Original artwork for a poster advertising Rowntree’s Fruit Gums (1954)
2013 is an important year for my host organisation, the Borthwick Institute for Archives, based at the University of York. The year simultaneously marks both the 50th anniversary of the University’s establishment, and the 60th anniversary of the Borthwick’s foundation. The latter became a part of the former in 1963, on occasion of the university’s opening.
Formed in 1953 as a repository and public research centre for the vast ecclesiastical archive of the Archdiocese of York, the Borthwick has since acquired material of increasingly broad and diverse origins. No longer renowned solely for its extensive church records, dating as far back as the 13th century, the Borthwick now boasts holdings that range from the archive of internationally acclaimed playwright Alan Ayckbourn, to those of the famous confectionery firms, Rowntree’s and Terry’s. Other highlights include the secret war diaries of E. F. L. Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax, who served as Foreign Secretary and British Ambassador to the United States during World War II, and the archive of The Retreat, a Quaker-founded hospital for the mentally ill, established in 1796, which pioneered humane, progressive therapies at a time when most other asylums were treating their patients as little more than animals.
Telegram from famed playwright Noël Coward to Alan Ayckbourn on the premiere of his play, Relatively Speaking (1967)
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Those blog readers who’ve been to Kew recently will have noticed we’ve carried out a few changes to our museum.
You may not know this, but The National Archives and its predecessor, the Public Record Office, have had some form of museum to display our fantastic collection since the early 1900s and it is a really great resource to have.
The face the old museum presented to those arriving at The National Archives
The museum was completely redesigned in 2008 and, while people really loved the content and displays, the space never really worked the way it was supposed to. So, after carrying out an internal review of the museum this year, we started a project to address the main issues identified: that the space was cold, dark, uninviting and often looked closed and there wasn’t any space or facilities for a large group, limiting our education department’s use of the space. All of these problems resulted in there being relatively little use of the museum, it was often empty and those who did pop in to take a look didn’t stay very long.
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Think for a minute about your last visit to a museum.
Now, can you picture what one of the display cases looked like?
I’m guessing you probably can’t. I imagine most people never even consider the box displaying their favourite piece of the past. And that’s good, because it means someone’s done a good job. The idea is for the objects displayed to be the centre of attention and for the display case to fade into the background; to not be memorable.
I have to admit to spending a fair amount of time actually looking at display cases when I visit museums these days. I’m always interested to see how others are displaying objects, and the technology and materials they are using. It’s just like back in the days when I used to sell window blinds; whenever I walked into a room the blinds were always the first thing I noticed!
The Collection Care Department manages many aspects of The National Archives’ on site museum including the display cases. It’s not as simple as just setting up the document, locking the case, walking away and forgetting about it for a few months. We spend a good amount of time behind the scenes maintaining our cases. For some display cases, this means we have to do regular maintenance work on machines that control the relative humidity, an important agent of deterioration. Other display cases use a passive means to buffer changes in relative humidity. These contain materials like silica gel that require regular changing and recharging to be effective. Then we need to monitor the microenvironment we’ve created to ensure the cases continue to provide suitable environmental conditions for the different types of records we’ve got on display. We also test the cases to make sure they are airtight to protect the documents on display from pollutants such as dust.