Telling the Story of Leather:
Giving our archive back to the public.
Written by Victoria Green
Let’s be honest. If I say ‘archive’ to you, it doesn’t conjure the most glamorous of images. Six months ago, I would have pictured a musty room filled with old box files, accounts and boring legal documents. Yes, archives preserve the nuts and bolts of an organisation but, in reality, they are so much more. A thank you letter from Princess Margaret for her wedding gift of a crocodile handbag. An insurance claim from the London blitz requesting compensation for ’73 brown puff adders’. 1980s exhibition plans for a tactile display for the blind and partially sighted.
Archives seem to have this undeserved reputation for being inaccessible, not meant for just any Average Joe to see. People are more than happy to engage with museum objects, so why not delve into the paperwork too? I wanted to turn all of these archive misconceptions on their head and transform the National Leather Collection’s filing cabinets into something that everyone can explore. And with the ‘Telling the Story of Leather’ project, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Thanks to the Nenescape Landscape Partnership Scheme’s ‘Stories of the Nene – Community Heritage Grant’, we have been able to start a new, exciting project to unbox our archival material for the first time, in an attempt to better understand the museum’s history and our local leather heritage. The best way of describing the project is to imagine that it’s Christmas, except that the presents are old photographs and documents, wrapped in folders and cardboard boxes. For the last forty years, the museum’s archive has been in storage, inaccessible and uncatalogued. We know from a quick rummage that the material chronicles the leather industry in Northampton and beyond, and covers every leather-related subject including archaeology, tanning, heritage and fashion in a mixture of typed documents, handwritten notes, press cuttings and photographs. The aim of the project is very simple; to make the archive publicly accessible for the first time by creating an online resource that can be accessed by all.
One of the many ways in which funding from Nenescape has allowed us to do this is by expanding our volunteering opportunities. We have been able to recruit six new volunteers for the project itself, with others working remotely on specific archival research projects such as transcribing the Oliver Baker manuscripts. With our newly upgraded online storage and scanning facilities, we are able to continue to support volunteers living as far away as Australia in their voluntary work. Most of all, we have been given a wonderful opportunity to engage the people of Northamptonshire with their local history, and this unique resource.
James, a project volunteer, says “I have a passion for anything historical. Reading and recording the file contents is an interesting way of understanding the development of leather throughout the ages. I’m enjoying helping to make this archive easily accessible.”
The National Leather Collection’s archive is the key to understanding and interpreting the collection. As an emerging heritage visitor attraction, we are still in our infancy in terms of researching our objects and measuring their value. Being able to read John Waterer’s original research and exhibition notes allows us to supplement our understanding of specific items in our collection and to classify those that remain a mystery. At the same time, we are preserving Waterer’s lifetime of dedication to leather, heritage and the history of an industry.
The Robertson Collection tells the story of the Bevington & Sons Tannery in Bermondsey, which was destroyed during the London Blitz.
The project’s progress is being chronicled under #storyofleather, and we’d like to encourage everyone to follow @museumofleather and @nationalleathercollection for regular updates. If you would like to get involved, please email email@example.com to enquire about our current volunteering opportunities and donations of archival material.