Curating the Nation debate hosted by the British Museum where it was proposed (eloquently by Nick Merriman) that museums must evolve from being institutions that ‘represent’ to those that ‘interpret’. In this argument, selectiveness, partiality, and forgetting are considered key to actively managing collections into the future.

Bookshelf  ©Jennie Morgan
Bookshelf ©Jennie Morgan

How museums deal with the mass accumulation of ‘stuff’ that so frequently characterises storerooms is, partly, the focus of a new research project that I am working on with Sharon Macdonald at the University of York. Called Curating Profusion: Caring for the Future and Assembling Value in Homes and Smaller Museums, it is funded (like the Unloved Collections project) through the AHRC Care for the Future theme and is part of a bigger research programme on how futures for heritage are made. Specifically, we are exploring how the future archive is assembled from the profusion of consumer goods characteristic of homes and museums: or what others might describe to be a situation of ‘overflow’ or ‘stuffocation’. We are looking at what kinds of things are (and are not) kept for future posterity, and the values, assumptions, and emotions guiding these selections.

Like the Unloved Collections theme, our project is concerned with sustainable collecting, stewardship, and the emotional response of people to things – issues core to contemporary museum practice. By further thinking through resonances between these projects, I am reminded that while some things are actively pushed into the future through the choices people make, others persist precisely by virtue of being ‘unloved’ – or otherwise under-appreciated, forgotten about, or what Sophie Woodward describes as being ‘dormant’. Indeed, it will be interesting as our fieldwork progresses (we are just starting to research in households and museums) to learn more about whether and in what circumstances being ‘unloved’ becomes a justification for retaining some things and not others. Our research will likely demonstrate the ways that qualities of things themselves – including material, spatial, sensory, aesthetic, and temporal features, as well as peoples’ affective and visceral responses to these – play into the crafting of possible retention and stewardship strategies across these settings.

Wedding Keepsakes  ©Jennie Morgan
Wedding Keepsakes ©Jennie Morgan

While museums and households will likely share some strategies for coping with profusion, one of our key goals is to consider points of difference that may enable practical knowledge to be produced and possible routes for intervention identified. What, for instance, might museums learn from how householders ‘curate’ their homes, including their approaches for discarding, reusing, or recycling ‘excess’ stuff? What kinds of emotional, sensory, and experiential responses to things guide householders’ future-keeping choices, and how might museums capture and retain these less tangible and more personal attachments as things move from domestic to institutional settings? Indeed, what would the implications of doing so be for curatorial practice, and how might these ‘other’ ways of valuing things be harnessed to reinvigorate existing ‘unloved’ collections? We do not (yet!) have responses to such questions, and partly my participation in the Unloved Collections conference (and this Blog) is driven by a curiosity to see how these may play out in slightly different ways through research into stored and overlooked collections, and especially the role of emotion in understanding these. Yet, faced with the challenge of coping with material (and increasingly digital) proliferation it would seem that developing a sustainable archive demands from museums – and those of us who research in and on them – to consider these kinds of question seriously. Not least, I would argue, to minimise the future proliferation of ‘unloved’ (or under-valued, appreciated, and used) collections.

Ironbridge Workshop

The handling collection
The handling collection

On a bright Saturday in September we met at Ironbridge with a group from the Historical Metallurgy Society and the Ironbridge Young Archaeologists Club.We aimed to explore why people preserve and study industrial slag and engage with a new generation of enthusiasts for industrial archaeology.

Hands on learning
Hands on learning

The plan was to get some young and some ‘forever young’ enthusiasts together in the same room, to see whether we could inspire the next generation to care about industrial slag. We are certainly not the first people to suggest that enthusiasm and interest is best inspired through direct experience. However, we have been amazed by how excited people can get about our ‘unloved’ objects when they get to see them up close. This workshop was no exception and the whole team was exclaiming the beauty of the slag handling collections and taking beautiful photographs. The YAC wrote their own imagined labels which contained stories of ongoing space travel and terrifying volcanoes.

Collection Q&A
Collection Q&A

Following this they got a short guide to identifying slag and were able to put their skills to the test on a small collection from an archaeological dig which had just been brought in. They also engaged in a Q&A with a long time collector of industrial slag who had just donated his personal collection to the National Slag Collection. We heard tales of packed garages and fighting horizontal rain to find and preserve the perfect piece of slag. The team were also drawn to stories of how deposits of industrial slag continues to shape our landscape.

Identifying slag
Identifying slag

Finally the two groups of enthusiasts worked together to create new labels which went on show at the Science Museum Late at 30th September reaching a crowd of 4700 people!!!

The team at Ironbridge
The team at Ironbridge