Being human is a concept that seems strange in the world of military history. Yet this is exactly what the National Army Museum is about – exploring the ordinary, and not so ordinary life, of the British Army, through battles, campaigns and daily life from billets to trenches. And nothing says as much about this human side as the archive collections which the museum is privileged to preserve and share. Being the museum archivist means I have the opportunity to find ways in which to provide access to the written word, and although archive collections can all too easily be lost within museum showcases and displays, I am constantly reminded of the quote ‘Words are powerful, use them wisely’. Archives provide the context to who we are, where we have been, and validate our existence as organisations, and as people.
The National Army Museum will be opening up its doors for the Being Human festival this year as part of the 'Archives weekend', and the exciting news is that archives will be the focus! The theme of ‘Lost and Found’ is a great fit for archives – it always seems that we talk about ‘hidden’ archives, ‘dusty’ archives, ‘treasures buried in the archive store’, and as an archive professional, it is certainly my job to make sure others can find all these jewels! We find archives through cataloguing, through making sure we describe and give our potential users enough information about the collections to make them want to find out more. The collections aren’t lost – what bad record keepers we would be if that were the case! They are safely held in storage. And although, generally speaking, an archive store isn’t exciting to look at (rows and rows of racking with boxes), just lift the lid on some boxes, open up some volumes, and another world exists…
The 'Archives weekend' will include the chance to peek behind the scenes at the archive store in Chelsea, which has recently been opened and has been developed to top archival specifications. And there will be an opportunity to see some of the highlights of the museum’s archive collection during this tour, taking in some unique and valuable material, most of which is usually available for research through the normal channels of the museum’s Templer Study Centre in the bowels of the Chelsea building.
Other activities on offer will be a family activity workshop, which will set children the challenge to solve puzzles using resources based on archive material. And as the archivist in residence, I will be giving a talk about my work on the institutional archive – the records of the museum itself, spanning since before the formal foundation of the museum in 1960 up to the present day – with an insight into just some of the personalities that have made the museum what it is today, together with fantastic photographs and snippets of information from the museum’s history. No scandal, no pistols at dawn or tasty bits of gossip, I am afraid, but plenty of tales of persuasion, celebration, pride and respect revealed among the founding papers of an institution which was formed in the dwindling light of the glory days of the British Army.
There is nothing dusty or hidden among the archives of the National Army Museum – just a treasure trove of words to be explored and discovered again and again!