Volunteering: an experience

by Gwynneth Pohl, student

Like many people hitting their 30s, I have long had a desire to find not just a ‘job’, but a career, something I would enjoy participating in, whilst at the same time giving back to the community. Also, like many people, I was fascinated by pirates as a child. Not just pirates, but anything underwater, particularly if it was related to archaeology – the myth of Atlantis, sunken cities, tragic tales of shipwrecks, and adventurous stories of discovery. Unlike most other people, however, this fascination has continued on into my adulthood, and affected the direction my tertiary studies have taken. I began my university career with Egyptian archaeology, but not being satisfied with that, tried my hand at what is termed ‘Public History’, which essentially teaches how to present history to the public (perhaps a better term would be ‘Historical Public Relations’). I found I was not diplomatic enough for such a career, and it was suggested to me that perhaps maritime archaeology would suit my interests better. I believe that person was right. Through my studies in the Master of Maritime Archaeology at Flinders University, South Australia, I have discovered that my fascination lies in the artefacts themselves; more specifically, in the conservation of these artefacts.

And so I find myself now, volunteering my spare time to pursue my passion. Over the last few weeks, I have been involved in a small project for the National Trust involving maritime artefacts belonging to the Polly Woodside ‘shipwreck collection’. Up until 2006, the National Trust housed the Polly Woodside non-display artefacts in a warehouse near the museum. Unfortunately, as that space was bought up by the government, the Polly Woodside team had to find other places to store these artefacts, many of which had been taken in as part of the 1993 nation-wide maritime artefact amnesty. Many were distributed back to their original keepers, but some were kept at other National Trust sites, and the ‘shipwreck collection’ in particular was moved to the Rippon Lea Estate. Between 2000 and 2006, the National Trust conducted artefact condition reports on these items, wrapped them for protection, and placed them in protected storage. For several reasons, these artefacts need now to be moved, and one of the curators for the National Trust, Katie Symons, has been generous enough to turn this into a small project for me to work on. As it was not an urgent matter, I have been allowed to spend my spare time when available to come in to the Rippon Lea estate to help out.

The staff at the Rippon Lea estate are always welcoming, and kind enough to have everything ready for me whenever I arrive – lights and heaters on, stationary supplies ready, objects stacked neatly in the corner. A tasks list has been supplied by Katie, which clearly sets out my duties, and I scan through this from time to time as I work.  It’s very easy to relax here. I make myself a cup of peppermint tea, grab some white gloves (to protect the artefacts from the oils in my skin and damage to the more fragile items), and settle in for a few hours of unwrapping, assessing, writing, and re-wrapping.  The quietness of the estate is offset by the occasional noises of the gardeners outside, or the house creaking in the high winds. On the occasions that I look out the window, which I admit is often, the view is spectacular, and I can see how people who find employment in a place like this want to stay for a long time.

The artefacts themselves range in size, condition and fragility, from small fragments of glass, to metre-long pieces of ship framing. They have, for the most part, been wrapped in tissue paper and bubble wrap for protection, and placed in cardboard boxes within a spare room on the estate.  Some of the interesting pieces I have been investigating are as follows:

A timber piece from the Saros wreck

Item PWO 2882 I unwrap the tiny bundle carefully, knowing from the item number that it is a glass fragment. It is a small piece of glass approximately 8-10 cm in diameter, and the floral design makes me wonder from what the piece broke off from. The design is reminiscent of the base of vases, family heirlooms, in my grandmother’s house. Turning it over in my gloved hands, it reminds me of why I enjoy studying and learning history; the connection between the past and the present is constant, in everything we see and touch, and is a vital part of the how and why of things. The philosophical moment passes as I wrap the item up again, and note its condition – badly chipped, cracked, and still containing rivulets of sand from being submerged – and I look forward to trying to find out which shipwreck this particular piece has originated from.

PWO2882 - A glass shard

Item PWO 2892 A rectangular timber shard from the Saros, wrecked in 1937 off Cape Everard, Point Hicks, on the eastern coast of Victoria. Riddled with borer worm holes, this piece initially seems boring by comparison to PWO 2882; however as the origin of the piece is unknown it makes me wonder where on the ship it came from – was it part of the framing, or simply from a piece of furnishing? Was it something from the Captain’s cabin, or just a shelf in a storage area? That which at first seems like a simple object is suddenly full of possibilities. I know that a lot of people wouldn’t see it that way, and it is for this very reason that I pursue this line of career, because I see the possibilities in these objects, I see the mystery, and the stories connecting them, and want to tell others about these stories.

Item PWO 3044 – A brass bell bracket from the wreck of the Falls of Halladale. Whilst the bell itself is missing, the bracket still brings to mind the distinct sound of a ship’s bell echoing across a misty sea. Every pirate movie I’ve ever seen springs to life in my head, and I remember the images, and emotions, of those scenes where the bell tolls in a deep fog, or to let the harbour know they are coming in, or to warn the sailors of impending danger. The ship’s bell is a romantic piece of imagery, emotive and captivating of one’s interest. I have been to countless maritime museums where a bell, whether large or small, was often a central artefact in the collection, and certainly one that would draw a lot of attention.

A brass bell bracket from the wreck of the Falls of Halladale

One thing I have learned is that unwrapping and rewrapping the artefacts is difficult to do whilst wearing gloves. Unfortunately the masking tape is difficult to take off, and just as hard to reapply to the bubble wrap, so I ended up having to use only one glove and to make sure the other hand touched only the outer wrapping, not the object or tissue paper itself. Learning to handle such objects, of varying fragility, is something that I never had cause to consider prior to this. The more I handle these objects, the more I realise how important it is to be careful – luckily these particular objects are not terribly delicate, or made of fragile organic materials, however they are fragile enough to require some careful handling, a skill that is useful in the kind of career, artefact conservation, that I am interested in.

Although I am far from finished on this project, I have already found myself utilising skills and techniques learned from my previous university studies. Like many university students, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have cause to use these skills, such is the self-doubt I know myself and many of my friends have experienced. It was refreshing, and to be honest it was fun, to build upon those skills and know that it wasn’t time wasted or used for self-indulgent purposes. I am now seeing how the skills I have learned are translating into real work, into something tangible, and that adds to the feeling that this is not just a job for me, but a career.

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3 Responses to Volunteering: an experience

  1. jmckinnon

    Really enjoyed your post Gwynneth. One of my most favorite things to do is go through old collections. I could spend hours opening up boxes.

  2. gwynnethpohl

    Ooops, the first two photos are back to front, heh. But thanks!

  3. ZoeRobinson

    Nice one Gwynneth. Great post. I’m glad you’re getting such valuable experience, and getting to do something you’re so passionate about too. I’m champing at the bit to do something similar. How great are artefacts?!!