National Army Museum


Natasha Swainston - Archivist

Natasha Swainston, Museum Archivist for the National Army Museum, talks about managing the military collection dating back to the Civil War. With an active Collections Policy including current analog and 'born digital' material, Natasha divides her time between caring for the collection, interacting with users, and promoting the wealth of material on offer.

The National Army Museum prides itself on telling the stories of people caught up in war, and in doing so often collaborates with other institutions such as the National Archives, and on film and television projects.









Please Note: This is an automated, machine-generated transcription. We have presented this 'as is' and have not undertaken any editing.

hello and welcome to the max communications 2020 podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is faith williams and i'm joined today by natasha swainston museum archivist for the national army museum hi tasha would you like to introduce yourself and talk about how you came to be where you are today so yeah hi i am tasha swanston and i'm the museum archivist at the national army museum um so i've been working in the archive sector for around six years now started my career as an archive assistant at the churchill archives centre in cambridge um this was a really great introduction into the sector actually and is what really encouraged me to to pursue a career in archives i think it's curse the of the rain it kind of showed me the range of tasks and projects involved with working in archives and all the possible opportunities um that came from working in the sector such as i got to work in the reading room answer inquiries uh box lists uh some amazing collections whilst i was there do a bit of repackaging and conservation work courier trips creating displays giving tours um and actually during my time there um a colleague and myself were responsible for launching the archives twitter account which is something i've always been quite proud of as kind of like something i did i did in my in my three years there so also during my time at churchill i completed my postgraduate diploma at ucl and i did that on a part-time basis which i found really useful because it allowed me to both study and learn the kind of theory behind it but also apply it practically through working at churchill um i then after that proceeded uh to work uh for a short time at the archive at lloyd's banking group and this was interesting uh because it provided quite a contrast to working at churchill as i gained a church obviously mainly had personal paper archives it was very public facing whereas here i gained experience working with an institution archive serving more its internal stakeholders and helping to it help me develop those kind of communication skills with internal stakeholders as well as new skills sorry new skills uh such as uh digital preservation and then following on from this i moved on to the national army museum which is where i've been now for around two years so it sounds like you had a lot of good experiences to bring to your role at the national army museum how do you spend an average day there so an average thing to be asked anyone who works at nam they'd say there's uh no such thing as an average day but um i can give a few examples of the different kind of stuff so one day i could be i tend to do a cataloging day maybe once or twice a week and that could be working on recent acquisitions for example i've recently been cataloging papers that were transferred to us from the ministry of defense so cataloging them and making them um accessible to our to our users um or i've got a couple of ongoing large cataloging projects such as um the we recently acquired the cold stream guards regimental archive so it's one of a number of regimental archives we hold in the collection um and i've been working on cataloging and doing some preservation work on that to make that accessible um what else another day it could be supervising in the reading room or working with our volunteers obviously since since lockdown and everything that's going on at the moment with code 19 we haven't had our volunteer program up and running but prior to that we had quite a strong volunteer program and it was really nice to work with them and supervise them on various projects um other days it could be working on policies or procedures or outreach projects we've recently been filming some promotional videos for the archive which has been really good fun um what else do i do we i sit on the collections development group which is basically um the group that meets to decide what new uh acquisitions are gonna be acquired for the museum's permanent collection so that involves researching um archive collections and proposing them to the group for their approval and then we acquire it for the collection uh digitization projects that we've got on well proposals for new digitization projects or small digits uh small digitization projects that we've got ongoing yeah i think that's that's kind of a bit of a taster of how i spend different things i can spend doing on an average day at the national army museum what's to keep you busy yeah lots lots to keep you busy obviously it's it's some military-based material you're dealing with but what kind of physical format does that all come in um so i'd say it's mainly analog at the moment um so so obviously we've got the archive in the object collection um and in the archive collection there's around 500 over 500 000 items i'm largely on analog material uh which includes personal diaries letters um we've got a really extensive photograph collection which is really incredible as well um both like the personal photographs that soldiers have captured themselves as well as more official like regimental photograph albums and like formal group portraits and things like that which are great resources for family history um we also have stuff like enlistment books