Royal Museums Greenwich


Stuart Bligh - Head of Research and Information

Bringing his decades of experience, Stuart Bligh, Head of Research and Information at Royal Museums Greenwich, focuses on what it is like to work with a huge collection of objects and documents and the challenges faced by archivists in the Coronavirus era. Stuart also looks at the importance of archives in understanding how we as a nation came to be who we are today.


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Hello and welcome to the Max Communications 2020 podcast a series podcast where we explore various archives and collections my name is Faith Williams and I'm joined today by Stewart Bligh head of research and information for Royal Museums Greenwich would you like to introduce yourself sir and talk about how you came to be in your position yes how I faced the morning everyone yeah so I've been at the Maritime Museum since 2013 I think so initially to look after the carrion archive that is the library archive for the museum and now I'm in charge of research information which includes the curatorial team and all aspects of research so that's been a sort of steep learning curve for me but previously I've worked in in archives as County Auguste in Kent and before that in Bexley and in Croydon so yeah you have been a bit of a winding route I've ended up in Greenwich so how do you spend an average day nowadays it sounds like you've got a large team and a big remit yeah it's interesting actually because we've got I should think about 30 35 36 staff in the research information department so they cover as I said the library and the curatorial teams so the days are very varied actually a lot of it spent in meetings because it's assessing strategy particularly with resurrection we have a pretty lively research program which the research we do obviously results in the museum's programs and exhibitions galleries events so that's a constantly changing program that we we do in in tandem with other people so we might be in partnership with the University for example with a community group with another Museum so so yeah lots of I would say that I mean most of the day is spent in meetings but that's either with staff for the museum or external staff to advise but they can be anything from discussing the publications agenda which publications we're going to do next which types of research collaboration we we're going to do what sort of exhibitions are coming up and also events of course conferences community events like the one we have a big event for Diwali each year plus Chinese New Year where we link with the local community so yeah really varied and I found that really interesting coming from a librarian archive background working the National Museum has been really interesting actually I'm working at how the collections can relate to all that so it sounds like you're really interconnected with lots of other organizations and people for different projects who accesses your collection and for what purposes I think there's at this this the archive collection is perhaps exactly as you'd probably guess I think half of the people who access the archive collection there's about 6,000 them who actually visit each year and how for those that are probably doing family history the other half more targeted research so they may be a maritime historian or historian generally or potentially authors we've had a few film crews in we had one film crew in four Paris that the last Paris the Caribbean film looking at the original Diaries of pirates and sailors at sea at that time so um yeah that is its varied really but certainly family history is is a big push at the moment I read I don't know if this is correct that you have three miles of storage for your collection I think I was just trying to work out then when you said three miles what what some that is in kilometers but if it's around ten eleven kilometers it's awesome it's something like that yes is it yeah yeah yeah yeah I think is 12 12 kilometers for the actual for the archive collection and then you've obviously got the objects as well and we've recently built it as an extension and a new facility in Kibera which is very mean that me and the museum called the Prince Philip Maritime collection center and that houses most of the objects so that again is probably another seven kilometers also Wow so what type of material do you have in your collection you must have a lot of papers but also physical things as well yeah yeah um I mean that the bulk of a collection is the archive for which as I say is probably about 12 kilometers worth and in that collection you as this diaries journals all the sort manuscript of volumes we've got a large round of Admiralty left tenants logs and Navy board volumes we've also got cruelest dating from the 1860s through to right up to 1994 masters arm a certificate for um Merchant Navy ships from again the mid 19th century through to around the 1920s so we have what you'd expect normally in an archive obviously much more sea focused maritime focus then on the object side we we have a huge range of things so we we you know have a fantastic and world-renowned collection of globes we have obviously as you'd expect charts and maps we have a lot of Auden so cannons swords guns basically we have a fine art collection which is extensive and based on the collection that was originally at the Royal Naval College and we also have a large photographic collection and collections of ship plans as well so the full range of things you'd expect actually in terms of a National Maritime Museum but you also it's a royal degree museums Greenwich also incorporates the observatory as well does that have a collection too yeah yeah and that's within the main collection so people will know that the Harrison chronometer probably but these fantastic and timekeepers developed by John Harrison to allow people to keep time properly on onboard ship but yeah there's there's astronomical collections as well and observations from the observatory although the bulk of that is at Cambridge University whether we're the observatory moved to and we also of course have the Cutty Sark and the Queen's House is part of the group with the museum we have