Looking After the Past: The Hidden Items of St Andrews The Pom Pom
Thomas Irwin and Nicola Donaldson
For our first instalment of the Hidden Item blog, I sat down with Nicola, our curator, and had a chat about this artillery shell. It’s a ‘Pom Pom’ (not the type you use for arts and crafts, the type that explodes!) shell from the Boer War and would have been used by
the Boers mainly against the British.
Have a read of our chat and see how such a unique item is curated and how it would be used in an exhibition at the St Andrews Heritage Museum and Garden
This object’s an interesting one, it’s an artillery shell from before world war one. How do we keep track of its history, and is there anything interesting about it that you want to tell our readers?
This object is one that we still have little information about in terms of how it came into our collection. We know the donor’s surname but no other information was logged during its accession. Therefore, it is difficult to know how the donor acquired it. However, there are multiple clues on the object that allude to the time period. As a museum professional, you know to check marks, material and dimensions to give you a starting point for research and this all helps us to discover where objects have come from, or take an educated guess at it! For me the shell is a reminder of a move away from imperialism – a political symbol of the end of British ruling.
Keeping the object in good condition is a constant job and we have over 20,000 items in our collection, and all of them have their own needs for preservation, what sort of things do you do as a curator to make sure it’ll be there for future generations to enjoy?
We are extremely lucky at the Trust as we have help from our dedicated volunteers, otherwise we would be much further behind than expected! The main tasks that I work on are keeping up best practice standards, such as, preventative conservation. This includes house-keeping, environmental monitoring and ensuring we are handling, documenting, packing and storing objects to standards. With the help of our volunteers, we undertake audits and inventories of the items in our collection, these are done to either document or rationalise a collection. Recently our volunteers have been assisting with the costume bays and art racks to complete audits. This includes checking the object number, location, measurements and conditions. Also, every few months I need to record our environmental monitoring, this includes ensuring temperature and humidity stay within optimal conditions. All museums undertake these tasks as it ensures we are caring for our objects for future generations.
Considering how many items we have from such a wide period of time, is it difficult to put exhibitions together? If you were to use this shell, how would you put it into an exhibit?
I would say that it can be difficult to select items to exhibit as we have such a large and varied collection. I always try to make exhibitions relevant to timely topic matters, especially current ideas and debates that go on within the museum sector. Although we are a social history museum of St Andrews, we are still part of the wider issues that affect people all over the world. Also, we have many international visitors join us, especially during the summer periods. There is something quite special about displaying an object that has local significance but also finding a story that resonates with the wider world. You want people to engage with objects and go home feeling that they had an amazing experience. Museums are about having fun as much as they are a learning environment. I want people from all walks of life to come into a museum and feel there is something for them to see or a story that resonates with them.
If I was to have the shell on display I would focus on the idea of imperialism and Emily Hobhouse’s involvement in bringing awareness of the camps which killed around 28,000 Boers plus more in separate camps. In terms of curating the show, I would possibly be looking for external loans that align with the theme and interpretation, as we don’t have another object of similar descent.
When we show our collection to the public we try to bring the history of St Andrews forward for people to enjoy. This shell is definitely not St Andrean, being from the Boer War. Do you enjoy the challenge of integrating these sorts of objects into ‘St Andrean’ Exhibits? How do you approach that challenge?
Yes, it is always tricky when trying to discover the direct link of an object into our collection. The main source of information is always to access the Collections Management System which, in simple terms, is a museum standard database that is a safe system of storing all information about every item in our collection. From here, I always look for clues such as the donor, material, date, interpretation etc. This provides a basis to begin research on the item. I guess with this particular item, if I was to relate it to St Andrews, I would be interpreting it as a travelling object. The story itself does not have to be about historical knowledge but it can even come from the travelling story of how the object came into our care. Perhaps this is what I would discuss if it was to be on display in a different exhibition.
The St Andrews Preservation Trust is mainly focused on the social history of St Andrews. There is definitely a military element to social history; war and peace inevitably interconnect in the course of history but how, as a curator, do you integrate the military history elements of our collection into the social history focus of the Trust?
When it comes to military history, especially within a social history context, I think one thing our visitors always like to hear about is the story of people. This is something everyone relates to and creates an emotional bond. With this item, I would be looking into the personal narratives of people during the war. Possibly trying to locate relatives and receive their response to a family member who was part of military history to gain their perspective, whilst also developing a strong narrative around the family throughout the decades. However, something that also ties in well with military history is mental wellbeing. This may be an opportunity for the museum to work with local charities who have supported men coming back from war and understanding the effects it has on them. There are many issues we could delve into with military items and it is always a popular subject matter for our visitors!
It certainly is a popular topic! We have visitors asking about the military aspect of our work, and at the Heritage Museum and Garden we have many links to both war and peacetime. The next time you visit, ask about the strong connection with Polish I Corps in World War Two and St Andrews, the crossfire from a siege nearly 500 years ago and how people from these times would have lived through them.
Next for our Hidden Item Blogs, we take a (not too deep!) dive into the last remaining privy in St Andrews, housed at the St Andrews Heritage Museum and Garden, to see how we make sure it is maintained despite the elements and how this universal part of life helped stop the spread of Cholera in the 19th Century.