Abi Wilson, Associate Curator at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester on some of the mystery objects in their collection
Since I started at the Science and Industry Museum, I have been working on the intriguing sounding project ‘Store 4 Mysteries’. This makes it sound like a Scooby-Doo episode or Famous Five caper. Unfortunately, it’s not so glamorous but it is hugely important. It is helping us understand our collections better so we can use them more or find a more appropriate home for them.
Occasionally, a museum object loses its identity or ends up out of place. A tag that was tied on falls off. A loan that has come off display is never collected by its owner. Part of an object is removed for safety or security reasons but isn’t marked with its unique number. Someone replacing a light fitting puts the old one down on a shelf in a collections store and forgets about it. An object that doesn’t meet the collecting policy is donated anonymously and there’s no way of returning it.
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It’s generally a case of human error and is largely a historical problem, dating from the times when curators held much of the knowledge about their collections in their heads and documentation wasn’t considered to be so important. It’s also a massive headache because we can’t display an object that we know nothing about, and they’re no use to researchers.
So let me don my deerstalker and show you some of the ways I solve the mysteries…
Check for clues
First, it’s important to check the object carefully for clues. Sometimes you can find the object’s ID number hidden in an inconspicuous area, which is a quick and easy win.
Unfortunately, it’s not usually so easy. Labels or accompanying notes from donors or past staff can shed light on what an object is, when it arrived, how old it is or who donated it. Identifying marks like patent numbers, registered design numbers, manufacturer’s names and product names on the object can give a huge amount of information or open up new avenues for investigation.
The object’s physical characteristics can suggest its use: the material, the shape, the wear, the decoration (or lack of). Trying to pin down how an object works or how it would have been used illuminates what it is.
I identified the above three brace and bit hand drills by looking at their shape and materials to work out how they might have been used and what for. Once I knew what they were, I could search for matching objects in our database. Success! I matched them with the drills in our collection below.
Decide on keywords and search everywhere
All of this helps you to define the keywords that you will use to search various sources. In the days before whizzy databases, lots of data was held on spreadsheets. I have spent many an hour keyword-searching inventories of object stores that we’ve long since stopped using. The only saving grace being that they were at least digital (we’ll get to the paper stuff later).
Use your keywords and any leads you’ve found in the spreadsheets to search the database too. The best thing about the database is that lots of the records have photos so you can confirm or rule out potential matches much quicker.
Time to delve into the world of paper
Once you have the reference numbers of some possible matching objects, you must venture into The Strong Room where the paper records are kept. Rifle (carefully) through the acquisition paperwork, hoping to find a nugget of information that clarifies whether this is your mystery object. You mustn’t forget to check the other cabinets of files and papers kept by previous curators. Sometimes you will come across a gem.
While searching through a folder of old accession forms, I found one that matched this ‘Ardwick’ coil and condenser tester which I was able to positively identify thanks to the great picture drawn by whoever filled out the form.
Ask for Help
Occasionally, you can’t work out what something is and that’s when it’s time to ask for help. I’m really lucky because, as part of the Science Museum Group, I can call on colleagues from across the group who have a wide spread of specialisms. And if no one has a specialism in that area then I look for someone who does, either contacting them directly or by sharing through specialist networks https://subjectspecialistnetworks.org.uk/ like the Social History Curators Group. http://www.shcg.org.uk/
Even if someone doesn’t know the answer, they can usually point me at a book that might help. The brilliant thing about the museum sector is that it is full of friendly helpful people and the more brains trying to solve the mystery the better.
Google is your friend
So many resources are digitised now that a Google search (other search engines are available) can help identify a mystery object and tell you where and when it was made and what it was used for. Sometimes the route is simple, for example a company website or contemporary trade directory tells you what a company made, but other times the way is more complex… and flukey.
This recording drum was initially identified as belonging to a mirror galvanometer. I was searching the internet for information on the manufacturer when I found a digitised catalogue of their products (thank you Max Planck Institute for the History of Science!) I was skimming it for mentions of galvanometers until I came across this diagram with the very familiar-looking recording drum on the left. After translating the catalogue entry into English, I discovered it was actually part of a flame tachograph, for recording someone’s heartrate using a gas flame.
Over to you
Once in a while, however, there is in an object that just has you stumped. That is when I turn to you, the public, and call upon the hive mind of the internet. Please have a look below to see if you can help identify any of these mystery objects.
This is some sort of lamp. A flap on the front hinges up and the central bar that seems to hold a candle can be retracted up into the body of the lamp. We know what it does but we don’t know where it might have been used.
We don’t know what this is or what it was used for. It is cast in one piece from a copper-based alloy. It is quite crudely cast. The head is a rectangular prism where it joins the handle, tapering from all four sides to an edge. The end of the handle is rounded so does not appear to have been hit as it was used. The head used to have lots of parallel lines/scratches on the tapering edges but these have seemingly been worn smooth.
These are rectangular sheets of opal glass (semi-translucent white glass) in a rectangular wooden box. “M.A.P.S.” and “OPALS.” is painted on the box.
We’re not sure what this wooden bobbin with metal fixings was used for. We think it could be related to the textiles industry. Any ideas?
Any ideas what this scoop shaped tool would have been used for? It is open at both ends and has holes in three sides so it wouldn’t be much use for scooping.
We don’t know what this object is or was used for. The central spindle rotates at the same time as the dials when the cogs are engaged. The circle of holes on the top of the base connects to the tube coming out the bottom.
There is a plaque attached to the base that say “E.P. Quinn Manchester Maker”. We have found a number of E Quinns in Manchester in roughly the right period. One sold microscope equipment and was a member of microscope societies, one was a schoolmaster teaching mechanics, one was a tailor and one was a bootmaker. The object may relate to one of these people.
Do you know what this wooden mallet might have been used for? It has a distinctive pattern of wear: it has much more wear on the right hand edge of the two smallest sides.
Can you help shed any light on these mystery objects? Leave your comments below or email Abi here.
Science and Industry Museum
Manchester, Greater Manchester
Uncover Manchester's industrial past and learn about the fascinating stories of the people who contributed to the history and science of a city that helped shape the modern world. Located on the site of the world's oldest surviving passenger railway station and only minutes from Manchester's City Centre, the Museum's…