Last week I cleaned a German World War One Torpedo, found out what’s stored inside the drawer of an Electro Shock Therapy table, took photographs of an airplane engine and opened a wooden crate that had been sealed for over fifteen years.
While I would probably do all of these things just for fun, these activities are actually part of my new job. And what is this curious form of employment? Officially, I’m a documentation assistant working on Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’ Science and Industry and Maritime museum collections, currently located in store. Unofficially, I’m a cross between David Dickinson and Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.
Having worked as a front of house assistant at the Discovery Museum for over three years, I couldn’t wait to get behind the scenes, get my hands on some actual objects and learn more about what makes an object museum-worthy. Like anyone moving on to a full-time, grown up position, my first thoughts gravitated towards my new wardrobe. Little did I know that my new work-style would be less Nine to Five, more Open All Hours.
Each week, I don what I have affectionately come to refer to as my ‘sad-rags’, complete with steel toe-capped boots, protective breathing mask and plastic gloves and descend into the dusty, draughty basement store room. I spend my days investigating, cleaning, conserving and recording the eclectic mix of fascinating and, at times, unidentified objects housed there – and I love every minute of it.
My outfit isn’t just designed to give my colleagues a laugh as it protects my skin and lungs while I work. Many of the objects housed in this store were used in heavy industry so there’s always a chance they may contain asbestos, carcinogenic oil or other nasty substances.
The tricky bit comes when some of these objects have to be moved to improve access. Imagine playing a real-life game of Tetris, but instead of moving brightly-coloured virtual blocks you’re trying to move turbine engines, model ships, steam pumps and generators, some of which weigh, quite literally, a ton. In place of a quirky computer theme tune the air is filled with the grunts and sighs of heavy labour, punctuated with the odd expletive.
With no windows, natural light or fresh air it can feel as though time is standing still down there – like you’re the only people left in the world – so if you ever visit the Discovery Museum and hear the odd crash, strange hammering noises or incoherent babbling beneath your feet, don’t worry, it’s only us.
I do get to turn up in a pencil skirt and tap on my keyboard from time to time, as I spend a few days a week on research and documentation. I feel a bit like a detective at times looking for clues that will tell us more about the objects we uncover. Using old records, photographs, letters and other documents, I try to piece together how and why this particular object came into our possession and what makes it significant.
I also create and improve the objects’ online records. Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums currently has over half a million records of objects in its collection and we hope to give you access to information and images on every single one of them online. Have a browse here.
The project is progressing wonderfully so far, with the final outcome becoming ever clearer in our sights. Sometime soon, we hope to have this store in good enough shape that you, our lovely public, can visit and do a little investigating of your own. In the meantime I’ll be sharing more images and stories of the treasure we uncover over the next few months so do call back from time to time.