So volunteering in a museum in Medway doesn’t sound that fun right? I mean Medway as a place isn’t the most appealing and to be frank, getting the bus from my house to work, means I have to see Gillingham high street and that is an awful sight! However Medway is a collection of towns full of history, it is where, in the 17th century, the Dutch sailed up the river Medway and destroyed and captured most of our naval fleet. There are a large amount of forts that were built afterwards that would stop that from happening again. The Chatham docks are the only ones in Europe that are left like they were; it still has a rope making facility! It is of course the home to the famous and well-respected Royal Engineers!
Well I have been working at the Royal Engineers Museum for two whole summers now, and I can assure you it’s amazing. I have met some interesting and wonderful people who volunteer just like me, and the curatorial staff are great. So why did I volunteer at a museum? Well it is a possible career path that interests me, but it is more about helping the museum out. Without volunteers, the museum would struggle, we do important jobs like archiving and documenting objects, our job is extremely important.
Museums allow history to connect with the public. Books and that are great, but with people reading less and less, museums are the main way in which we can get history to all generations, whether old or young. The text that the exhibitions have has to be understood by an eight year old, therefore difficult words are usually left out and such; however this does not take away from the exhibition, why would it? History needs to be accessible and interesting, and museums across the country allow this. Hopefully by reading the rest of this blog, you will come to a similar conclusion to me, that Museums are extremely important and without them, the past would be forgotten. Now I urge you to look to volunteer, whether you’re in a job or not at the moment, it is a great experience and rewarding. You certainly would make a difference.
The Royal Engineers Museum in Chatham is one that celebrates the History of the Royal Engineers (funnily enough!). This is not necessarily all about warfare; the Engineers are famous for building bridges and railways that still last today. Look at India, most of the railways in India, were built by the efforts of the Royal Engineers. They are experts at bridge making/laying and the museum demonstrates this rather obviously, with vehicles outside the museum representing Bridge layers throughout their history. The Museum itself is located part of the old Barracks and still houses offices of the Royal Engineers, this includes recruitment offices. I often see soldiers walking around the museum, they are nice guys!
Part of the Royal Engineers history is the famous General Gordon, whose death in 1885 sparked national outcry. It has been argued that his death led to the defeat of Gladstone’s Liberal party in 1885. Gladstone went from GOM (Grand Old Man) to the MOG (Murder of Gordon). The Museum exhibition shows Gordon as a hero, something that has been widely contested; his death at Khartoum could have easily been avoided. Nonetheless, the Museum depicts Gordon’s death as tragic, a clear bias of course! I keep my opinions of Gordon to myself, no need to upset the many soldiers who look up to him!
The Museum is not a highly funded one, compared to that of the British Museum or such, and it does not have a lot of money to play around with, however, it still manages to engage with the public, and offers a variety of Exhibitions every year.
Currently the Museum offers a variety of exhibitions such as ‘time Bleeds’ which asks the important question ‘what happens if we forget?’. After 100 years from the First World War, this is an important question to ask and one which connects with the public. Another exhibition was an online one about the D-Day experience which commemorates the 70th anniversary of D-Day. It holds a beautiful collection of sketches and other material, created by B. Haward, a Royal Engineer who was in one of the Assault Squadrons during the Normandy Campaign. The Assault Squadrons were those who were in specialised tanks, which included mine flayers, and flame thrower tanks. Another exhibition is labelled Outbreak 1914: Royal Engineers Go To War. This discusses the Royal Engineers impact in the First World War. They had an important role, and one that should not be forgotten. Finally in October there will be the exhibition labelled the Unseen Project, which is an experimental photo-series which uses some of the last infrared colour film ever produced. The work explores the boundaries of our perception, allowing us to see things outside our normal visual spectrum.
I had the fortunate opportunity of working here as a volunteer in the summer of 2013. I worked on an exhibition that opened up the process of archiving and documenting to the public. Being part of the display, the volunteers were set to work on documenting items and artefacts that had been lost or misplaced. The Volunteers had found a variety of amazing objects, such as swords, uniforms, flags, and drums used by the army. The public saw what we were doing and could ask a variety of questions and even offered their own opinion on objects, which we found incredibly helpful. We knew that we did not know everything, and like true historians we listened to what they had to say, which helped us! I had found a Queens South Africa Medal, something for me was quite personal as my Great Grandfather had received one but it was lost when the ship carrying his possessions (he died in Africa in WW1) was sunk by a German Submarine.
This summer I went back to volunteer, and the documenting still had not been completed! There is so much stuff to go through that it has taken over a year and still not close to completion! I was sent to work using Adlib. This is a software programme that some Museums use to archive their artefacts. It is quite hard to use at first and takes a few goes to get used to. It requires a lot of detail and you have to be sure you feel in the right box, otherwise it might not be found by someone looking for it. I have made mistakes, I admit it, but the staff are wonderful, and I correct what I’ve done wrong and we continue. Once I wasted a whole morning, stupid me! Adlib however, once filled in, makes life so much easier for those outside the museum or those inside who are trying to find an object/document that someone had/made to either see or use as part of an exhibition.
The Museum is free to Service men and to Volunteers, I highly recommend it if you ever are visiting Chatham (which as mentioned, also holds the famous Chatham Docks). It has a small café and has enough information to keep you entertained for hours. It is suitable for kids, especially during term times, when there are always children activities around, which they always seem to enjoy. I have been round many times as a small child and many times as an adult, and I never get bored. Museums are amazing, and I highly recommend taking the time out of your busy life, and going round your local ones. When you are on holiday, go and visit museums. They are the best!