It is a year now since we first went into Lockdown. Normally my two days a week at The Museum are spent mostly in an office and Archival stores in Quex House, so I am quite isolated from the rest of the Museum. But that did not save me from Lockdown! Whereas my normal work may include checking, tidying the stores, re-boxing material and so on, at home none of that was going to be possible. Neither could I take away boxes of original material to work on. What to do?
Transcribing has been the easiest option. It is often not very exciting work – and I have not worked on it non-stop – but it has enormous benefits for us – principally that a digital document can be searched. We have typescript transcriptions of Major Powell-Cotton’s daily journal from 1889 until his death in 1940 but even though they are much easier to read and handle than his original handwritten notebooks, it’s not easy to look for and find things in them.
I began the journal transcriptions with a short, and lesser known trip – Portuguese & French Guinea in 1911. I found that Major Powell-Cotton had a companion on this trip, Charles Burnett. I did not recognise the name, so I was able to expand my interest in the job and our body of information by researching him. I discovered that in later life he was in charge of the Australian Air Force! We also found correspondence with Burnett in 1911, in the box of material relating to the trip.
One of my archive volunteers, equally keen to have something to do in Lockdown, transcribed photocopies of the letters. I also created documents listing the route taken, people met, people employed and so on. Then I tried to find out more, to expand these documents. Such research enlivens the slog of transcribing!
One of the largest collections in the Museum is, of course, the natural history specimens. In addition to the animal mounts in the dioramas, we have a research collection of skins and skeletal material in stores – around 6,000 mammals in total. The records accompanying this collection are equally extensive and historic. Major Powell-Cotton recorded the animals in his notebooks when in the field. Back in the Museum this was transcribed to paper records called ‘Beast Slips’ and later George Pinfold, the curator between 1921-1945, created a card index.
A catalogue was created in the 1970s and in more recent times information was put into a computerised spreadsheet and now we are working on a database. In the digital transcription I have cross referenced the natural history collection number with the Major’s account of the animal. When I get back into the Museum, I am going to have a look at the cards to see how the information there compares with the information the Major recorded in his journal – but probably not for all of them!
Another short trip I’ve been looking at was a visit to Canada and North America in 1910 with his wife, Hannah. Such a journey at this time entailed a sea voyage. The Major was not a ‘good’ sailor, neither was Hannah, and the voyage from Liverpool to Quebec on the Empress of Britain was particularly rough. There are no journal entries for three of the seven days at sea and only brief ones on another two! While in the United States the Major managed to visit the big museums in the East – the Field Museum in Chicago, the Smithsonian in Washington, New York Natural History Museum, Art Museum in Boston, Peabody Museum in Harvard. In Washington he saw a giraffe specimen he had donated.
Archives work is often like a jigsaw puzzle – you find a piece, not sure where it fits in, then you find another piece and perhaps you recognise where this one will fit. Although I have to say my puzzles rarely get fully completed!