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In this week's Blog we share with you our Archivist Matthew McMurray's speech given at the OXO Tower Launch on 31st October. Although we can't recreate the electric atmosphere of that event I would encourage you to listen to get the true message of what photographic archives are all about.
Recently I have been doing
a lot of interviews.
Usually I am asked
What did the WVS do during
or even; What is your favourite
picture in the exhibition?
The first is an easy list
of over 40 different services from garnishing camouflage nets to knitting
comforts for troops and of course the provision of food and hot drinks from
mobile canteens. The list goes on but I
have been told I only have 10 minutes!
The latter is harder, and
I am not sure I could really pick any.
There are so many beautiful and iconic images here, but perhaps these
aren’t truly representative of our organisation and the work of our members and
volunteers over the past 80 years.
Displayed here are Just 35
of about 30,000 images we have in our archive.
Despite our surroundings here at the OXO tower the work of our
volunteers has never been glamorous, in fact our founder Stella Reading said to
an audience in 1960
“In these days we are not
living in the atmosphere of drama, we are no longer being called out at night
for Evacuation or the Blitz. We are
working on day to day work which has perhaps no glamour at all, and yet which
is much more worthwhile, because in-fact it can only be appraised in terms of
For every one of these
beautiful atmospheric images there are hundreds more,
less beautiful and less
More than a few are
slightly blurry candid shots of volunteers going about their everyday work
making a difference to ordinary peoples’ lives through their selfless gift of
their time and there energy. But a
photograph on its own can only tell you so much, and with history context is
Behind these 35 archive
images and the thousands more we have are millions of pieces of paper which give
that context, they are the stories behind these pictures which I, my colleagues
and my volunteers protect on behalf of all past, present and future volunteers
and for the nation as a whole. Our
archive is recognised by UNESCO as one of the most important sources for
Women’s history in the 20th century in Britain, and it is only
through truly understanding where we have been that we can truly know where we
Some of you will be thinking,
‘he hasn’t answered the question yet’ but I promise that I am getting to my
Anyone who has read a good
novel will understand exactly what I mean.
For me photographs, like
anything else, infrequently tell the whole truth.
For me, the pictures I
paint in my mind from the first-hand accounts of our volunteers held in our
archive are the most real, the most honest and the most vivid.
Whether that is the
description of a damp, filthy basement flat occupied by an old man in late
1940s London, or the hard, unchanging and endless struggle faced by centre
organisers over the years to recruit volunteers to help them make a
These are my favourite
Going back to the
questions though: I always like a
slightly more challenging one, it keeps me on my toes, and the other day a lady
asked me a good question.
“Why is Royal Voluntary
Service celebrating its 80th Anniversary?” the tone of her voice
said a million things the question itself did not.
That was a very good
question in the way she meant it and in the probably less than three seconds
before I opened my mouth with my mind doing a million miles an hour, which
seemed like a panicked eternity, a very simple answer came.
Why would you not
celebrate the contribution of over 2 million women and men to British society
over 80 years? A recent estimate I did,
suggests that between them they have given 14 million years of service. Placed end to end that quickly covers off the
whole of human history, passing beyond the origins of Rome, ancient Egypt and way
back into geological time when the first apes started to emerge in Africa.
To be honest I find that a
little difficult to properly comprehend; that so many people have given so much
of themselves to help others.
Looking across the river
to the City of London reminds me that ultimately the strength of a nation is
not measured by its banking operations nor by its financial transactions, it is
measured by something much more important, the character of the men and women who
are that nation.
The contribution of the
men and women of the WVS/WRVS and now Royal Voluntary Service is woven into the
very fabric of this nation. Lady Reading
called Voluntary Service a coloured thread which runs through that fabric, and without
it the fabric is neither as strong nor as beautiful.
These pictures then and
the eight new ones by Nicky which will join those 30,000 others I already look
after, are like the light shining through the crack under a door, they tempt
our innate curiosity to open that door, to look inside and to discover
Once upon a time the role of an archivist was very clear, to preserve records for future generations to access. However more recently as I stated in the blog who are we?