collections relating to those as well okay so you've got um items up at Cambridge do you also learn items to other museums and organizations yeah we do we have a quite lively program with loans because as you can imagine we probably only have about five percent or so of what we've got on display in the galleries and obviously there's a lot of able through the library that anyone can visit and join but yeah we loan objects all the time to various different places across the world in fact people will probably know at the moment we've all though we're closed we have the the three Queens the three Armada portraits of Elizabeth the first and that's the first time those three have been brought together so it was really unfortunate that we had to focus was only about a month or so but they were they were loaned in and we're about to one of those is about to be loaned out to a museum in Japan so so yeah look constantly being requested items are constantly being requested for loans what are their particular challenges that come with managing such a large collection if you're loaning things that that's a lot of logistics and things like that it is yes and obviously you know with the with the köppen pandemic that becomes increasingly an issue we've you know I was in a meeting last week talking about the reopening of our archives and libraries and potential quarantine of documents once people have handled them and looked at them and they may have to be quarantine for 72 hours before we can let people use them again so you can imagine with an international loan going across time zones checking out the facilities in the in the receiving institution the museum for these things that are going on loan it is a big job and we have to obviously curate career the documents to wherever they're going we had an exhibition on John Franklin who was the polar explorer who was who disappeared and many theories about why he disappeared and why the whole crew um disappeared but we had to loan you know the exhibition went on to Canada and I was talking to a colleague who was involved with those loans and they had to choose between you know sort of a land using an aeroplane to do to move that around Canada or trucks and obviously you then have to work out where the trucks are going with whether the roads are suitable so you get down to that amount of detail is a huge amount because obviously these signs of the unique that's what all your meetings are about boring but it's a big responsibility obviously there it is it is the probably the most extensive collection of maritime to do with maritime the maritime world in the world and we think there's a bigger archive in Russia that's a bigger maritime archive but that's a naval archive not open to the public but we probably hold the most extensive collection you have you mentioned you know only 5% is on display you do you have digital things like maps and things that are that people are using to reference yeah yeah I mentioned 6,000 people coming every year but I think we get something about 80,000 hits each month to our material online so we've got a pretty lively digitization program and I'll see that our link with max is is through that and we've in recent years we've had the 1915 cruelest we hold cruellest for 1915 which is the only year we hold them for during the first world war and we digitize those and make them available and they've been a fantastic resource and fantastically successful funnily enough not in ways that we thought they would be necessarily because the ability to search those by my place of birth has opened up a whole new area of research for people to understand the Merchant Navy during the First World War and exactly who were the people on British motion ships at that time what did you expect them to be used for and what's the price to you then yeah I think it was more family history you know people just use them for family history and sort of assessing which ships were going where but actually people got more interested in that in the cruise on the ships and the makeup of the cruise and I went to Hong Kong a year or so ago Hong Kong and China for a symposium on some of the Chinese battle flags that we have and that was with a view to a loan to a museum in Guangzhou and it was just interesting there when we were demonstrating various things we had in museum collections at the end of the session we have with Chinese academics and some of the colleagues there who are in museums we started looking at the 19:15 database and type in Shanghai as it was then and Canton as it was then and the number of sailors from born in those areas and in other areas in China who were on British merchant ships during the first world war was amazing I think there was something like six thousand born in in Hong Kong alone and then eleven thousand from Guangzhou so and that got them really interested we still today talking to them about that they using it for their students to explore Chinese maritime history so you find that people in different locations kind of utilize your collections for things you'd never imagined really yeah definitely we we had some people know Captain Cook's voyage voyage you know the initial voyage in the late 1760s taught when when he in vertical was bound to Australia all those people have been there for hundreds of years probably before men but you know he went on the Endeavour and there was a lot of speculation around the anniversary of his his voyage about where endeavour ended up and in fact they only confirmed that through finding a document in the archive at Greenwich which said that the ship had changed its name to Sandwich and during the French Revolutionary Wars had been scuttled and sunk and just off Newport Rhode Island to stop the French being able to access the bay there and it was only a document in the Navy board records in the library which said that there was an instruction their discovery ships one of which was a sandwich and I believe they've now confirmed the Endeavour and and there's been a dive down there too to look at the ship lying under the ocean just often you put Rhode Island so again something you wouldn't have expected the collections to be used for what would be your ultimate kind