“Curiouser and Curiouser”

The trainees had a wonderful day in London last week, visiting a range a museums and archives. At the Imperial War Museum, and the Wellcome Library, we met and talked to professionals. Both venues have recently refurbished and installed an area that invites curious visitors to get closer to the collections, and coming from my placement at Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, I was interested to see how both venues are attracting new audiences to research.

At the Imperial War Museum Tim Free the Visitor Engagement Officer kindly showed us around. He explained the new layout of the displays, with the idea of a ‘cluster’ of objections linked together by a story which really appeals to visitors. The new layout has ‘post-it’ style labels don’t reveal a lot about the artefacts, but in the Explore History area the most interested visitors can learn more.

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Visitors are invited to Explore History at the Imperial War Museum

During the time I chatted to the assistant in Explore History, several people popped in to utilise the touch-screens for information on the museum displays. But visitors can go further. The area is full of books that give more in-depth information about artefacts, while oral histories can be searched and listened to on the computers. And yet there is more. The assistant told me about the number of people who are inspired by their visit to the museum to research their family and local history. Via a collection of leaflets and the next door research room visitors can access original documents. This is a brilliant way to connect with visitors who are inquisitive enough to get started with research.

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Wellcome Library Reading Room: for the incurably curious

And the story at the Wellcome Library is a similar one. There I was met by Ross Macfarlane who showed me around the ever growing library of medical- and health-related books and artworks. The library was wonderfully spacious and quiet, with industrious students working away in each corner. But my favourite part of the library was the brand new Reading Room. Here, visitors to the Wellcome Collection are encouraged to be curious. Exhibits such as phrenology heads, and medical implements are displayed with very limited labels alongside connected books, copies of documents, images, and even medical equipment, to encourage visitors to search for themselves, to learn more about the objects. For a while we chatted about the area and the ideas behind it, while watching visitors look around and interact with the displays, before I could no longer resist and had to get my own hands on the books and artefacts.

It is such a brilliant idea to have an area in between museum exhibits and research collections. The new areas provide a link between museums and archives, breaking down the invisible barriers between visitors and documents.  Judging by the number of visitors enjoying the two London sites we visited, access to documents is popular with the incurably curious.

Sarah Ganderton

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Orangutans and Latin

When as a sixth-form student it was time to decide what to study at university, I was truly undecided. The way in which the world around me worked fascinated me just as much as delving back into the mysteries of the past. Eventually I was able to narrow my choices down to one of two options – do I study Biology, or Classics?

I chose the latter, and enjoyed every second of it. As the seconds ran out, I started to have to think about what I wanted to do for a career. At a bit of a loss, I started to volunteer in my local museum and absolutely fell in love with the heritage sector. Before coming to Worcester, I had volunteered at a range of different institutions: the London Borough of Sutton, the National Army Museum and the National Maritime Museum. As I learnt more and more about the periods of history covered by these organisations, I began to think that using my Latin would become a thing of the past for me – as too would indulging my interest in natural history.

How wrong I was. A good proportion of the books in the Cathedral library and archive are in Latin, and being able to read them has obvious benefits when it comes to carrying out research – or just being plain nosey. Leafing through one of our more sumptuously illustrated natural history books (and one written in Latin), I came across a rather dubious illustration of an orangutan. As I would later find out, this was actually the first ever depiction of the ape to appear in Europe, first published in 1631. Yet what was truly fascinating was the rather curious inscription underneath the picture: Loqui vero eos easque posse, Iavani aiunt, sed non velle, ne ad labores cogerentur: ridicule me Hercules! This translates as something like ‘The Javanese say that they [the orangutans] are able to speak, but do not want to, lest they be compelled to work. Ridiculous by God!’ I still find orangutans fascinating. Yet there’s just something truly amazing about reading the first European account of one – to think of the astonishment that a 17th Century Dutch naturalist must have felt at seeing this red-haired form – almost human, but not quite – swinging through the shadowy jungle, and his attempt to make sense of it all.

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The first image of an orangutan to appear in Europe. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

My interest was truly pricked. Here was book that had it all: Biology, Latin, and a good smattering of the histories of science and colonialism. I think it goes a long way to demonstrate too that it doesn’t matter what pathway you take into the heritage sector. The main thing is to be endlessly curious about everything and to really enjoy communicating that enthusiasm.

I was able to post many of the other lovely woodcuts from this book on twitter as part of #explorearchives week. I also enjoyed #archiveselfie feature – here’s one of me looking appropriately serious at work!

TomHopkinsWorcester

Archive selfie!

