I’m Charlotte, and on the 31st March I became the new Skills for the Future Heritage Data Management Trainee (narrowly avoiding April Fool’s Day, which would, perhaps, have been an inauspicious beginning!).
Based at Gressenhall, my main role is to improve and update the documentation for all our lovely objects, documents and books at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. ‘That doesn’t sound very exciting!’ I hear you cry; well, I’m here to prove you wrong with a tiny snapshot of the many things I’ve been up to in the last few months.
I love museums, and if you’re reading this it’s a safe bet you do too, and whether you’re a ‘read everything in sight’ type of person or you prefer to ignore the labels and just marvel at the interesting items on display, we can’t create a display unless we know what we have. And that’s where people like me (and a special mention goes out here to the fantastic volunteers working alongside me in the library) beavering away on the computer on our database come in, making sure we have the correct details on all the things we are preserving for posterity. In order to create exhibitions, and to properly preserve the items themselves, it’s vital that we know what we have and where it’s kept. It’s not just an essential and useful activity either: unearthing an item from a box, examining it from all angles and updating the information is good fun.
Take, for example, this pair of receipts. From the basic pre-existing description we already have the historical context; they are evidence of local farms having to pay rates to the parish to support the poor. However, get them out of the box and look a little closer and a far more personal story emerges.
The handwritten notes on the reverse of each receipt reveal the more human side of things: a cheerful apology for lateness and a jokey congratulations for promptness. The past isn’t just facts; it’s full of people, and these tiny survivals of personal interactions remind us of this. If the records hadn’t needed updating, these notes on the reverse might never have been seen. Now, there is an image attached to the record digitally preserving the exchange between George Curson and J Riddell, farm owner and poor rate administrator.
It’s not just data management, it’s story discovery.
In addition to making myself useful within the museum, another key part of our role as trainees is learning, and to this end we’ve been on a variety of courses and trips to give us an insight into how the rest of the sector run their sites.
Recently we’ve been lucky enough to visit Beamish: The Living Museum of the North, for a stores tour and a good look around to see how a large living-history style site works. Like us, they have a working farm that showcases a lost way of life and historical farming methods, but unlike us they also have a town, a colliery, a railway station, a pit village and a stately home from various eras sprawled over 300 acres. From a records-keeping perspective the sheer scale of their site was staggering; in addition to the many unique objects carefully stored and preserved as you would expect in a museum, they also have hundreds of sundry items such as cutlery and crockery kept on hand to be used on an everyday basis by the costumed interpreters demonstrating northern life throughout the ages.
Last month the Skills for Future Trainees descended en masse on the Rural Museums Annual General Meeting. Not only was it a fascinating opportunity to hear what other museums in the sector were up to, discuss the challenges in the sector that we are all facing right now, and network with museum staff from around the UK, but we also got to tour the fantastic Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings.
This had an interesting link to Gressenhall; obviously the Workhouse itself is one of our best assets, but we use it to house other museum-style displays. At Avoncroft, the buildings are the main focus. We were given a tour by the wonderfully knowledgeable Hamish Wood and gained a great deal of insight into a very unusual museum collection.
All in all it has been a hectic first few months and looks to continue that way, squeezing in important records-keeping in amongst all the exciting learning activities I’m lucky enough to take part in. Gressenhall is a brilliant, inspirational place to work and I look forward to writing you another blog in a few months to let you know what else I’ve discovered as I continue to explore behind the scenes in the pursuit of records that need managing.