of Indiana Jones frame there make your your golden Bowman where you go oh my gosh we cracked the case Oh what do you mean in terms of the collections something as in terms of favorite object you mean faith yeah yeah yeah yeah well I don't know that there's so many to choose from we have a fantastic document that is that is a code Isildur - Nelson's will that he wrote on the way to Trafalgar and and it's sort of written in very shaky handwriting you can tell he's extremely frightened and there's this theory that um you know he thought he had a premonition he was going to die but where he's you know and basically you know it's a heart-wrenching um addition to his will where he finally admits that he he'd fathered his daughter Horatio and that he wanted his his daughter looked after after he died but you can see he's obviously very dubious about what he's going into I mean that that's you know a fantastic document of really spine-tingling and with a name like blind the other one we've got is a medical dictionary that was on the Downtown II and was used by the mutineers during the mutiny and afterwards and that's wrapped in the sailcloth of the ship which is again when you hold that II think behind me you know it this is amazing that was on that ship and witnessed those events but we also have some fantastic documents that are perhaps not so iconic like a diary of a chap again at Trafalgar called James Pratt who fantastic name and an Irishman born in Dublin but he's quite famous for sort of single-handedly boarding the friendship the legal he was on the defiance and jumped in the sea being only one of the only ones to swim and headed straight for them the friendship and thought everyone was following him but they weren't and when he got on the friendship he was on his own and sort of fought off various Frenchmen the story is quite a long one but but he ended up in Greenwich Hospital as a pensioner and so there's some very personal accounts but also some really iconic items in our collections yeah what are your hopes for the future of the collection I mean there's not really like to add but is there any items you've got your eye on or any projects in the future you want to go forward with I thought I think I mean that the beauty of the collections we have is they cover such because everything was done by sea before the advent of aircraft and air travel they cover everything from export exploration obviously naval battles the merge Navy trade so so it's so wide-ranging they can almost fit anything what's been really interesting certainly in the last year or so is the is the impact of sort of the collections on people's lives that we have that I will see that the horrific events in America recently and the black lives matter campaign we have collections that tell the story of empire unfortunately we have collections that tell the story of slavery but they allow a much deeper exploration of those subjects and why the Empire had such an effect on the world and obviously the world had an effect on here on us as a country and we're a multicultural society so I think my aspiration ambition for the collection would be to open up more of those collections to a wider audience to to allow a better understanding of us as a nation obviously that that links to brexit as well so yeah I think we're in a great position to be able to help people with some of those divisions with the inequality and injustice so and we've done bits of that in the past but I think the collections are so fascinating and so important we run a series of sessions for secondary schools every week on slavery and the British Empire in those I think that's for local secondary schools and it's really important for kids today I think to understand where we came from as a nation and how we came to be as we are today so so yeah that'd be my aspiration to use them more to address and perhaps some of the more challenging issues that are around today we are using your collection to have a conversation about a different topic there's obviously recently there's been the statues being questioned kind of what is your objects if you don't pay attention to the story behind them conversations with your current collection it's certainly very enticing yeah yeah there's there's so much there as well faith in you and as I've been saying people see it from different angles depending on their perspective where they come from you know their families their communities and we we need to do more of that more getting more and different people have more on different partnerships and explore them more fully that's what really brings them to life and makes them important and relevant do you I'm sort of liaised with other monetary museums they open up your database with theirs you've met one in Russia which obviously you don't have access to quizzes yeah people but any others in the world that you have close contact with we've done projects with people at Mystic Seaport over in America and the Rijks museum in Holland we've recently lent a few things to the National Museum of Singapore which has a strong maritime element the Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney as well so yeah yeah Lots and as as I mentioned in China there's a great interest in their maritime heritage because there are fantastic and really important seafaring nation we hope to do an exhibition and with some Chinese museums in a couple of years time as well exploring the sort of maritime equivalent of the Silk Road so yeah there's an interesting even within this country now there's some really important museums the whole maritime collections there's a new government initiative around which is pulled toward the national collection which is trying to link up the collections across the board you know for all museums in fact what we're using that old Superman so a maritime perspective and the idea is to do that through a digital platform and the digital network so that's exciting for us as well so what would that involve I mean would that just be collections access or would you have shared platform for conversation I mean yeah that's exactly it yeah yeah the idea is that initially you don't see people digitizing their collections all the time now and