“There appear[s] to be a move away from the traditional archivist protector of records and preserver of history with a set of core skills which stood them apart from the museum curator. In their place stands the postmodern archivist who is all things to all men, a heritage professional, throwing open the doors of the archive, engaging with the community and letting go of their control.”
With access becoming more important archivists have to find different ways to show off their collections. In the past this may have been allowing museum professionals to take part of the collection and display them. However it appears that in some cases the archivist must take on the role of the curator and interpret information form their collections making them user friendly and telling a story to the public. I am sure Jenkinson is turning in his grave but as I have said before it is now time for us to move away from the traditional theory and look to a new way of thinking.
One way of providing access to different audiences is to create an exhibition on a particular theme. Currently Royal Voluntary Service’s Compassion in Crisis exhibition is running at Wiltshire Museum until 24th June. The exhibition has taken the theme of WVS/WRVS/Royal Voluntary Services role in times of crisis using objects, photographs, documents, uniform, posters, cartoons and text. The story starts in 1938 and finishes in the modern day. Even though the exhibition tells you a story there are still hallmarks of the traditional archivist as this exhibit doesn’t always interpret the archival information allowing you to come up with your own view on the title Compassion in Crisis. If you would like to know more about the theme you can listen to Coloured Thread on SoundCloud.
Thus while Royal Voluntary Services Archive & Heritage team have strayed into the world of Museums and the world of the post-modern archivist there is still an element of the traditional archivist in their which demonstrates the two roles of archivists and museum professional are still separate and have different elements to them which make them unique. However don’t take my word for it why not interprets this for yourself by visiting Compassion in Crisis.
The Exhibition at Wiltshire Museum will run till 24th June, we hope you will take the opportunity to get a rare glimpse at some of the objects, uniform and records preserved by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection. If you have children we also have an exciting trail to follow round the exhibit and the chance to build a model emergency cooker.
If you would like to know more about the history of Royal Voluntary Service or WVS in Devizes during World War II there are lectures from Matthew McMurray and David Dawson on 6th and 20th June.
It may surprise you to learn that for three days last week the Archivist, Deputy Archivist and Archives Business Manager were setting up a new exhibition at Wiltshire Museum in Devizes. The Archive team have been planning this since the middle of last year writing content, selecting objects and preparing resources. Finally it is already in place ready to be seen by the public, this is a taste of what to expect from Compassion in Crisis.
In 1938 Lady Reading started to mobilise an army of women who would be essential in winning the Second World War. By 1941 this was over 1,000,000 who were often referred to as ‘the women in green’ because of their uniform and they were known for offering tea and comfort to all who needed it in a time of crisis. At the end of the war dangers to civilians didn’t just fade away and a new threat of nuclear war was ever on people’s minds.
The exhibition looks at the emerging role of WVS inemergencies during the war and how this developed in the post-war world. Part of the exhibition explores the One-in-Five scheme which aimed to educate one in every five women on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Women also joined the Food Flying Squads part of the Civil Defence Welfare Section. These women didn’t just have training exercises they also provided relief to those affected by floods in 1953. There were also other skills and services providedby WVS during the war which did not become obsolete in the post war era.
Dutch and Belgium refugees as well as evacuees had been helped by WVS; with the war, revolution and natural disaster in other nations fresh waves of refugees arrived in Britain in 1950s to 1980s. WVS or WRVS by the time Vietnamese, Ugandan Asian and Kosovan refugees arrived were always ready to comfort those in need and give them a safe place to stay. Compassion in Crisis looks at how WVS/WRVS showed compassion to refugees and gave them comfort intheir time of crisis. It also reflects on how voluntary service and what itmeans to be a volunteer has changed as we have moved into the twenty first century.
The Exhibition at Wiltshire Museum will run from the 7th May to 24th June, we hope you will take the opportunity to get a rare glimpse at some of the objects, uniform and records preserved by the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection. If you have children we also have an exciting trail to follow round the exhibit and the chance to build a model emergency cooker.
