Hello everyone, my name is Cai and from January until April, I was the Collections and Storage Trainee for Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT) based at the Museum Collection Centre (MCC), where I got to handle – you guessed it – the weird and the wonderful.
My internship was through the University of Birmingham, where I am a masters student studying History of Art, and its Experience Heritage Scheme, and experience heritage I did! I applied for the internship because I was intrigued by the potential to interact with historical objects, through cataloguing, handling, and visual assessment, and because I was keen to get a behind the scenes look at the collections.
The BMT has a diverse collection, and I was privileged to be exposed to it. My role included auditing the objects in the Metalwork Gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), assessing risks and hazards, and at the MCC repacking social history objects – so much acid-free paper!
I carefully handled everything and anything from small and delicate vesta cases to spoons and candelabras to police batons and iron handcuffs to a court summons from 1868. There are some real treasures at the MCC and hidden in plain sight at BMAG. The vesta cases, which are small portable boxes made to contain matches and keep them dry (displayed in the Industrial Gallery in BMAG) are such a hidden treasure – some of them are incredibly ornate, while others use a combination of imagery and text to create hilarious puns! My favourite one featured the Devil – see if you can spot it!
My time at the MCC gave me the opportunity to access a small part of their massive collection, and my hope with this post is to bring some of these objects to you, to look at and enjoy.
Before I go any further, however, I want to give an effusive thanks to the Collections Care Team at MCC for their time and instruction. They are, in all honesty, unspoken heritage heroes, quietly working in the background to safely store and look after the objects that make up such a vast collection. They currently house and care for upwards of 80% of BMT’s collections – no mean feat! So thank you. My four months were a joy.
The last month of my internship involved repacking objects for a Collections Care Project, where myself and other members of the collections team emptied the social history gupwells, which are a specific kind of archival storage unit. These gupwells were divided into four different aspects of social history: community life, working life, personal life, and domestic life. To begin with, I worked on the gupwells containing objects pertaining to community life, which significantly included objects from the Birmingham Constabulary, dating from the eighteenth century. I repacked drawer upon drawer of truncheons, which are batons wielded by the police. In Ireland, where I am from, truncheons are still the main weapon used by the Garda Síochána, the Irish police force, of which my father was a member. His truncheon was heavy but these were lighter than expected.
As you can see in the photo, many of the truncheons were ornately decorated, perhaps more for display than for function. The truncheon in my hand – always wear gloves, folks, when handling objects as the natural oils on your skin can damage them! – is painted with the date it was made, which is 1795. The number wraps around the truncheon and is thus difficult to discern.
These were a pair of iron handcuffs from the early nineteenth century and were hefty to hold. What is surprising and difficult to tell from this photo, is the smallness of their size. My wrists would not have fit, definitely not comfortably. The cuffs are on acid-free paper, which all the objects were packed with, to prevent future damage. Acid-free paper is paper that if infused in water yields a neutral or basic pH and addresses the problem of preserving objects for long periods.
Of all the objects in community life, this is my favourite. This document is a court summons from 1868 and is incredibly verbose, (to wit) why say it in one word when you can say it in twenty? It reads:
I hereby require you to appear TUESDAY NEXT, at Eleven o’clock in the forenoon, at the PUBLIC OFFICE, in Moor Street, in the said Borough, before such Justices for said Borough as shall be then and there present, to answer the complaint of Patrick Kelly of the said Borough, Police Inspector.
For that, on the Tenth day of July in the year of our Lord 1868, at the Borough aforesaid, and within limits of The Birmingham Improvements Act, 1851, (to wit) in a certain Street there called Stafford Street you the said Aaron Lewis did to the obstruction, annoyance and danger of the Residents and Passengers then and there being and passing, drive furiously a certain Horse and a certain Carriage (to wit) a Hackney Carriage on the Footway, contrary to said Act, which hath for the said offence imposed a Penalty of any Sum not exceeding Forty Shillings.
The paper is in an archival laminate folder, to prevent damage and give an extra layer of strength so that the paper doesn’t crease or get bent or folded during storage.
After community life, I moved onto domestic life, where I stumbled on the most extraordinary find. Reading through the PAC – Preliminary Asbestos Checklist, an integral part of checking the collections for hazardous materials – and the inventory list, all that was listed about the object was ‘Dollhouse Bookcase with 10 books’. And indeed, it was as described, except each book was an actual book in miniature, printed in 1801. Each book covered a separate topic, such as Mythology, Moral Tales, Geography, History, etc.
These are miniature examples, snapshots as it were, of the socio-cultural moment in Britain during the turn of the nineteenth century, articulated in a narrative suitable for a child. The black mat they are placed on is Plastazote, a high density, inert and acid-free foam, used in conservation for drawer lining, display support, and protection in archival storage. These books made for very interesting, and not necessarily always pleasant, reading, such as the full title of the book on mythology.
The title reads: 'Mythology, or, Fabulous Histories of the Heathen Deities'. Flicking through this book, the male ‘Heathen Deities’ were prioritised and had their own entries, with their female counterparts only included as part of the male narrative. As I said, it provides an intriguing insight into the societal norms and standards of this moment in time.
Interesting, but distinctly less pleasant, is the first ‘moral tale’ in the books below.
This was the tale of ‘The Grateful Negro’, a moral tale that was meant to show how a young white girl, Louisa Dorvile, would be rewarded for demonstrating kindness through her interactions with a slave. She finds a young boy of colour in distress and takes him back to her household. He becomes a loyal and indebted servant who rewards Louisa’s generosity by saving her from being attached by a wild animal some time later.
Let’s just say some things sound different when there is 200 years between when these were printed and now. The language used and the ideologies expressed are clearly incorrect, painful, and dangerous, perpetuating racist stereotypes. But this is why preserving history and social history objects is so important – it offers insight and understanding, clues to how things were then, what were the accepted societal norms and morality. It is important to mark the changes that have occurred over time, but also to highlight the long history of painful and reductive ideologies that persist today. It helps us situate ourselves against the legacies of our past and figure out where we might be going in the future.
While these objects aren’t accessible to the public, the MCC does have an Open Afternoon the last Friday of every month, bank holidays excluding. (check the What's On section). There are 30 spaces available, with a maximum of 6 spaces per group, and you are given the opportunity to explore what the MCC houses in its main warehouse. Hint: there’s a lot!
I hope that this post has given you a little insight into the objects behind the scenes, as well as some of the work that goes into caring for these objects and collections. Heritage institutions like the BMT are incredibly important for preserving the past as the past is important both to our present and future. The people who care for those collections, who deal with the practical considerations of that care, are definitely heritage heroes!