that will only increase over the next few years particularly with port interest experience and our experiencing through the pandemic so even before that they were I think very keen that to encourage her really because the department the government departments who were pushing for this a UK RI which is UK research and innovation and their whole remit is around for a cervix so the idea is to make it obvious and give more information on where these collections are and the links between them I've been though in the last few weeks been talking about you may have seen as part of a closed matter campaign this ambition for a museum is flavor in Sadiq Khan has also mentioned that there is in fact I was I'm not sure if it's still going the one in Liverpool but the points being made that obviously items relating to slavery and the slave trade the abolition of the slave trade are everywhere and we've seen that you know what happened with the statue in Bristol Bristol archive have have important collections as well so I think the idea is to link these all up and I would you know hope the aspiration in the end is to link them up alongside theme so you can you know type in a particular theme they even find out all the collections that are available to you as a researcher or even you know someone who's just interested generally and my understanding is their mission is beyond that to then then link that network to internationally so that you can actually we've got plenty of stuff on on China but of course it is not really available to look at all particularly consulting China at the moment but exactly as you say it would mean people in China could have their input an engagement online via some sort of digital platform a long way to go but yeah really really exciting probably fairly obvious as a way forward no but that's the great thing about museums I feel like unlike other sort of areas from industry connection between all over the world yeah and there are these collections of you know sometimes of where they've ended up is a bit sort of random you know you often wonder why is that particular place got that collection and and that only really works if you all because there's various different arguments as to why our collections should be in a different place or but but you know it'll work if everyone talks to each other keep them communication and links these things together which which you know you can imagine we have again a lot of meetings about that as well with with partners across the UK and beyond so yeah that is that is the better I mean we've all what these collections if you think of you know navel let's tenants who were taught to draw on a sketch and we've got hundreds of their journals and logs Diaries but obviously they're sketching and maybe the coast of Australia as they go past maybe the coast of Italy maybe the coast of Egypt you know and obviously that's fantastically important for people in Egypt to look at from a different perspective they just thought they were training as leftenant sand drawing this coast but actually it might tell some really important stories of that place at that time so so to broaden those and make them more available and to others and particular particularly people who are based in the areas where they were sketching on their way through would be fantastic so finally what is your most popular object whether in person or if you've been able to track demographics online what are people most interested in from museums granite it's a difficult one you know why I'd you know I'd say personally the number of hits with because the number of hits to them it is it's the sort of family history related collections like I've mentioned the Masters made certificates the crew list we've also got emotion Navy index from the Second World War which has been pretty popular recently because of obviously the commemorations around the anniversary but then again you sort of think I mean those are the ones that are accessed most regularly and particularly things like the masters and mates certificates which pin down individuals and give you their sort of the history of their time at sea but then there's optioned the Oman deport rates that's had a lot of publicity at the beginning of the year and got a lot of visits and obviously they have a special exhibition you know that tends to be we get sort of towards 100,000 people if you know the top end coming to see these exhibitions that feature some of the sort of most important items in the collection and you'll probably know have you been to the Maritime Museum we have things on display like Nelson's coat a trophy with a bullet hole in his shoulder so and people obviously come in looking specifically for that some of them so a bit difficult detail but I would think on on a regular basis the most frequently accessed most popular are the family history collections particularly relating to the merchant may be yeah well at the moment obviously you're not open because of Kron of IRS website would you like to point people in a particular direction yeah yeah I mean do do go on the website because we've got a fantastic online program as well we just had World Oceans Day a couple of weeks or so ago there was a complete online program for the day we have a regular Thursday broadcast or a vote cast on called ships sea and the stars lit by having Chesky he may know from the BBC and and that's on a range of maritime issues a sort of discussion panel really interesting and we've covered sort of trade life at sea isolation mermaids I think was one of them so yeah do go on the website is at UK and that gives an indication on that on the front page of what we're doing once we're closed and the ambition is obviously to open up reasonably soon when the government give the go-ahead so we're hoping in a limited way it will be will be open from July sometime in July learn all the facts that mermaids and pirates yeah yeah thank you very much for talking to me today is really interesting and your archive sounds enormous and fascinating and we wish you the best of luck giving people more accessibility and expanding the themes that people are talking about your objects thanks very much idea being a pleasure to be with you Cheers.