If you would like to know more about the history of Royal Voluntary Service or WVS in Devizes during World War II there are lectures from Matthew McMurray and David Dawson on 6th and 20th June.
This month we have been taking part in #Archive30 along with many other Archives on Twitter. Each day has had a different theme and I thought those of you not on Twitter or who haven’t seen what we’ve been sharing might be interested in learning something new and finding out about the different things we hold. This is just a selection and some may surprise you.
Day 2 – Favourite Item
My favourite item from the archive has to be knitted doll Stella who kept me company while collecting #oralhistory and is now part of the collection #archive30
Day 5 – Something Small
#Archive30 day 5 something small which is difficult to choose because we have quite a lot of small items including all the items in this #ARP First Aid Box which forms a Model Rest Centre #WW2 #postwar #emergency includes a green model toilet.
Day 9 – Animal
#Archive30 day 9 #animal - during #WW2 WVS members collected dog hair to make wool for jumpers. This week's Heritage Bulletin #blog looks at some of the other clothing related work done by WVS and WRVS members in the 20th century http://www.royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk/hbblog
Day 13 – Journey to work
Day 13 - #archive30 day 13 Journey to work, some WVS members would travel to work in vans here is a model version from our collection. Green painted wooden WVS Model Van BUG 44T, metal wheels painted front and side windows, W.V.S. painted in red on side, back doors function. 1940-1960.
Day 18 – Friendship
Day 18 #Archive30 #friendship during our Voices of Volunteering #oralhistory project many #volunteers spoke of the camaraderie between themselves and other volunteers: https://www.royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk/about-us/our-history/archive-online/voices-of-volunteering …. #photo: Emergency Feeding Exercise, Velmore Camp (food Flying Squad) 1955
Day 20 – Something Fun
#Archive30 There are so many #fun things to choose from! Members of the WRVS Books on Wheels service enjoyed delivering books to those who had requested them. #volunteering #reading
A large green mocked up book with pages, titled 'WRVS BOOKS ON WHEELS' on the front cover and spine, mounted spine up on four wheels, the hubs of which contain the WRVS monogram in black on gold. Used for advertising the Books on Wheels service.
#Archive30 continues until the end of April why not see what else we are posting about by visiting @RVSarchives. Today’s theme is self-portrait.
"The archivist is dead long live the archivist"
Last week I attended my first
Archives and Records Association (ARA) Conference in Manchester, where the main
theme appeared to be how we identify ourselves as Archivists and how the heritage
sector is changing. Ideas ranged from the definition of appraisal, search room experience,
community engagement and skills. However the main topic of discussion was the
role of the Archivist.
There appeared to be a move away
from the traditional archivist protector of records and preserver of history
with a set of core skills which stood them apart from the museum curator. In their
place stands the postmodern archivist who is all things to all men, a heritage professional,
throwing open the doors of the archive, engaging with the community and letting
go of their control. By this they mean allowing others use the archive how they
want and not be told how it should be used or how they can access it.
Looking into the theory is all
well and good but what about the practicalities of being an archivist, how are
these ideas applied.
Let’s put this into the context
of the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection and a more practical
definition of an archivist. In my career I have worn a few different guises as
a cataloguing coordinator, project archivist and deputy archivist and have
moved from traditional to sort of post-modern to somewhere in-between. Most of
what was said at conference applied to local record offices who are becoming
destinations for tourists like museums and facing different situations to a
Here the role of an archivist is
to preserve the history of the WVS, WRVS and Royal Voluntary Service and to
make sure it is accessible now and in the future through cataloguing,
digitisation, and a remote enquiry service and through working with colleagues
managing our services. The Archivists are also there to support the work of the
charity. It is not yet time for us to let go but we can still be innovative e.g.
Voices of Volunteering and Hidden history of a million wartime women. These
were projects which came from and where directed by the archives but upheld the
values of the postmodern archivist and did them well; including community
engagement (local, national, global) and providing access to records and
information about the charity. We also hold what might be deemed a museum
collection of objects and uniform but we care for them as archivists. We don’t
yet have exhibition space to display these items but make them accessible
through remote outreach such as our timeline. In this archive we are a mix of
the two perhaps we should be called revisionist archivists not quite in the
time of Jenkinson but pragmatic enough to change and develop when necessary. Essentially
we don’t prioritise preservation or access but try to balance them out.
