Guest Post – Volunteering at the Harry Daly Museum

Hello again! It’s been a little while since I last wrote a blog for Curate Your Own Adventure but I’m very happy to be back! In today’s blog I’m going to talk about my recent experience volunteering at the Harry Daly Museum located at North Sydney, which operates as a part of the Australian Society of Anaesthetists (ASA). If you’re a regular reader of the blog you will be familiar with this museum and some of its history and activities as Rebecca has just wrapped up her tenure as the Curator and Archivist at the Museum. So, I won’t repeat that information for you but will focus on my own experience instead.

I was lucky enough to be selected as a volunteer after completing a recruitment process, and despite the title of this post I actually worked within the Gwen Wilson Archive rather than the Museum itself – the ASA actually operates a Museum, Archive and Reference Library which are all interconnected. To give you some context, the ASA moved to new premises in 2013, which included moving the Museum, Library and Archive. While the Library, and to a lesser extent the Museum, have been well maintained and managed during and since the move, the Archive was put into basement storage at the time of the move and had remained untouched since. As you can probably imagine, this meant there was a lot of work to be done in organising the Archive and bringing it back to a workable, appropriate state. I have to say it was disappointing to see the state the Archive had been left in – hundreds of boxes unlabelled (or incorrectly labelled), in no order, with no humidity or temperature controls, stored in non-archive quality materials. Not to mention the basement storage room had had a leak for some time. In short, almost no best practice procedures had been carried out, which was a shame when the time and resources to do so were present. However, having seen the amazing revitalisation and redevelopment Rebecca had already undertaken in the museum space (seriously, what she achieved in that amount of time is amazing!), I was confident that the end result would be great and the Archive would be treated with the respect it deserves.

Some of the fundamental first steps to get the Archive into a working state, so that we could actually get in there and work, included clearing the floor so that the room was accessible, ensuring there were no current leaks, using traps to take care of a roach problem and installing temperature and humidity monitoring devices. Once that was complete, Rebecca and myself could actually get to work on the Archive objects and documents. As simple as it might sound, this involved pulling out unmarked (often very heavy!) boxes, opening them up and seeing what was inside. This process certainly opened my eyes to some of the unique challenges that a medical museum presents – I think it was the second box we opened that contained unlabelled, unsealed sharps (used needles). Luckily, I had just put on gloves as the first box had contained a resuscitator that had become mouldy due to less than ideal storage conditions. These certainly weren’t the only interesting and dangerous objects that we found as we sorted through the seemingly endless mountain of boxes. As we sorted through the boxes, we documented each object we found (at a guess, maybe 5% of the objects we worked through had object labels with accession numbers on them, all of which seemed to use a different accessioning system), gave it a number and a label, set aside some objects to be de-accessioned and repackaged objects into archive-quality polypropylene boxes we assembled ourselves.

As a result of the nature of the project I was working on, and the fact that I managed to effectively see it through to its conclusion, this volunteer work felt more like an internship than other volunteer work I’ve undertaken in the sector. I think this speaks to how hands on the work was, how closely I got to work with the Curator and how much practical knowledge I obtained. This was thanks to having such a supportive supervisor who was willing to answer as many annoying questions as I could ask. Having no experience in a medical museum, I had plenty! I don’t mean to devalue other volunteer work by describing my experience this way, I just wish that all volunteers in the cultural sector would be respected, valued and appreciated in the same way that interns are. That’s not to say that I’ve felt disrespected as a volunteer in the past, but I do feel there is a difference in the way volunteers and interns are treated (perhaps rightfully so), and I will always stress that the extent to which volunteers and their work should be valued and appreciated knows no bounds.

My only criticism of my experience, if I could call it that, would be that I wish we had more time to focus on some aspects of the work in more detail, and to do more in general. Had we had more time, or had the Archive not been in such a state of disarray when we began we might’ve been able to focus more on conservation issues, on individual objects and on de-accessioning obsolete objects and records. However, one of my favourite things about getting to spend time in actual museum and archive spaces since completing the Museum Studies Masters is seeing the ways in which the theory and best practice we learnt about in the class room do or do not take place in the real world. I couldn’t be happier with the result of our work in the archive. We achieved an incredible amount in the short time we had, and I can only hope the standard we have set will be maintained going forward. I have attached a few photos so you can hopefully see some of the difference we made. Also note the accession documents attached to the compactus which state the location of objects and documents, and the disaster management plan for how to deal with a flood in the archive space – both of which have been laminated and made accessible and were not previously available in the archive space.

A huge thanks to Rebecca for having me on as a volunteer and for allowing me to blog on it, I learnt so much.

This post was written by Imogen Kennard-King:

A huge thank you to Imogen for the wonderful post and the great work you did in helping me with the Archives. It was no easy task and I am so glad you were there to ensure I didn’t accidentally stab myself with a needle!

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