In 2017 I began working at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) as an Archive Assistant with the Museum Archive. It was my first job in the sector after graduating from university and studying Modern and Contemporary History. I had used my local archive at university for a research project but I had little knowledge of what working in an archive would entail.
Like most people interested in history, I decided I wanted to work in the museum sector. I set about gaining some work experience and ended up volunteering in a couple of local museums where I supported the Learning teams in bringing their collections and exhibitions to life for school children and the local community. My roles were often to create an engaging narrative to tell the stories behind the collections, which often needed little input from me as the fascinating stories told themselves!
I have always been interested in social history and enjoyed researching personal stories from the past. My first introduction to archives was not until my first year at university, where I volunteered on a research project entitled ‘The East End at War’. I visited Tower Hamlets archive and searched through local newspapers from the First World War to find interesting stories of local people to share on an online blog. It was fascinating to see familiar places named and photographed in the newspapers and see how much the local area had changed. When I completed my degree, I began to consider working in an archive and was lucky enough to be given a job at the IWM with the Museum Archive team.
In my archival role at the IWM I am responsible for documenting collection items and recording their contextual history. From the offset I was cataloguing and repackaging documentation for long term conservation purposes. I quickly learnt to catalogue items following ISAD (G) guidelines and how to correctly store paper collections. The importance of documentation became clear after I catalogued the personal archive of Ronald Searle. Searle was an artist and satirical cartoonist who became a POW in Singapore during the Second World War. He kept photocopies of his original war drawings that documented life in Changi camp and the brutal conditions of life as a prisoner of war. Searle also donated the original list of subscribers to the magazine he edited as a POW, ‘Exile’, along with his pencil box and original drawings that were catalogued and digitised. I was given the opportunity to catalogue the documentation that supported his original sketches and drawings and learnt the importance of archival integrity. Rather than being in an education space, I was working with this collection so it could be made accessible for interpretation in a learning environment (or so I like to think!).
My role with the Museum Archive team has additionally led me to catalogue undocumented collections. As part of a wider decant project, my team have been cataloguing Second World War censored captions that relate to photographs taken by official war photographers. The hope of the Photograph Archive team is to provide greater accessibility to these captions and therefore the records we are creating are fundamental to achieving this. These caption sheets and photographer dope sheets have highlighted the challenges to archival arrangement and introduced me to the conservation challenges of working with paper and rusted steel paperclips! Most importantly, it has showed the importance of archival work in preserving pieces of history as the caption sheets have provided an interesting insight into censorship in Britain during the Second World War. They demonstrate how photographs were edited, who they were edited by and the types of subjects photographers captured. Preserving this type of information is just as important as preserving the corresponding photographs.
Although a large part of my role allows me to work with historic documentation, I have learnt that the role of records management is just as important. I have supported a recent project to catalogue acquisition documentation onto the IWM’s catalogue database. Files were linked to their related collections, allowing greater access to remotely search basic donor and copyright information for collections. These files, along with other exhibition and loan files, allow the IWM to prove ownership and copyright, demonstrating the importance of archives in providing an administrative history of an organisation.
My first job in the sector has introduced me to ISAD (G) guidelines, GDPR and taught me the importance of brass paperclips! I have learnt a lot about how the sector cares for the documents we see on display and I have since visited other archives in London. I have been lucky enough to work with a great team and with unseen collections. As I work with an archive team in a museum, I am able to see similarities between the two and how archives and museums can work together. There is a long way for me to go in terms of understanding the challenges for the sector and how best to overcome them, but I hope that I can continue to gain practical experience and engage with other professionals who are at the start of their careers. I owe a lot to that research project in my first year at university. If I had not volunteered, I may not have been exposed to the world of archives and would not fully understand how vital they are in recording our social history.
Megan Joyce, Archive Assistant, Imperial War Museum