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Social History Collections – Unlocking Objects From Our Stores

Posted on 23.01.2023

October 2022 saw the opening of MUSEUM 100, an exhibition celebrating the centenary of the Manx Museum, home to an extraordinary collection of artefacts and archives that help tell the story of the Isle of Man and its people. Our curators carefully selected over 100 objects to display in the exhibition and the Digital Collections Team simultaneously added images and extra information to the object records so that they could be released onto www.iMuseum.im. Every object on display in MUSEUM 100 is now discoverable on iMuseum.

In total we have over one million artefacts in the national collections, reflecting 10,000 years of our Island’s cultural heritage. Not everything in our collection is on public display, nor do we collect for display purposes alone. We collect artefacts that reflect an aspect of our Island’s story that might otherwise be lost. To help mark our centenary year we have been working together to share more information about some of the objects in our stored collections, and share their stories on iMuseum. With so many objects to choose from, we decided to focus on objects from our social history collections which makes up a good proportion of our collections and until this year were not well represented on iMuseum.

Katie King, MNH Curator: Art & Social History, explains more, “I feel very lucky to be able to work with Manx National Heritage’s social history collections and love sharing them and their stories with as many people as possible. The collections, which includes some 40,000 items, have been gathered over the past 100 years and reveal stories about how we have grown and developed as a nation. They date roughly from 1700 to the modern day, and include contemporary objects as well. Every object is a piece of the jigsaw of our Island’s story, from everyday objects such as a butter prints to extraordinary objects like Captain Quilliam’s compass used at the Battle of Trafalgar. Over the next few months and years we will be sharing  as many stories as possible via iMuseum, and for the first project we have focused on 1,000 smaller social history objects housed within one of the Manx Museum’s storage facilities. This, we hoped, would ensure a breadth of objects rather than focusing on one theme or time period. ”

In June 2022 Emma Morter (Digital Collections Assistant) set about editing the records, researching the objects, adding extra information for context and finally releasing the records onto iMuseum just before Christmas. In many instances we do not have high quality photographs of all these objects, so the majority have been released onto iMuseum without images.

In researching this project Emma discovered many stories along the way and one object which particularly interested her was a General Post Office tipstaff which belonged to Eleanor Macadam. In the mid-nineteenth century many official government posts carried a tipstaff (a symbolic mace or truncheon) as a badge of office. Having succeeded her father, at the age of 29 Eleanor Jane Macadam held the position of postmistress at Thomas Street Post Office in Douglas. She was famed because in 1850 she single-handedly tackled an armed burglar who had broken into the post office in the early hours of the morning. Mona’s Herald on 16 January 1850 described Eleanor’s bravery in apprehending him.

1954-4752 General Post Office tipstaff

Emma said “This object tells a fascinating story about the social history of our Island and the pluckiness of one young woman. Suddenly an official badge of office, which may appear rather dull, comes to life.”

An object about which there was very little information was a ‘Gas Singer for a horse’s coat’. Research revealed that this was used to pass over a horse’s coat with a naked flame, thereby removing any long or unwanted hair as part of the grooming process. Their use was common in the 19th century. This object was part of a collection from Derby Square Livery Stables, which was listed in Brown’s Directory for 1881/1882, owned by Thomas Bridson.

1954-4918 Gas singer for horse’s coat

Emma said, “When I first saw the rather scant record for this object, I had no idea what it was used for and after some research, discovering its use, I was rather surprised. I would have thought that gas, naked flames and horses were a dangerous combination!”

Emma and Katie examine the Gas singer in the stores

The tourist industry is a big part of the Island’s social history and we have many related objects in our collections. Research into one group of tourist related objects from the Douglas Bay Hotel, including room key fobs and menus, revealed insights into the military history of the Island too. Opened in 1894, the Douglas Bay Hotel was the first hotel on the Isle of Man to have electric lights, with the power supplied by the tramway’s generator. During the Second World War, the hotel was used for training members of War Office ‘Y’ Group to intercept and transcribe coded German radio signals. This data was sent off the Island and was decoded by one of the captured ‘Enigma’ machines. After the war the hotel resumed business, finally closing and being demolished in 1988. During the demolition process, a serious fire broke out and the building was gutted. The site was later redeveloped.  Whilst the objects themselves were not particularly unusual, the history of the hotel was.

Finally, some objects remain enigmatic. The front section of a small padlock or furniture lock, ornamented with the Three Legs of Man, was found wedged between the branches of a tree near St Judes and donated to our collections in 1950 (1954-6402 was donated in 1950). Where did it come from? Why was it in the tree? We will probably never know.

Emma Morter, Digital Collections Assistant

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