Tomorrow marks the start of Volunteers’ Week, which gives us the opportunity at The Coffin Works to highlight the efforts of the people who so generously sacrifice their time for the love of this project. It also gives us the opportunity to say a huge thank you and simply express that so many facets of the project just wouldn’t be possible without their continued help. Here are just some of the tasks our volunteer force have been helping us with over the past few months.
The research team are always beavering away behind the scenes and so far thanks to their hard work, we have started to build a comprehensive picture of Newman Brothers and the workforce in the 1960s, which is relevant for our purposes, as that is the period we’re interpreting at The Coffin Works. That is to say that the visitor experience is based on what the factory was like in the 1960s. All of this material will vitally form the basis of our tour-guide packs and the work that this team are pursuing, from sourcing film footage, combing through company archives, determining the average wage of employees in the 1960s, to plotting the distribution of coffin-furniture manufacturers in Birmingham over the last 100 years or so, is essential in ensuring that we can offer a truly exemplary experience for all our future visitors. Thank you so much to the research team: Julie, Karen, Janine, Jan, Carmel, Barbara, Deb, Louise, Dawn and Doug, we couldn’t operate without you!
Also linked to this is the sensory experience that we’re attempting to create at The Coffin Works, especially through ambient sounds. One of our volunteers, Kimberley, is using her passion for music and particularly the 1950s and 1960s to inspire a soundtrack that we will use in the factory on guided tours. This will crucially help visitors step back in time and get a sense of the working environment throughout Newman Brothers during this period.
As well as our fair share of brains, we have much-needed brawn too (I should add that they have brains as well!!). Very recently I needed help moving heavy furniture and more tasking than that, I had to assemble miscellaneous pieces of wood into workbenches ready to be returned to The Coffin Works. Good job I had Julian and Michael to help and take charge, as this was akin to a giant game of Meccano, but with many missing pieces. We did make excellent progress though, helped, I think by copious supplies of tea and cake!
As an ex-funeral director, Dawn’s expertise in identifying coffin furniture is invaluable. She’s currently working with the collection and has the Newman Brothers’ trade catalogues as a reference guide, to ensure that we have a comprehensive selection of all the products they made during their hundred years in business. These will form part of our core collection and forever be preserved along with the company archive. On a very practical note, it’s extremely handy to have Dawn at the ready every time I have a ‘what is this?’ question!
Two of my newest volunteers are Heritage Management students from University of Birmingham on a six-week placement. They are knee-deep in collections management tasks, helping me with cataloguing, involving marking and labelling objects, as well as adding this information to our collections management database. They really are essential cogs in the whole process and have got into a solid rhythm- I’m just sorry that they’re not with us for longer!
A surprise visit from Australia made all the difference last week, when Hilda MacLean, a leading expert in 19th-century coffin furniture spent two days at The National Archives tracking down Newman Brothers’ registered designs. Thanks to her, we now have 1894 Newman Brothers’ designs, which marks their first year in business as coffin-furniture manufacturers, which for me, is simply special! Look out for my next blog, which will look at these designs in depth and reveal why one in particular marks an important transition from their history as brass founders to coffin-furniture manufacturers.
Just writing this, it’s overwhelming to appreciate the level of work carried out by our team of volunteers, and quite simply the project wouldn’t function so effectively without them. They really are the pulse and lifeblood of everything we do. Remember, you can also get involved in the project and we really would love to have you on board:
Keep up to date with project progress @Coffin Works and @HayesSarah17