Being an independent, self-funded museum brings with it lots of challenges, from the financial to the logistical. The number of ideas that fly around our office only to be brought back down to earth with a bump by someone muttering, "If only we had the money..." or "But we just don't have the time".
On the flip side, though, being a small team and being independent does give us some advantages. It's makes us flexible, resourceful and, on occasion, able to grab once-in-a-lifetime opportunities without the need for committees, rubber stamps and forms-signed-in-triplicate. And one of those opportunities came our way earlier this year when we acquired the remarkable and unique archive of the former superintendent of the Metropolitan Police – and the man who led the investigation into Jack the Ripper – Donald Sutherland Swanson.
If you have visited us in the last few weeks and explored our new exhibition, ‘Daring Detectives and Dastardly Deeds’, you will have seen some of the objects from this amazing collection on display. Many of them have never been shown to the public before anywhere in the world. The items now on display at our museum include 'the Swanson marginalia'; a book, annotated by Swanson, in which he names the person he believed to be the infamous Whitechapel murderer.
The Swanson archive is a collection of national importance and is thought to be one of the most detailed and significant of its kind. It covers not only his work with the Metropolitan Police - cases which took him the length and breadth of Britain - but also his personal and family life. It includes official police paperwork and documents from a number of nationally significant criminal cases as well as Swanson's own personal findings, theories and evaluations, arrest lists and the resources he used to solve some of his cases. As such, it offers an unrivalled insight into the life of a 19th century detective.
And now the entire collection - some 150 individual photographs, letters, drawings and personal belongings - has been entrusted to our care. So how did we - a relatively small, independent museum in Sheffield - manage to secure this prestigious archive when other high-profile private collectors and major museums could not? (Apart from the obvious fact that we're brilliant and fabulous and awesome, of course).
Curator Holly Roberts talks about acquiring the Swanson collection for NESM
Ironically it is partly our status as a provincial, independent museum that played a large part in securing the archive. There was a lot of interest in the collection from much bigger and better known museums than ourselves. But the Swanson family, who had been caring for the archive since it was discovered in the early 1980s, really wanted it to be with a museum that would showcase it to its fullest extent and give it the star treatment it deserves. In that sense, we could offer something that some bigger museums couldn’t.
That ‘something’ is a whole host of activities intended to raise the profile of Swanson and his career, from talks and workshops to making the collection available to researchers and historians online. First up, Swanson will be the focus of an exclusive special event being held at the museum on 9 July, when the detective's biographer, Adam Wood, will look at the discovery of the so-called marginalia and examine the case against the man Swanson believed to be the prime suspect in the Jack the Ripper case.
Another key to securing the collection was the museum’s collaborative approach which began with the hard work of museum curator Holly Roberts and supported by Adam Wood. This approach has seen NESM work closely with the Swanson family, as well as leading academics and historians.
Holly was busy planning and researching the exhibition that would become 'Daring Detectives and Dastardly Deeds' (what became an 18-month project, thanks to Covid) when she was put in touch with Adam, author of the definitive biography of Donald Swanson, and through him with the Swanson family. Adam immediately saw the potential of NESM as a home for the archive and thanks to his efforts, to the Swanson family and, of course, Holly's tireless hard work we were able to bring the archive to Sheffield.
Establishing these really positive relationships, and working so closely with Adam and the family, has made a huge difference and without that we wouldn’t have the collection. From these discussions we understood completely what the family wanted; that we use the collection to celebrate Swanson and ensure that his remarkable life and career are appreciated once more. Their trust in us and in Adam meant they said ‘yes’ to the collection leaving the care of the family for the first time.
From the moment we knew we had the Swanson archive, we were under no illusions that we had acquired something amazing. Keeping it under our hats for months was no easy task I can tell you! But, from the off, there was also a determination to do the very best we could to showcase and share this amazing collection and to justify the faith that has been put in our museum. The reaction we have had so far, from the visitors and the Swanson family, has been very encouraging. But that's just the beginning. We may be small(ish) - but we are mighty!
Tickets for Jack the Ripper: Chief Inspector Swanson and Scotland Yard’s prime suspect - a talk by Adam Wood - are on sale now. More information is at https://www.visitnesm.org.uk/ripper-talk.