Friday, 7 July 2017

Not at all sketchy! Volunteering with LHSA

In common with other colleagues in the Centre for Research Collections, LHSA hosts volunteer placements and paid internships throughout the year. As in many other professions, gaining practical experience is a vital gateway into careers in the heritage sector, and our placements aim to help those at various stages: from those who've never really been 'behind-the-scenes' in an archive before to aspiring new professionals seeking their first paid experience to build up a specialist CV. Vannis Jones is one of our volunteers, and comes in for one morning a week. In her final year of an Art History & French degree here at the University, Vannis approached us last year with a view to gaining the experience she needed for a place on a professional qualification in archives after graduation. In her blog, she talks about the material she's been working with recently, from a medical business (literally) very close to home for us here at LHSA:

Hi there, I’m Vannis and I have been volunteering with LHSA since January. Having recently received a conditional offer of a place in the University of Glasgow’s MSc programme in Information Management and Preservation (largely thanks to LHSA!), this placement has given me a wonderful opportunity to gain experience in the archives sector that I have no doubt will be immensely useful during my studies in Glasgow! I have now catalogued three small collections during my time here, the largest of which, pertaining to J. Gardner & Son, Surgical Instrument Manufacturers, I would love to share with you today.

The collection primarily consists of sketchbooks and loose sketches of surgical instruments and artificial limbs (and the occasional, and seemingly rather random, veterinary instruments...) produced by J. Gardner & Son from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. J Gardner & Son opened just across the road from the University in Forrest Road, where the pub, Doctors, is now. The sketches often detail not only measurements and other forming specifications for the instruments, but also frequently the hospital, ward, and doctor who commissioned them. The majority of these commissions came from doctors and hospitals in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but some are from as far afield as Carlisle or even Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis!

One of the biggest challenges in working with this collection was not actually the content - thankfully almost all instruments were labelled in the sketches, and any that weren’t I was generally able to identify using my trusty illustrated copy of J. Gardner & Son’s 1913 catalogue - but rather the condition of the materials. Large parts of the collection have clearly been saved from a fire at some point, as a number of pages are singed and crumbly at the edges, covered with a thin layer of ash. This fragility, combined with the fact most of the sketches have been folded for decades, means the sketches are heavily creased and the pages fall apart and rip easily - it’s going to be a bit of a challenge for the conservation team to get them ready for the reading room! A secondary issue is the dirty, dirty hands you walk away with after handling the collection. Old graphite and ash from a long-forgotten fire are not the best of combinations…
This sketch of trephine forceps from 1910 encapsulates almost all the conservation issues this collection has to offer—creases, detached bits of paper, singed edges (particularly at the top), and accumulated dirt on the page (GD47/1/7)

Having just completed my undergraduate degree in History of Art, I was also able to look at this collection through an art historical lens, and I grew to appreciate the strengths of the different artists employed to sketch at J. Gardner & Son. One of their most prolific designers was someone I have been able to identify as ‘T. Weir’, whose sketches often bordered on art. T.W. generally put a decent amount of effort into making his sketches not only extremely precise and detailed, but also aesthetically pleasing, and at times, beautiful. You would think that this accuracy and attention to detail would be common amongst all surgical instrument designers, but there was at least one J. Gardner & Son designer who was decidedly not particularly artistically inclined! (Incidentally, he never chose to sign his work.)
Dissector and probe image, caption: A beautifully clear and precise sketch of a dissector and probe by my new favourite 20th century artist, T. Weir. 1910 (GD47/1/7).
Our only hope is that the final form of this detachable bronchoscope was not quite as wobbly our anonymous designer has depicted… (GD47/1/7)
As someone with absolutely no legitimate knowledge of surgical instruments or their usage, I did at times come across instruments with rather comical names—comical to a layperson, at least. The vast majority of the instruments were run-of-the-mill types like forceps, knives, scissors, probes, and the like. However, I would from time to time come across strange instruments such as a ‘special scalpel’ or a ‘pad for heating kidney’. Far and away my favourite oddity I have found in the collection, however, is the intestine crusher. Now, this was one of those instances where you read the name of the instrument, and assume you’re having some sort of palaeography issue. But no, the handwriting is quite clear—it’s an intestine crusher. This instrument in particular sticks out in my mind because while a number of the instruments in the collection sound unpleasant (‘brain knives’ come to mind), it is at least possible to imagine that they could serve some sort of beneficial medical purpose. Nothing about ‘intestine crusher’ says ‘tool of healing.’ A quick Google search returns results related primarily to meatpacking, an unlikely use of the J. Gardner & Son instrument, so perhaps we may never know its purpose. After all, I am no doctor…

 The infamous intestine crusher (and one of the few sketches in ink!) - GD47/1/7
Overall this has been a really fascinating collection to work with, and has presented a wide variety of challenges that I am sure have prepared me well for many more archive-based projects in my future. It has been really interesting to broaden my personal horizons by working with materials that deal with matters outside of my area of expertise, but that were also somehow familiar in that a number of the sketches were in some ways like pieces of art. I certainly look forward to many more exciting projects at LHSA, and more opportunities to facilitate the public’s access to our rich and diverse collections!

I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that Vannis finished her History of Art & French degree with First Class Honours and graduated this week! You can find out more about volunteer and internship projects in the Centre for Research Collections here.

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