for some of the regimental collections we hold uh we have court martial books letter books um we also have a very extensive uh books and periodicals collection obviously the books collection focuses on on military history and the periodicals we have i don't think we have them for every every regiment i don't want to make that claim but we have we have a very big collection of periodicals relating to um the various regiments and cause and anything to do with british army history basically um we also have quite a large map collection as well um and then we we so we do have a growing born digital collection um which mainly uh at the moment consists of uh digital photographs and audio visual material and visual material is mainly um oral histories uh because we run a lot of all history projects in-house um they're a very active part of the work we do at nam so for example we conducted a significant number of oral histories for the exhibition that's recently opened at nam the photo friend exhibition um and so we sorry i lost my train of thought there so yeah so we have um a lot of audio visual material that is in bond digital format so i think that's going to continue to to grow over the years and also we are continuously digitizing material in our collection so um whilst we now our oral history collections are mainly born digital we also have a lot of we had a lot of them that were on cassette tapes and cds so we've recently um undertaken a project to digitize all of those and so that's great as it's going to make them more accessible to our users and basically helps with the the long-term preservation of the material as well and it gives us a new resource to to use for online content and in exhibitions and do some really amazing stuff with it um so yeah i think that's that's kind of a taster of the kind of physical material we hold in the collection who are your users what type of people are they and what what are they sort of research of what they're looking for um so we have quite a range of users coming to access the collection so over my past couple of years working at the museum there have been a range of different users accessing our collections and this includes academics and historians who will come and use the collections for usually their own research projects or potentially for for modules that they're teaching on a university course we've had some of our content used for um online online um courses you can do about the history of the of the british army um which was great so yeah some of our archive collections and what with the wider object collection we used on that as examples uh to be used for sources whilst you were studying it um we also have a lot of students coming to use the collection obviously researching it for maybe their dissertation or phd we also have mod staff and the army themselves come in and use the collection um for example they we've had some of them come in to use historic maps and archives and photographs to help with army battlefield study tours that they run or for publications that they're going to publish in-house we also have a significant number of family history researchers using the collection um so this might be accessing the physical collection um as i mentioned earlier we have enlistment books and the photograph collections or letters of diaries that might relate to their relatives specifically um i always find that really nice is it a really nice part of my job actually is it and it gives me great job satisfaction in that in that we can help members of the public access those personal items that give real insight into their relative lives and they get a real feel for their relatives wartime experience and just it kind of enriches their their family history and i always think that's really nice and um yeah and also a number of the family history research has also come in to utilize our the digital resources we have on site such as access to subscription sites such as ancestry and find my past so it's really nice that we can offer up those resources um for them so that they don't have to pay for them or if they don't have access to a computer at home they can come in and we can help them find out some more information on there um um we get quite a lot of well not quite a lot uh we get some donors uh like to come in to have a look at the collections that have been deposited um it might have been deposited by another family member or they might just want to come back to do a bit of family history research so that's always really nice and we also quite like to give them tours of the archive store to show them where the material that they've donated is going to be held so that's really nice as well to have that kind of interaction with the donors and build up that relationship so they know where it's going to be housed long-term how they can find it and that it's always going to be there for them to access essentially um we also have quite a lot of media um again i say quite a lot uh we have uh some of the media come in uh that can sometimes be uh to use the physical space to do filming in or stuff such as undertaking photography research for stuff they want to include in a show they're producing or an article they're writing or something like that um oh i guess the other one would be regimental and other military museums they sometimes we get members of their staff come in to have a look at our collection to help inform their own collections so that's uh and vice versa that's quite a nice relationship that's built up with the network of regimental museums uh and the fact we have all this kind of shared material between us um is quite nice as well yeah that's a a really wide nice selection of users to be catering to but it might be hard to take that into account sort of when you're i suppose when you're putting exhibitions together but also when you're expanding the collection and thinking about what you should um curate you yeah that it is but also because obviously with