Beginning to Document Deptford Ragged School Archive: training, enthusiasm and lots of questions!
After months of planning, during which I had thoroughly picked the brains of colleagues, professional peers and people whose expertise I respect and admire, and having gathered a group of keen volunteers, nine of us met early January 2019 for the first time to learn how to document the Deptford Ragged School Archive.
Although the Deptford Ragged School Archive (check out the ‘about’ page to find out more) is based in the Bear Church, the group is made up of people from various places with connections well beyond The Bear. Between us we had many different motivations for doing this, ranging from a love of museums and local history, needing experience as a recent graduate, a desire to make history publicly available, and a deep love for Deptford.
Caroline Brown, Exhibitions Officer, a former colleague from IWM, now at the British Library, came to train us. We each came with varying experience of museums & archives, as visitors, some with experience of public
engagement and learning, most of us with little experience of documenting objects, however we all brought a huge amount of enthusiasm.
Caroline generously and expertly shared her experience with us, beginning by getting us, in groups, to unpick (not literally) and describe her glove and scarf. What could we find out about these objects by simply looking at them?
We had lots of questions to follow! We knew who owned them, knew their purpose, but where were they made, when where they made, what were they made from, who made them, who bought them, perhaps they were a gift, why was there only one glove? This revealed the complexity of documentation, including the many, many ways of describing an object and the trains of thought that follow. We realised that we needed to be much more focused, otherwise getting through boxes and boxes of documents, reports, photos and so much other stuff, although fascinating, could take forever.
Caroline brought everything into focus by taking us through the inventory standards of the Collections Trust; everything required of us if we were to become an accredited museum one day. We needed:
Number of objects
Cataloguer and date
Then we got to work on the real thing! One group was given a letter from the archive, the other group was given a group of three letters held together by a rusty pin. It was beginning to get exciting but it raised even more questions. What information was essential? What were the best ways of describing these letters? Should the author or the recipient be documented? How should we describe their condition? And who was ‘Arthur’, he seemed to have written most of these letters? What do I do about this rusty pin?
We threw question after question at Caroline about cataloguing and had to stop ourselves googling names, dates and places to find out more! Caroline kept us focused on documentation, as our attention and enthusiasm was drawn to the stories revealed through these letters. We, very prematurely, wanted to go into too much detail, when the task in hand was simply to document the contents of the archive. If we did this well now, it would make things easier and simpler in the future, to gather and tell the rich stories held in the Deptford Ragged School Archive.
After a couple of hours we had finished the training, excitedly anticipating our next get-together when we could actually start properly!