Read more about my encounter with the orangutan at http://worcestercathedrallibrary.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/dutch-colonisation-natural-history-and-why-latin-is-still-useful/ Contact me on Twitter @TMPHopkins1

Tom Hopkins

If Monks had WordPress: Medieval Libraries and Social Media

As part of my traineeship I’m responsible for maintaining Worcester Cathedral Library’s social media presence, employing a Facebook page, a WordPress blog and a Twitter account. Our library is located up 46 steps of a very narrow spiral staircase, which can make access very difficult for many people. Yet our collection encompasses a vast range of material that is of interest to an international audience. Social Media is therefore a really good vehicle by which we can increase access – at least electronically – into a space that is physically remote from most people.

As I mentioned in my last post here, I’m starting to get some of our volunteers to help write material for the library’s blog. Not only does this mean that we get a broader range of topics covered, it also takes some of the work load off me so that I can focus on my exhibition work, palaeography lessons and tours. Yet that doesn’t mean I can always put volunteer-written articles up on our blog without doing any work on them. I have to proof read them (just as my supervisor does with my own posts), make sure they’re appropriate (they all have been so far), and sometimes do a little tinkering to make them read a bit better.

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Quirky and fascinating, but maybe not beautiful. South American wildlife, allegedly. How could I not want to make material like this more readily accessible? Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

As part of a joint training session, all the Growing Worcestershire’s Treasure Skills for the Future trainees undertook a workshop on ‘Exciting Writing’, delivered by Kate Measures. I learnt an awful lot from this session about how to produce writing that is engaging, accessible, and of course exciting. Ever since, I have been trying to put the principles I learnt into practice – both in my own work and in that of my volunteers.

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Ditto, with these fine sea monsters I came across recently. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Running the Facebook page requires rather less facility with written language, but it is an excellent platform on which to quickly post pictures. Each day, I’m bound to come across something quirky, fascinating or beautiful (and sometimes all three) in the library – so it’s a simple case of photographing it and whacking it on to our page for our followers to enjoy!

Check out our Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/WorcesterCathedralLibrary

And our blog at: http://worcestercathedrallibrary.wordpress.com/

Tom Hopkins

Enthusing, Enthralling and Entertaining: Learning how to do Tours

An important aspect of my traineeship has been learning how to conduct tours. Given the setting of Worcester Cathedral Library – up a very narrow medieval spiral staircase, and with no glass cases in front of our books – we cannot be open to the public all of the time, and visits must be escorted.  Yet conducting a tour is so much more than ensuring the well-being of our visitors and the security of our objects – it is also about educating and entertaining.

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The tour that we offer typically lasts about an hour. That means there are a lot of books to get through (we get some out for display), and a lot of information to hold in your head at one time! So far, I’ve only been doing parts of the tours, while shadowing my supervisor for the remainder. However, he has taught me far more than just facts to regurgitate!

Knowing who your audience is and pitching to them is of critical importance. By picking up on someone’s particular interests, or where they’re from, we can present them with material that is going to fascinate them. Most recently, a group of retired nurses were engrossed with our anatomy and medical textbooks, a visitor from the Netherlands was keen to see one of our medieval Books of Hours written in Middle Dutch, and an American man was enthralled by some of our earlier maps that erroneously showed his native state of California to be an island.

It is a very rewarding experience when someone really enjoys their tour, but there is more in it than just personal satisfaction. The more impressed someone is by their visit to the Cathedral library, the more likely we are to benefit from word-of-mouth recommendations, or even receive generous donations. Interacting with the public face to face also gives me a good idea of what topics will be of most interest generally when it comes to the other roles encompassed by my traineeship: exhibition development and running the blog, both of which are all important aspects when it comes to opening up the collection of the library and archive to the widest possible audience.

Talking of the blog – we have a steadily growing number of hits per week, and I have now got a good amount of material coming in from our fantastic team of volunteers.  This is important for making sure that I don’t write just about the things that I’m interested in! See our latest content here: http://worcestercathedrallibrary.wordpress.com/

Tom Hopkins

Magnificent Manuscripts and Incredible Incunabulae

Hello, Tom here at Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive.

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The view from my window!

Like everyone else, I’ve been amazed by how fast the last few weeks have gone by! I’ve been working on a number of different projects at the same time, so no two days are quite the same. One of the first things I started with was updating our blog. The library has such a wealth of fascinating content, so I think it’s really important to try and share this with the widest possible audience. Social media seems the perfect vehicle for this – especially since access to the library can be tricky (up an 11th Century spiral staircase) and many of our objects are too fragile to handle regularly or put on long-term display.

I’ve been working closely with my supervisor, David, to learn important new skills. Unsurprisingly, book handling is one of these – and I now feel confident enough to leaf through the medieval manuscripts. However, my sense of awe that something so fragile and vulnerable could survive so long remains undiminished.

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Another key skill I’m getting to grips with is palaeography, or the study of old hand writing. Apparently by the end of my 15 months I should be able to sail through texts like this:

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Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)