The REME Museum, like many museums, typically plans exhibitions and displays in advance with specific themes and objects in mind to support the stories being told. But what happens when you come across a small series of unique objects with a uniting theme and decide to create a ‘pop up’ display? Well, in August 2019 we saw an opportunity to bring together objects for such a display!

Last year saw the beginning of an ongoing collections audit that encompasses the Museum’s entire catalogue of objects. After moving to Lyneham in 2017, the preparation of new storage areas has allowed the Collections Team to allocate each individual item a new home. Every object is unpacked, condition checked, photographed, and its new location is recorded.

The Museum’s collections are organised based upon object categories, such as, models, tools, trophies and artwork. These categories allow objects to be stored among others with similar properties and materials. Each room in our collection stores is allocated a particular category. This allows us to store objects in spaces most suited to their material type as environmental conditions: light, temperature and relative humidity, can impact the longevity and safety of the collections.

We work through each box and every object one by one. The Museum’s art store required the most adaptation and now holds an array of objects from paintings, to sculpture to cartoon sketches. It was while moving objects into this space that we came across a small series of decorative objects. These items related to Charles Alfred Felstead, a REME soldier, and consisted of several objects made and gifted to him by German Prisoners of War. A printed description in the box was the only obvious clue of the objects’ past, a clue that is usually recorded in the collections catalogue without the luxury of a printed copy sitting with the object itself (perhaps from a previous display and coincidentally placed in the box). Were there other decorative items produced in similar circumstances elsewhere in the collection?

Unlike a group of sketches on permanent display in the galleries by Staff Sergeant Ernest Kelly that depict scenes of life as a Prisoner of War, these objects gave no physical indication of their origins. Using the museum’s catalogue, a search was conducted using relevant terms to identify any other objects that may have been created in this way. A small group was found, including a carved figurine of William the Conqueror that had already been identified in the audit but was awaiting a catalogue update. This proves the value of the catalogue in telling stories that an object simply can’t tell on its own!

The objects were gathered along with additional research which had been articulated into labels. A temporary display was put together, for just a few weeks, in the foyer of the Museum telling the story of these objects with a new common thread holding them together. ‘Wartime Creative: Personal Ingenuity in World War Two’ is available online in blog form.

Once returned safely to the collection stores, as with other objects recorded in the audit, the use of common terms in the catalogue would keep these objects linked together. The Museum catalogue evolves as new objects are accessioned and different members of staff and volunteers contribute to the records. The collections audit provides a valuable opportunity to improve the catalogue by creating consistent terms and providing a framework that can be used in the future. Instead of a variety of terms describing a common theme, ‘Prisoner of War, PoW, P.o.W’; one term - ‘Prisoner of War (PoW)’, can now be used. This makes searching the catalogue for particular types of items much more straightforward.

While the Museum is closed, the updated information gathered during the collections audit is recorded in the Museum’s catalogue. The catalogue holds all of the information that the Museum has about each object. Each object has a unique identifying number, a description, how the object was acquired by the Museum, where it is currently stored, its condition, a photograph and other additional information such as people, places, events, dates or organisations it may be associated with.

As part of this work, last week, we re-catalogued the objects related to Charles Alfred Felstead. Below is an example of how one object from this larger collection has been recorded during our collections audit work. This information is now being paired with the existing information listed in the catalogue:

Trinket Box, Wooden Carved Box. An oval, wooden trinket box with textured sides.

Object Number: 2015.8487.9

Brief Description: Trinket Box, Wooden Carved Box

Collection: Ornament (ORN)

Location: Box 327

Description: Trinket Box, Wooden Carved Box. An oval, wooden trinket box with textured sides. The feet sit on the bottom around the edge. There is a separate wooden lid with a scalloped edge and a carved flower head in the centre. This trinket box was made by a German Prisoner of War (PoW) and gifted to Charles Alfred Felstead.

Dimensions: 80mm x 110mm x 150mm

Condition: Good

Materials: Wood

Associations: Felstead, Charles, Alfred; 1944, 1946, 1940s; handmade

There is always potential for new stories to surface with collections. How were the materials to make these objects acquired? Why were these objects gifted to Charles Alfred Felstead? Were they used and displayed by him or his family at home? Did others in his position receive similar gifts or present gifts themselves? The possibilities are endless!

Find out more

A look at the progress of the collections audit from this time last year: Behind the Scenes: The Fun Kind of Audit.

Peek inside the Museum’s recently completed Art Store: Behind the Scenes: A New Storeroom.