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Caring for our collection: a month in the life of the NESM Collections Team

“So what exactly do you lot do then?” That’s a common question asked to members of our Collections Team. Visitors are often interested to know what goes on behind the scenes, what museum workers do with their time, and why it’s important (and why exactly we insist on wearing those white gloves all the time!) So here is a quick rundown of the life of our Collections Team over a typical month.

Our biggest job- and by far the most important- is to catalogue the museum’s vast collection of items and artefacts, only a fraction of which is on display to the public at any one time! “Cataloguing” is the pretty dry term used by museum staff for investigating objects in their collections and making a “fact-file” for each one. Like most museums, NESM has a jam-packed network of archive rooms, an Aladdin’s Cave of items hidden from public view, where we store the thousands of artefacts not on display. But unlike most other museums, we have no detailed records for most of them, items amassed over decades of collecting. It’s our team’s job to sort through them all, find out where they came from, who made them, how old they are, and sometimes even what they are! When we’ve done that, it’s time to put the information onto our new collection database, assign each object an I.D number, clean it, check it for damage, and photograph it. That way, our staff will never again have to wonder “what on earth’s this?” when they open up an archive box.

Most of this work goes on “backstage” without visitors ever noticing. But sometimes you might come across an empty display case in the museum, meaning the Collections Team has recently scurried past. All the items on display need to go through cataloguing too, so we remove them to our work room- hopefully not for too long- before replacing them. This also gives us a chance to refresh the exhibit, creating new displays with more informative labels.

If that wasn’t enough to fill our time (we do have nearly 1 Million objects to catalogue!) the Collections Team also has other jobs behind the scenes. One of the best is to help our Curator, Holly, to plan and design new exhibits for visitors to explore. The museum is always trying to improve its displays. In 2018 we completely revamped the cobbled yard area for our new “Blood, Bandages and Blue Lights” exhibit, all about the history of the Ambulance Service. This meant months of research and planning, deciding what we were going to display, what stories to tell, and how to tell them. It also meant putting our artist’s caps on, as we spent a month- with the expert help of our Building and Maintenance Team- creating a Victorian Apothecary filled with weird and wonderful remedies from the early days of medicine. Soon, we will be doing the same with our police service galleries, creating a whole new look for this part of the building.

That should keep us busy for a long time! But there are always extra tasks that pop up week by week requiring our attention. NESM holds a huge variety of special events throughout the year, with the Collections Team often called upon to help out. You might find us dressed up as 1940s soldiers at our Vintage Christmas Weekend, or handing out leaflets in the city centre. But more often than not, we’re in our work room, caring for the collection hopefully ensuring its survival for years to come. And as for why we wear those white gloves all the time: we just think they make us look cool.

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