As with many things there is no definite
definition of an archivist because it depends on many factors including where you
work and the collections you work with. The Archivist is whoever we or our
collections need us to be.
First I think I should apologise for not posting anything in January. It has though been rather a busy month for us, with the inevitable last minute preparations for the launch of the Archive online and the opening of the enquiry service on the 14 January. We have had a minor flood of enquiries come in on subjects ranging from the classic “My grandmother was in the WVS, what can you tell me about her?” to a rather more difficult request from a postgraduate student on very specific aspects of WVS post war Civil Defence work. This has given the volunteers and myself a whole new purpose and we are really enjoying the varied nature of the research and the opportunity to learn more about the many aspects of WRVS’ history.
So over the next couple of months we will be concentrating on continuing to answer enquiries (do please keep them coming) and helping people prepare for the 75th anniversary celebrations which kick off in May.
I thought I would finish off with a little bit about one of five WVS members who received the George medal for Bravery during WWII, something I came across while doing an enquiry the other day. Some of you may already know Grace Rattenbury’s story, but others may not.
Grace was a member of Bermondsey WVS and with little regard for her own safety assisted in the evacuation of women and children from the Surrey commercial docks in Rotherhithe at the beginning of the London Blitz in September 1940. The docks were alight and the fire threatened to cut people off from the mainland. There was only one singles span bridge left, and the road was extremely dangerous because of the growing fire, bomb damage and delayed action bombs. In spite of all this Grace using a WVS van maintained a shuttle service between the docks and the first line Rest and feeding centres, until every woman and child had been evacuated. She not only managed to rescue fleeing families, but also firemen who had been injured fighting the flames. The van on her return was full of steel helmets, blood-soaked bandages and a fireman’s axe, and other marks of a very heavy nights work.
The question was how we could achieve this without having to spend money; thankfully technology has come to our rescue and allowed us to reach the largest possible audience by starting an online blog or diary.
As the Heritage Bulletin is only a bi-annual publication and at current the only way we can show you
the work we do here at the Archive, the blog, which is launching this month, will be a different way for us to keep you up to date with what is happening here in Devizes.
The monthly entries will be based around a day’s work in the Archive and will include accounts from both the volunteers and the Archivist.
It will allow you the chance to see new arrivals into the collection and any new projects we may be involved in. You will also get an insight into the varied items we hold in our collection and the amusing tales of volunteers which have been recorded in the Narrative Reports.
Unfortunately you can't subscribe to our blog just yet, but all our posts will remain on the site permanently so you can catch up with our Archive news at any time. There is also a comments section which will allow you the chance to share your stories or any comments you may have.
We look forward to sharing our experiences of the Archive with you and hope you enjoy reading our entries!
I thought that it would be nice to give you a flavour of what we are doing here in Devizes to help prepare for the 75th anniversary in 2013 which is only now five months away.
Apart from our fevered preparations for the re-opening of our enquiry service, which is still on track for January 2013, and all of the ‘behind the scenes’ work that is going to make searching our collections possible, we are working bringing the archive (virtually) to you.
Over the next four weeks the volunteers and I are going to be looking for 75 items from the collection which tell the story of WRVS, whether that be, our first poster (pictured), a letter from Charles de Gaulle, or the packaging from a sandwich from one of our hospital shops.
These might not necessarily be the most exciting or eye catching items, but it is the fascinating and engaging stories behind the items, about WVS/WRVS at a national, local and even personal level, which is important.
Our first poster caused quite a bit of controversy, when it was discovered that the model was in fact German and all of the posters had to be recalled. This means that there are now only two that we know of in the world, one here in Devizes and the other in the Imperial War Museum in London.
Perhaps if you have an item which tells a story, you might like to share it with us. Either post a comment or perhaps send us an email
I’m looking forward to your suggestions...