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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
Pete here, it has been just over two years since I last posted a blog about
volunteering here at the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage
Collection; this is what I have achieved in the past two years.
Maybe I am
being too self-critical, but it doesn’t seem to be very much. I am still involved with the collection of
photographs I had started sorting two years ago. I have managed to appraise around 3000 and saved
those which tell the fascinating story of the Charity in the 1990s and early
2000s, give them reference numbers, find descriptions from WRVS publications,
and scan them into the computer. This
last year I’ve been writing descriptions of all the photographs – I’m about
half way through.
Got to tell
you this, though, being a volunteer here is sometimes like being a history
detective, piecing the evidence together. I was going through the photographs
and I came across two pictures of RAF Tornado aircraft making Meals on Wheels
deliveries. At first I assumed they were
separate events as they featured different aircrew, different WRVS volunteers,
and different locations. Further
research revealed it was the same aircraft and crew on the same mission, one picture
taken just before take-off, with the pilot and leaving party, and the second
picture on arrival, with the navigator and different arrival party. I mentally popped a champagne cork for that
off to do some more cataloguing and investigating hopefully next time I blog
you’ll be able to read my descriptions on the online catalogue.
A lot has happened since I last wrote something for the Heritage Bulletin back in July 2012. It is hard to believe that over two years have gone by.
Back then I was helping in the massive effort to repackage all of our Narrative Reports, a small contribution to the 120,000 that between us we managed to do.
Since then I catalogued all of the posters we have in the collection here in Devizes which you can now see on the online catalogue.
For the last year though I have been immersed in the world of marketing photographs from the 1990s and early 2000s. When I started I was presented with eight boxes of photographic prints, negatives and CD-roms, all of which had very little discernible order! My job for the last 12 months has been to try and put these back in their original order or where this is impossible to impose something logical.
As I leaf through the thousands of pictures there is the joy of disposing of the utterly irrelevant, such as pictures of dogs, hands and plates of food; pictures with little or no long term historical value. Also the elation of finding one of the pictures amongst the thousands in a publication and being able to reunite it with its context; a eureka moment (especially when I have remembered the picture from several months before).
I had a short break (escape) to take photographs of our collection of enamel badges (I’m a bit of an amateur photographer), before diving back in. Currently I am laboriously writing reference numbers on the back of each image, a task which is almost at its end (I hope to finish in October, Phew!)
I guess when that is done, I’ll have to scan then in and then catalogue them. Might be let off in 2018! In time for the 80th Anniversary!
When I requested this job all that time back, I fondly remember our Archivist, Matthew saying “be careful what you wish for, you may get it” I certainly have!