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What is it like to work in an archive?

Posted:
23 September 2016
Posted By:
English Heritage
Categories:
Behind the Scenes
Rose Arkle at work in the archive at Wrest Park

Have you ever wondered what happens to all the objects found on archaeological digs? Or where collections that aren’t on display are held? We spoke to Rose Arkle, the Collections Archive Assistant at the Wrest Park Collections Store to find out more about what goes on behind the scenes, and what it takes to start working in an archive.

What does Collections Archive Assistant mean? What do you do?

Funnily enough, I have been asked this question many times. I started off as an archive assistant – it was a six week post and I repacked and catalogued the archaeological paper archive. By that, I mean the paperwork that’s generated by archaeological excavations. I still deal with it now, but my role also incorporates the collections held in store too. Principally, I document what’s going in and out of the archive, re-pack and document objects, and occasionally research objects.

I supervise volunteers and maintenance work in the store. I’ve had the opportunity to work at other English Heritage sites across the London and East and help with documentation. So my role is pretty varied!

We’ve all seen archaeology on TV – tell us a bit more about the aftermath of a dig

A simplified version is, once the Field Archaeologist has dug a site, the Finds Supervisor processes the finds and produces archival records. These records are vital because they record different object types and where they were found on the site.

Just two of over 160,000 objects held in the Wrest Park Archaeological Collection Store

Just two of over 160,000 objects held in the Wrest Park Archaeological Collection Store

The objects are often initially processed by the Post-Excavation Assistant and then Object Specialists. The process also involves cleaning, bagging and marking the objects with the excavation code and context numbers. The objects and context information are then packed and organised by context number and object/material type.

While this is being carried out, these small and bulk finds are researched and sometimes photographed. This work is compiled in reports and a final report, which is a summary of the excavation. The objects and paper archive are then sent to the organisation who commissioned the dig.

Is there such a thing as a typical week?

Err… No!

Mondays are always the same – we have a regular group of volunteers who come in and help with repacking, documenting and generally sorting our reserve archaeological collections. Archaeological collections have come to English Heritage processed, packed and have a paper record. However, a lot of these collections have outdated packaging, different boxes (bone boxes instead of the plastic green ones we now use) and need to be recorded on our collections database. Our volunteers are integral to collections work.

Rose at work in the archive at Wrest Park

Rose at work in the archive at Wrest Park

Over the summer we completed documenting the Eltham Palace excavation. I have also completed documenting the Kenilworth Castle excavation of the Elizabethan gardens. The bulk of the collection consists mainly of pottery, stonework, glass and animal bone. To document this I re-packed and numbered each group of objects.

To do this I laid out the objects on a plastic sheet and ordered them by object type and context number. I then gave each object a unique number. The Collections Care Assistant, Helena Carrington also assisted by re-packing some interesting and delicate small finds.

How did you get into working in the archive?

I went to the University of Brighton and studied History of Design and Material Culture, which generally covered the whole of design history and object history from about 17th century onwards. My interest was sparked by visiting historic sites as a child, going to the theatre, visiting exhibitions. After I graduated from my Masters, I spent four months seeking my first job and volunteering in my local area at the Bedford Physical Education Archive, University of Bedfordshire.

At university we were encouraged to make contacts with archives and libraries, so when I got ‘in’ I remained in contact with the archivist after I had finished. I think it’s about maintaining and expanding the connections you have. There’s not a lot of funding for entry level jobs, particularly within heritage institutions, so getting that additional volunteering experience can be a springboard to help you to find a way in.

My job at English Heritage requires me to be orderly and methodical – and nosey! You have to ask questions. I’m tucked away in a store, but I work with a lot of different people, so you need to be personable too.

What’s been the most interesting discovery you’ve made in the archive?

The varied collection makes the job interesting and surprising, but the Architectural Study Collection just fascinates me. I walk through every day and every time I see something different.

The collection is interesting in two ways – the history of collecting and the collection itself. There’s this mish-mash of architectural fancy which ranges from mouldings to the Bell Jacks; massive statues carved from walnut. These statues came from Colombia Market in Bethnal Green, and these statues are carved to look like 17th century market traders. They were installed in the bell tower of the market place.

Close up detail of one of the Bell Jacks - a highlight of the Architectural Studies Collection, which is held in the store at Wrest Park

Close up detail of one of the Bell Jacks – a highlight of the Architectural Studies Collection, which is held in the store at Wrest Park

Collecting began in 1903. Employees of the London County Council and later Greater London Council salvaged objects over the years from 18th and 19th century buildings. After the Blitz many London buildings were damaged, and by the 1950s decisions on restoring or demolishing these buildings were made. Important buildings such as Brook House in Hackney were demolished, but the building was documented and “grab-able” objects were salvaged.

I find it absolutely fascinating, but I think the bell jacks are my favourite – I think they’re everybody’s favourite really!

Visit Wrest Park

As well as the Collections Store, Wrest Park is famous for its gardens – you can explore three centuries of the evolution of the English garden. There is also a sculpture gallery and tours are available of the inside of the house at certain times.

Until 30th September, Wrest Park is open daily from 10:00-18:00, then 10:00 -17:00 throughout October. Over the winter, it is open at weekends.

Entry for English Heritage Members is free.

Adult: £10.80, Child (5-15 years): £6.50, Concessions: £9.70, Family (2 adults, 3 children): £28.10

Find out more and plan your visit to Wrest Park here.

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  • About the Author

    English Heritage
    English Heritage cares for over 400 historic sites around England.

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  1. Pingback: What is it like to work in an archive? – Boucle Book Group

  2. Thankyou Rose Arkle for the lively recounting of your role and the amazing wealth and quantity of items that yiu handle and catalogue.
    I’m a Volunteer at Kenwood. You will know that there is some restoration happening there. We are all holding our breath to see and gear of the outcomes.
    I think it would be great if you came to talk to Friends of Kenwood about your work.
    It’s now on my list to visit Wrest Park before too long!
    Best wishes, Lindi Green

  3. Thanks for commenting Lindi – I’ll pass your comment on to Rose directly and hopefully together you can organise something.

  4. Pingback: 7 reasons to volunteer with English Heritage in 2017 - English Heritage Blog