1/ Why did you want to work behind the scenes in the NHM Archives?
For the last 14 months I have volunteered at several archives to gain the work experience required to apply for a post graduate qualification in the subject. I wanted to work ‘behind the scenes’ to develop my knowledge of how a museum and business archive operates. The role offered the opportunity to learn and develop skills essential to becoming an Archives and Records Manager. This includes cataloguing historical material, dealing with user enquiries and using the CALM database. I felt compelled to apply for the position as it would give me the opportunity to improve accessibility and contribute to the preservation of a unique collection within a museum I am familiar with.
2/How long have you been working with us and what have you been involved in so far?
I have been volunteering since September 2013 and hope to continue until September 2014. I have been responsible for cataloguing a wide range of historical material into CALM. This includes correspondence relating to the Piltdown Hoax and photographs relating to the opening of the Human Biology exhibition, as well as the staff magazine Chrysalis. I have also taken responsibility for rearranging the Tring Museum correspondence into a new series, with each new reference number correlating to a specific year (1914-1920).
As the museum is still a 'live' institution, it deals with active records on a daily basis. I have been given an insight in to how an archives and records manager deals with this area of business; the importance of retention schedules, confidential shredding, and the processes involved when a record has reached its retention period; it is either destroyed, or if it holds historical value, it will be appraised and held in the archive. As a volunteer I have not had any direct experience with the live records, but it has been useful to be exposed to these factors and learn about the life span and purposes of records.
3/ Have you come across anything interesting so far?
When cataloguing papers belonging to Dr Kenneth Oakley (Anthropologist and museum employee), I am required to construct a brief description relating to the content of each item of correspondence. Oakley discovered that the Piltdown Man fragments (founded in 1912 by amateur palaeontologist Charles Dawson) were in fact an elaborate hoax. Dawson claimed the fragments were the missing link between ape and man; subsequently Oakley's discovery caused uproar in the scientific community. It has been interesting to read the reaction's of Oakley's cotemporaries, the press, and the general public, as they write to him from all over the globe with their reaction to the news. Many speculate who was responsible and how the hoax was implemented; a true 'whodunit' of modern times. In his letters Oakley claims to have his thoughts of who the perpetrator(s) are, but never puts it in writing. To this day the culprit of the biggest hoax in history has never been revealed.
When organising the Tring Museum correspondence, I have come across numerous letters to and from Lord Rothschild, his director Ernest Hartert and curator Karl Jordan, written during the First World War. It is interesting to read records created during this time; letters from removal companies stating they cannot assist with the transportation of museum specimens as their automobiles are being used as part of the war effort; letters from employees sent away to war seeking job security on their return, as well as men enquiring about possible vacancy openings at the museum once released from the army. One gentleman lists his entire employment history prior conscription; he is striving to get back to the normality of civilian life, highlighting the disruption the war had on many people's lives. The series also includes a letter to Dr Hartert from Captain Robert Davis, an enthusiastic zoologist who was drafted into the RAF. After writing about his experiences at war, he ends the letter expressing his condolences to Hartert, who has just lost his only son fighting in battle. Hartnet later writes that he is taking a week off work to visit the grave of his son in France. The First World War had a huge impact on the museum's business, but foremost it had a huge impact on the personal lives of millions of people across the globe.
4/ What would you like to be doing in the future professionally?
When qualified I would like to work as an Archive Assistant and eventually as an Archives and Records Manager. I aim to bring passion and experience to an inspiring environment where I contribute to preserving the past for future generations to learn from and enjoy. I have been accepted onto the diploma in Archives and Records Management at UCL starting in September 2014. I am looking forward to undertaking the course to as it is essential to my professional development.
To learn more about being a volunteer at the Natural History Museum, please visit our volunteering web page.