Sharing Skills Project Sees Museums Put Paper Archives In Order

By Olivia Laing | 19 April 2006
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Shows a black and white image of two young girls draped in flowers

English Blossoms by Julia Margaret Cameron, courtesy of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust. The archive training is aiding museums in conserving and displaying paper-based exhibits such as photographs

Museums tend to be very good at conserving objects, but paper-based material can be a different matter. Not knowing how to store, display or conserve paper collections, which can include maps, letters, newspapers and photographs, can mean museums have not been making the most of their collections.

Enter Heather Boyns, a professional archivist based at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, and a woman with a mission to make the most of museums’ paper.

In October 2005, Heather embarked upon a six-month pilot project, funded by Renaissance in the Regions, to improve the utilisation and conservation of paper archives. The project, under the Sharing Skills banner, was initially confined to Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and was expected to finish in March 2006.However, it’s been so successful that it’s already been extended to December.

According to Heather, “there was a need for training and professional advice. Museums don’t always know how to treat paper archives with the same confidence as objects, so items were not being used to the best of their ability.”

The project began with a questionnaire devised to find out how much paper archives were held by museums in the area. Once the results from this had been assessed, Heather visited seven key museums, examining the current state of the archives and looking at possible improvements that could be made.

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Dimbola Lodge was one of the museums selected for training in how to manage paper archives

Thrilling finds at the seven museums included a significant photo-album and collection of letters by Julia Margaret Cameron, the Victorian photographer, at Dimbola Lodge Museum on the Isle of Wight.

The Gilbert White House and Oates Museum not only had original newspaper accounts of Captain Scott's Polar expedition, but also housed the original manuscripts of Gilbert White's acclaimed work of natural history The Natural History of Selborne. And at the Jane Austen Museum in Hampshire, letters and original manuscripts were held along with evocative objects such as Miss Austen's own sheet music with handwritten notes.

Petersfield Museum, which has an extensive local social history archive, was also a beneficiary.

“Petersfield Museum was excellent, because they just had a new professional curator, so we were able to really provide a lot of help. We also looked at several military museums, of which there are a lot in Hampshire, because they tend to be quite rich in paper records.”

Once the collections had been assessed, Heather was able to provide vital advice about preservation, cataloguing and interpretation. Cataloguing, in particular, is vital, allowing researchers to be able to access archive material that has been organised according to international standards. Additionally, Heather provided advice on how to display paper archives.

“We really want museums to make the best of collections, but it’s important to guide them, because paper needs to be treated in a very different ways to objects. In particular, letters and so on can’t be put on display for too long, because they deteriorate so rapidly.”

Shows the red-bricked exterior of Jane Austen's house

The Jane Austen Museum houses letters and manuscripts visited by literary tourists from the world over.

The training has been so well received that it has been extended for a further nine months. Heather puts this down to the enthusiasm with which museums have got involved.

“It’s been really successful because the museums have engaged with it so well, hence the continuation of the project.”

SEMLAC have invested a further £10,000 in the project, which will be used both to reassess the museums that have already been visited and to arrange another series of visits to six or seven military museums, as well as hosting a series of training events.

Heather’s own background is as a professional archivist. She has a Masters degree in Archive and Records Management from Liverpool University, and is currently working on the archives at the National Motor Museum as part of a Designation Challenge Fund project, in addition to working on the Sharing Skills project.

“Being based at Beaulieu made things a lot easier”, Heather explained. “Because I’m involved in working with the archive here, I’ve developed a good sense of the kind of issues that face museums.”

Fortunately for the rest of the South East region, Heather is already carrying out preliminary research to see if the scheme can be extended region-wide. Paper in museums might never be the same again!

Shows the Renaissance in the Regions logo.

Olivia Laing is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.