things like um family history research it's it's obviously hard because you can't we'd obviously love to be able to take everything but you can't take everything with the potential that someone might want to research it somewhere down the line so we always it's tricky to know what future research needs are going to be so we just kind of we have our collections development policy which kind of informs what we're collecting at the moment and we're always kind of looking at that and thinking if there's any other areas that we could be collecting in and obviously contact we we've tried recently especially to do focus a bit more on contemporary collecting um and the army's involvement in contempt in more recent conflicts but also the army's work at home as well so we're constantly thinking about different ways in which we can develop the collection and also um looking at the collections development policy and whether we're we're missing whether any subject areas are missing or things like that and we have quite an active um collecting team at the museum so we're always on looking out at auctions and we get quite regular contact from donors about collections that they they'd like to offer us and stuff like that so yeah i'd say is something we're aware of but we we are constantly trying to to think of what researchers future researchers would want to use and also how it fits in with the collection we want to make sure we've got a real strip strong areas in our collection so that if they're researching a particular subject they know they can come to us and find that material or they know that we've got a good collection of material for that subject if that makes sense what period does your collection cover um so it's it covers from the the civil war right through to the present day um it hasn't always been that case it used to i'm not sure exactly what day it changed but um it used to be that it would collect up to the boa war but then in the past like 20 years that has shifted and so now we collect everything up to the present day so we expanded our collections to include first world war second world war and then we've also got um quite good collections on of material from iraq and afghanistan as well so um this i'd say the strength of the collection does lie kind of um in earlier conflicts like the bird war crimean war um peninsula wars and stuff like that but over over the past 20 years or so we have really developed those those 20th century collections as well what would you say are the particular challenges you come across um when working with the museum archive um okay so i'd say the first thing that comes to mind with that is that i'm the only archivist in the collections division at the museum so this composes challenges at times in the sense that there's only one of me and so there's there's a lot of projects that i'd like to be working on um lots always lots of work to get done um but at the end of the day there's only one of me so i have to i i've kind of learned the importance of time management and prioritization and kind of working out which which projects are the priority for that time and also sometimes you you just have to say no to some stuff as you can't do it all and i've i really struggled with that at first because i really like saying yeah like i like taking on new projects and i like being involved in lots of different stuff but i had to yeah i've i've had to learn to prioritize and say no to some things um although i'd say on the flip side of that being the only archivist means i have had a huge amount of opportunities to work on different projects at the museum and going to make the role my own which has been really nice and also i do have a colleague at the museum who is the records manager and institutional archivist for the institutional archive so it's nice that they're there and we can always bounce ideas off each other when it comes to to archive issues um so yeah i'd say that and probably also the the managing an archive collection within a wider museum collection that makes sense so prior to working at at the national army museum i'd always worked in standalone archives um so it's been an interesting challenge working within the context of a museum so i've learned a lot about museum standards and how a collection has been managed an archive collection has been managed within this context so it's been uh an interesting learning curve in like trying to balance the kind of different the museum standards archive standards and the ways of working within that and also um it's in a positive way it's it's shown that there's a different exposure that archive collections can get with being in a museum and the collaborative work that can be done with them across the departments in the museum especially at the national army museum because we're quite a small team we all kind of rally together and work together and it's really it's that's a really nice aspect of it like an army itself and yeah i guess you could say so if you have to say no to a lot of things but is there anything you would like to say yes to what what the future would you really want to do oh that's tricky i would um i'd say there's a couple of things i think so we're i'm doing a bit of it already but i really want to take the take take opportunities to really talk about our collection and get it out there and promote it and so doing things like this podcast and doing things uh like the filming promo like videos about the archive collections but um in the past i think i always kind of shied away from that because i'm i'm not huge i'm not a big fan of public speaking and i i tend to get a bit nervous with it but i'd really i know how important it is to to talk about the collection and get it out there and get people in and using it and so i'd really like the opportunity to to do so any opportunities that come along i'm going to say yes to basically because i want to to challenge both myself but also um get the collection out there more