Working with the Museum – Cataloguing and Inventory

Museum of the Order of St John Ambia, Student Placement

In March 2023 Ambia, a postgraduate history student at Queen Mary University of London, was placed with the Museum of the Order of St John to work on an ongoing inventory project, and gain an insight in to the work of a bustling museum and a busy heritage team. Ambia has written about her experience.

My experience completing my work placement has been insightful, as I had the opportunity to work with the Collections team at the Museum of the Order of St. John. The few weeks that I got to work with Immie Meade (the Collections Inventory Assistant) allowed me to learn about the important skills and precautions required when handling delicate objects that dated several decades back. My training consisted of:

Learning: I discovered the importance of SPECTRUM requirements, which are a set of standard procedures that encourages museums to ensure effective and ethical management of the objects under their care. By understanding these important steps, I learnt about the crucial work required to make sure the museum has a system in place to catalogue previously unidentified objects and take responsibility for them.

Hazards: I took part in thorough and informative hazards training that all staff and volunteers working at the Museum are required to complete. This was an essential debrief on the sorts of object that I could potentially come across, especially with the Museum’s St John Ambulance collection, which included several thousand medical instruments and medications. The training allowed me to understand the safety procedures in place when handling objects in order to not just ensure the safety of the object, but also my own safety which is important.

A square item wrapped in white tissue paper, with cotton take tied in a bow around the centre, with a swing label attached.

A square wooden item with the emblem of the Order of St John, with a tape measure alongside the object.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Observation: Another important element of my training was to observe the steps taken by Immie in the process of observation, as I have never had experience with cataloguing and inventorying historical objects. I was given the chance to help Immie, working through a medical box with bandages and plasters that were dated to the ‘early 20th century’ – these had not been given a catalogue number in the system. We took turns in handling the objects, and filling out an Excel spreadsheet that is used to enhance and add to the Museum database.

Practise: Several steps are required to be taken while completing inventory so that each item can be processed smoothly and accurately. Firstly, I needed to make sure I was wearing nitrile gloves at all times, and made sure that I correctly handled an object from its base and over the padded worktable for safety. Then I proceeded to look at what the object looked like, doing my best to describe the item in as much detail as I could see e.g. material, shape, markings etc. After I began filling out the spreadsheet with the visual description, I used a small tape measure to record the size of the object, as a part of the SPECTURM procedure. I then looked to see if the object had been given a previous catalogue number, and if it did not have one, I assigned a temporary number which could later be organised with an assigned permanent number. Lastly, I signed off the excel spreadsheet for that object, and proceeded to correctly pack the item with acid-free tissue paper, cotton tape and a label attached with its catalogue number (or temporary number). As soon as the object had been packaged correctly, I stored it in a box with more tissue paper ready to be placed in a labelled shelf.

My primary task was going through several boxes that have not been identified previously or have been stored away for years without being catalogued, so I got to work with new and exciting items that have not been discovered yet. I would have the opportunity to open a cardboard box without knowing what could be inside, which is always an exciting task for any curious historian! Most of the objects I came across were late 20th century awards and commemorative pieces that would resonate with the international side of both the modern Order of St. John but also St. John Ambulance. You can learn more about the Museum’s history at museumstjohn.org.uk.uk/our-story/history-of-the-order/ !

In the image gallery below are some of the images I took whilst I worked through the boxes with some of my favourite items I discovered. In Figure A, when observing this Royal Crown Derby dish, we found that it was one of a limited edition of 300 that were made in order to commemorate the Order service in Derby Cathedral 8th October 1983. In Figure B, this beautifully designed banner had two mandarin characters, which after some research I found out translated into Hong Kong. By doing this, I was able to accurately not only locate where the banner may have been gifted from, but also evidence of just how far St. John Ambulance has spread across the globe! In the last picture, Figure C, the Karva Fiji wooden bowl took us quite a few attempts to place its unique shape, with the 5 short wooden leg stands. After some research and help from Immie, we were able to locate the bowl to the object being a gift from the St. John Ambulance Fiji branch that was shaped in a unique Fiji tradition that reflected the local custom. These objects are a great example of just how many wonderful items have been stored away and that I have helped to bring out of their boxes and discovered once more through cataloguing and inventorying. By identifying these objects, we can then take further steps to be aware of what exists in the wider collections – and take necessary steps to continue conserving and preserving these items for future visitors, historians and researchers!