An ambitious and complex project is underway to study, record, digitise and pack 300,000 items from the Science Museum Group Collection and transport them to a new publicly-accessible home at the National Collections Centre.
This blog series goes behind the scenes with the teams making it all happen.
As part of this project, many boxes of archive materials from the collection were transported to the National Collections Centre in Wiltshire. As the Associate Archivist on this project, my job has been to help study, record and digitise these items so they can be explored online.
First, I needed to ensure the items were stored in line with proper archival standards. To do this we use archival boxes as well as specially manufactured acid-free sleeves and folders so they do not damage the paper material.
After putting together a preliminary list of what had arrived, I started to research and catalogue the archive materials. This is the most intellectually stimulating part of the whole process as there is a such huge range of fascinating subjects covered.
One of the objects of interest to me was a small notebook which we now know belonged to Joseph Clement, the skilled engineer who built the incredible Difference Engine No. 1 for mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage.
Despite such an illustrious engineering career, this notebook does not relate to Clement’s engineering work. Instead he wrote it as a teenager, copying passages from other books to produce a credo, or statement of intent of how to live as a moral person.
The notebook has two section, the first dated 1793, when Clement was around 14, and the second dated 1798, when he was 19 and working as a thatcher. It includes words taken from Hugh Blair’s ‘Sermons’, advice for the young, a signature being practised and even doodles of a dog. You can find out more about Joseph Clement and the notebook in this video.
Within the archives, I’ve also studied an important series of letters relating to Richard Trevithick’s patent for a high-pressure steam engine. Trevithick developed a compact high-pressure steam engine to provide Cornish ore mines with a more fuel-efficient pumping engine and went on to build the world’s first steam railway locomotive.
Although there are no letters written by Trevithick himself, the papers include notes from his partners relating to the difficulties over the ownership of the patent and their attempts to enforce it.
As part of this, they produced a list of the companies that were producing high-pressure engines and calculated the premiums they owed on the patent. Many of these were challenged by the various companies and this archive illustrates the difficulties that prevented Trevithick or the other partners making a profit.
As well as the extraordinary, there are also many run-of-the-mill items that show the day-to-day operations of the past.
One such example is a set of accounts between Peel, Williams and Peel, a steam engine manufacturers based in Manchester, and Coates and Wright, a company who operated a cotton spinning mill in Ingleton, North Yorkshire.
Although these are ordinary documents, they demonstrate the way in which steam engines were introduced. There are orders for two different engines, the first was purchased to supplement the existing waterwheel in times of drought while the second was installed to replace it. These items show how the collection can be used to illustrate the everyday work of the past.
Finally, there was a single item that held a remarkably interesting pamphlet. The item itself was a photo album produced by C.W. Glover and Partners which mostly contains images of the building projects they undertook during the 1920s and ‘30s, including a sugar beet factory and the Leeds Synagogue.
Despite this seemingly ordinary content, the pamphlet attached to the back cover promotes a much more ambitious project than those covered in the rest of the album. This was produced by Central Airports Limited and details a project, promoted by Glover, for an airport to be built above the railway at Kings Cross railway station in London.
This airport, built on tower blocks that supported the five runways, was aimed at being a centre for transport that allowed people to fly their own aircraft into the city and then continue by either Underground or train. Such an airport was thought to be useful as it was at the time it was thought aircraft would develop the in the same way cars had, getting smaller, lighter and more affordable.