and stuff like doing talks and tours of the color of the archive store anything that can engage new or get existing users to re-engage with the collections and come and use them i think that's that's something i'd really like to to work on more and just thinking i i really like thinking up new ways to get people in and like you know fun ways like thinking of ways to engage like school groups or educational groups the collections and things like that that's something i'd like to to do as well so yeah i definitely think more doing more outreach and kind of speaking and speaking out and promoting the archive more yeah it's using to a wider audience because yeah we're very passionate and it's nice to share that what is your favorite item in the collection i always find that such a tricky question where wherever i've worked whenever people ask me that um so i think i'm gonna have to give multiple multiple answers to this one but um so one of the aspects of our collection that i find most interesting and most captivating is the the personal stories that captured in in the material we hold in particular the the personal letters and diaries that were written by soldiers um serving in wartime and on the front line and kind of really um capturing their their experience their emotions at the time um and through them you you really you can uncover the experience of the soldiers from from collections that we held from of privates right through to generals and both not just in wartime but also in peacetime um we have it's not just obviously a lot of it is during conflict but we also have quite extensive collections that um look at soldiers in peacetime but in particular there's so there's a collection of letters that i actually uncovered earlier this year when researching letters for the v day anniversary and these were letters written by a gentleman called lance corporal booth and he served in the tank regiment so there were letters he wrote to his parents uh he i think there's around 200 or 300 letters in total um and they so they were written throughout the throughout the second world war and they really cover a range of subjects uh generally like daily updates on his on his life in wartime wherever he's based at the time um stuff about rations and and and kind of socializing with other soldiers as well as um his own per his personal interest in films which really which thinks really nice it comes across in the films he taught sorry in the letters he talks a lot about um whether they've been able to see any films well where they are or um i think membership to the to the british film institute at one point as well um he also touches on spending christmas away from home and then also onto subjects reflecting on the impact of war and i think he has a really emotive and eloquent way of writing that i just i don't know it really really touched me when i was reading them and so in particular there's there's a letter he wrote on uh the e day and he was in hamburg um at the time and i feel this really catches it and um so he says um it's near i think this is near the start of the letter he writes this so he says well the war ended and i really can't describe what my feelings were or are now for they they're still rather tangled whether everyone was the same i don't know and i suppose some people can sort of accept things at their face value without needing any mental readjustment so perhaps the celebrations on the night were genuine enough and it was just my state of mind that made me think i'm not spontaneous but a little forced and done because it seemed to be the thing to do i just think yeah it's it it's it's very reflective and he's clearly a bit confused with how he's feeling and how he should be feeling and so i don't know i just i yeah i really liked that letter and his just his style of writing um so yeah i'd say that's one of my favor i think his whole series of letters um i is one of my favorite items but that particular letter i thought was was really nice um and then there's also a particular photograph that comes to mind i came across it um the other day it's in an album of photographs taken by a photographer called roger fenton and um he's attributed with being one of the first wartime photographers he traveled out to the crimea to capture photographs during the um during the crimean war and even had like a traveling photographic van out with him there to move around and capture what was going on um but there's one specific photograph um of a lady called fanny doubly and i think that's how you pronounce her sunny mum not 100 but she is on horseback and her husband captain henry doubly who was a pay master i think in the eight for czars he stood next to her and it's just a really striking image but it also prompted me to um look into funny doubly and it uncover her this fascinate well there's already been a lot written on her but it was a fascinating story when i when i did a bit of research she basically accompanied her husband to the crimea and um was the only officer's wife to remain out there throughout the campaign i'm not sure whether they wanted her to or not but um she stayed there and she witnessed um events such as the battle of balaclava uh the charge of the light brigade and she kept a journal throughout her whole time there which was actually pub like it was published at the time in 1855 it provides a uni such unique insight into her life and her experiences alongside the army out there in the crimea and i think i found quote saying she's been described as a splendid rider witty ambitious daring lively loquacious and gregarious and i just thought it's um yeah it's just such a she sounds like such a fascinating character and i haven't actually got around to reading the journal yet but that's what i i want to do next to find out more about her and her experiences out there yeah i think there's more but they're they're two that kind of stick in my mind so what kind of material is accessible for the general