Friday, 23 June 2017

Objects of mystery

Archivists like lists. We like box lists, catalogues, inventories. We like knowing what we have and where it is. This isn’t always straightforward, though, and sometimes things turn up that stump us all. For example, my first ever cataloguing assignment involved working with the papers of a prominent Scottish art critic. Two days in I came across an instruction manual for a radio. Was this an integral part of this critic’s routine? Did she listen to the radio whilst writing? Did she read the manual before she sat down to an assignment? Were there some particularly striking illustrations that she enjoyed looking at to put her in the right frame of mind? Or was it that the manual had just fallen in to the box before she’d loaded up the car and driven to the archive?

Deciding what to keep from a donation or accession is a process called ‘appraisal’, which involves assessing the value of materials according to pre-agreed criteria – although what ‘value’ means is a very contentious and much debated issue! Sometimes, we have to take things in without being in a position to make informed decisions about their value. As we’re seeing more digital media come into the archive in obsolete or hard-to-access formats like floppy-disc or Betamax tape, we can’t always be sure what is on them, so sometimes we agree to take them in on the assumption they will be of value. Other times, it’s not accessing the information that’s the problem – sometimes we simply don’t know what an item is!

The LHSA objects database is a good example of this. Broadly speaking, archives tend not to collect objects - this is more the purview of museums - but LHSA does hold over 1000 objects, ranging from badges and condoms to straitjackets and clocks. The collection includes around 300 medical instruments and implements, such as these wonderful drug cabinets:

M026 & M027 - Drug cabinets
With so many objects, it’s not too uncommon to come across entries in the database with the description ‘function unknown’. Now, my archivist’s brain finds this difficult to deal with and internally I’m screaming “everything must be correctly labelled and identified!”, but although we’ve come to know a lot about the history of medicine through working at LHSA, none of our staff are medically trained, and nor are we medical historians.

M250 - previously listed as an 'unknown device' from Leith Hospital 
Earlier this week, Twitter came to my rescue when Robert Culshaw (@RobertCulshaw) helpfully clarified that these mysterious and alien-looking metal items were in fact the two parts to an amputation shield, explaining “they go around the bone to retract the muscle out of the way ready to saw through it”.


With that in mind, we’re calling on the expertise of our followers – can you help us identify some other instruments? We’ll be sharing photos of a few 'unknown' objects on Twitter over the weekend. Get in touch if you can help solve any of these mysteries! Here are two to get you started....



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