Opening up the Storeroom by Louisa Price
The Charles Dickens Museum’s Collections Online site went live earlier this week. This marks the beginning of a new and exciting chapter for us: it is a virtual opening up of our store room, allowing visitors the chance to explore our collections at their own pace and in their own way.
I hope searching the site brings you some of the enjoyment we as staff feel when poking around the storeroom and rifling in boxes; whether it’s the shock of looking closely at a Dickens character figurine to discover it’s made with real hair or the thrill when turning the page of a book from Dickens’s own library, to see his own annotations.
There is a real charm to small institutions like the Dickens Museum with its cosy interiors and storage areas reminiscent of The Old Curiosity Shop, all managed by a small team and supported by enthusiastic volunteers. Yet it is these characteristics that mean creating a database of the Museum’s holdings is no easy feat.
A recent photograph of the Dickens Museum curators beginning their weekly dust and check of the store…or more accurately: Watercolour of 'The Old Curiosity Shop' by George Cattermole, 1840 (DH98)
When the Museum opened its doors in 1925, it received donations from a variety of individuals (two significant acquisitions were the collections of B.W. Matz and Frederick George Kitton). Despite a period of closure during World War Two, the Museum continued to collect objects as well as publications and archive material from home and abroad. By the 2000s the Museum was crammed full of treasures - the library was in what is now the kitchen, and various display cabinets also doubled as storage units throughout the historic house.
Scenes of the Dickens Museum interior, 1925-1930s.
From 1925 to the 1970s, the building and collections were cared for by a librarian, subsequent house custodians and eventually after the Second Wold War, its first curator. The handful of Museum staff were supported by volunteers from the Dickens Fellowship. From the 2000s, steps were taken to bring the Museum in line with modern professional standards in collections care and in 2011 it gained Accreditation (the UK industry standard in Museum and Gallery practice).
Museum staff and volunteers ensuring the building’s safety during the Second World War.
In 2012, the £3.1 million HLF project, Great Expectations allowed the Museum to expand and improve its facilities meaning better storage and display spaces for its collections. One of the last things we purchased for the project was collections management software by System Simulations Ltd. which, amongst other things, allows us to make our database available to the public.
For the last six years, we have been working hard to draw together the Museum’s various historical catalogues into a single system, as well as trawling through the stores, checking, inventorying and photographing items in anticipation of making more of what we hold available for the public to search and see.
Historically, curators have been the gatekeepers of Museum collections, carefully managing what visitors and researchers could access. Increasingly, curators are charged with creating spaces where the public can be in control, search for themselves, make their own discoveries, draw connections and find the stories that interest them. Collections Online is part of that shift and we are excited to see how it will be used by Dickens fans and scholars across the world.
With the Museum estimated to have over 100,000 items in its care, we know we have a lot more work to do but with the help of a team of volunteers, slowly but surely, we will get more of our treasures uploaded there for you to explore.
Louisa Price has been Curator at the Charles Dickens Museum, London since 2014. She specialises in nineteenth and twentieth century social history collections. Prior to the Dickens Museum she worked at The Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, The Museum of The Home and the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum.
This blog takes you behind the scenes at the Charles Dickens Museum, giving fresh insight on everything from discoveries new and old in our collection, to exhibitions, events and learning initiatives.
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