public say at the moment so what's available online since you can't necessarily go into the reading room um so available online we have on our own website we have what's called our online collection and that is where all of our digitized content or um if it's bonded short gets put on um but it does cover the whole collection so it's not just um archive or photograph specific it includes any like of our object collection that's been digitized as well so you can search use key search terms or search for individual search by individual search by uh conflict search by uh regimen on there and it will bring up everything that we've digitized to link to that we also have our stories section on our website which is um articles which have been researched by members of the members of staff at the museum on specific topics and they will have um utilize the archive collections too so that reminds me when we were talking about access to the collections actually staff access to the collections is quite a um it's quite a big user group so um we actually encourage um staff to come in and use the archive collections for like articles that they're writing both in-house and for external publications for inclusion in exhibitions uh again both ones the museum's putting on and ones that um loaning out to other museums um or for like media pieces they're doing so yeah we that's another way we like to well obviously we have such a great resource there that staff love to use it but also it's a great way of getting the the archive collections out there um sorry i went off point there so um they yeah that's another way so they might include snippets of archives on there or they might digitize um part of the collection specifically for a story that's being written there's also some material on ancestry we took a collection of um from the ministry of defense of soldiers effects records so that's that's a extremely useful family history resource and that's all available on ancestry um we also have the disbanded irish regiments enlistment books and they're all accessible on our website which is another great family history resource and their resource and they were all transcribed so they're all accessible um online as well um as i said our oral history collections have all been digitized and um a lot of the recent ones were born digital as well so although we currently don't have them hosted on our website if anyone does want access to them remotely we can provide access to those as well at the moment because usually we'd encourage them to come into the reading room and access them there but as um we can't provide that service at the moment we encourage users to to get in touch because also oral histories are quite an easy one to provide access to but also if we do have something digitized that isn't online um we can also provide access to that remotely and um when staff are back in the museum we can do reaper graphics orders so we can do a kind of copying on demand service there are some restrictions around like amount you can order and stuff like that so that's another way in which we can provide remote access if users can't come in to use the collections um i think that's that's mostly it i think like longer term we would we would like to to do some more digitization projects and get more of our collections archive collections accessible um online i think that would be but it's all about striking the balance between providing digital access but also we still like to get users coming in through the door and using the collections physically there's something about seeing a collection in its physical format that you can't quite replicate online so i think yeah it's about striking the the balance between the two so if your grandpa for in one of the world wars chances are he's in your collection somewhere he could be it's we don't like to make that promise because it it's um i think especially with all the regimental collect museums and collections it's also like the potential that they they might not be in our collection but they could be in their collection um or sometimes sadly we do we don't hold the material but there are other places that we can point our researchers to like the national archives obviously have the the official records and the official enlistment and service records and things like that and the war dot even if you can't find specific information relating to your relative the the war diaries that held at the national archives are a great resource to kind of if you know what unit they were in to get a sense of where they were what was going on what they were doing on any given day during during um i think the first world war ones are all available online i'm not too sure and the second world war i think so yeah so we always like to um be able to to point family history researchers in in on somewhere where they can potentially hopefully find some information if they can't find it in our collection thank you for joining us today tasha it's been really um it's been really a pleasure hearing about your enthusiasm for this collection and how much work you and care you're putting into it um i hope that you managed to kind of get people in again once this is all over and they can sort of uh as you say get in touch with the actual tangible objects and get a sense of the real lives behind these um complex military stories and campaigns yeah yeah i really hope so too because i think the the thing we always like to say about the the archive collections at nam it's kind of like an official tagline is that they the collections there tell the soldier's story and that's really the kind of the the message we want to get out you can really through accessing our collections and cover um these really unique stories of soldiers serving from from the the civil war right through to the present day so yeah it will be lovely when we can get researchers back in and using the collections thank you very much natasha for your time today thank you cheers