Six months ago I embarked on what was possibly the most daunting (and exciting!) task of my career so far. I was appointed as the Collections and Exhibitions Manager and central to this role is the task of bringing Newman Brothers back to life. This has involved sifting my way through 800 boxes of mixed materials, needless to say, largely an assortment of coffin handles, as well as assembling work benches and other pieces of furniture.
These boxes have been left untouched for nearly seven years and rather than feeling like I’m disturbing them, it feels more like I’m letting them breathe again and somehow allowing them to take centre stage to ‘act out’ their story once more.
Take the object below, for example. One of my volunteers, Louise, who has done a fantastic job of compiling information about the various Newman Brothers’ staff, has been asking about a mysterious handbag that cropped up in one of the oral history interviews from a previous worker. Dolly Dunsby, who was the Warehouse Manager, worked at Newman Brothers for 61 years. She finally left at the age of 75 in 1976 on account of ill-health, allegedly leaving her elusive handbag behind. As if by chance, I opened box number 45 last Thursday and removed its contents, only to find a navy-blue leather-frame handbag. Even more of a coincidence was the fact that Louise was present for the discovery, and needless to say, her reaction was one of pure delight.
Opening the lid of every box and peeling back the tissue paper has been a journey of discovery, revealing a new surprise, for the most part, which has never got old! This is, after all, why I began working in museums. For me, objects are powerfully evocative because they are the evidence, the physical remains that connect us to the past. And often in their simplicity and ‘ordinariness’ they stand as monuments that act as gateways, opening up a rare portal that grants us access to the understanding of an era long gone. This is the power that heritage has, more so arguably than a book or a film and the task of returning the contents of Newman Brothers and recreating the time-capsule atmosphere is quite simply a uniquely-exciting privilege.
On Tuesday 5 August, the collections move begins, which kick starts the return of much of the contents, currently stored off site, to Newman Brothers at The Coffin Works. Thereafter, I will carefully place objects back on display, over a period of around eight weeks, returning them to, pardon the pun, their last resting place before they were removed in 2007. There will be plenty of blogs to document that process, but the inspiration behind this blog is the help and unrelenting support that I’ve received from volunteers over the last six months, which has allowed me to reach this point. I call them my collections support team who have helped me in numerous ways from cleaning, cataloguing to conservation work. This is just to say a huge thank you and remind those team members that through their collective support, we are now in a position to embark on the next chapter of this journey: returning the Newman Brothers’ contents home and creating this much-anticipated heritage attraction. Watch this space!
Sarah Hayes, Collections and Exhibitions Manager.
Follow project progress @CoffinWorks and @HayesSarah17