As It Happens

This British museum wants your help identifying its oddities

A group of British curators is in the midst of moving a massive collection of archival objects that includes some mysterious items they're hoping the public can help identify.

A move is presenting the Science Museum Group with the perfect opportunity to catalogue rare items

This unidentified steel and wooden object in the Science Museum's collection is believed to have been created between 1750 and 1850. Members of the public have suggested it could be a domestic appliance used to scoop out hard-boiled eggs, or an anatomy tool used to gouge out eyeballs. (Submitted by Science Museum Group)

Read Story Transcript

A group of British curators is in the midst of moving a massive collection of archival objects that includes some mysterious whosits and whatsits they're hoping the public can help identify.

The Science Museum Group is moving 300,000 objects from Blythe House in London to its National Collections Centre in Wiltshire. It's a massive undertaking that involves more than 50 staff members and dozens of volunteers. 

Most of the objects have never been on display, and even the curators don't know what some of them are. They're using the move as an opportunity to photograph and catalogue the collection — and to tap into the public's collective knowledge to decipher some of the outliers.

"The collection is so vast, it's almost impossible to ever understand in lots of detail every single object," Jessica Bradford, the group's keeper of collections engagement, told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

"In some instances, the object is something that we might recognize, but we don't know what it is or how it was used. In other cases, the real mysteries are objects that we really couldn't tell you whether they are a medical instrument or a domestic appliance or something altogether different. So it's those rare but really fascinating cases that we're hoping to get some more information about."

The mysterious scooper

The objects include a tool with a long wooden handle that's believed to date back to somewhere between 1750 and 1850. It's got a long wooden handle and a metal basket shape at the end. 

"It looks a bit like an ice cream scoop, but it's very likely ... to have a medical use because it was part of Henry Wellcome's museum collection," Bradford said. 

Henry Wellcome, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and philanthropist, collected objects that told the story of human health and disease. He died in 1936.

"We've had some great suggestions already from the public on that one, ranging from: Is it something that you could use to scoop boiled eggs out of a pan?" Bradford said. "Or, is it something on the slightly more grisly end of the scale that might have been used for anatomy? So is it for gouging out eyeballs, for example?"

The wedge

Bradford's personal favourite is a simple metal object with a wedge-shaped head.

"It's a lovely example of the sort of utilitarian object in the Science Museum Group collection," she said.

'It’s brilliant to see people thinking about their own industries that they might be involved in, or their parents or grandparents might have been involved in, and how an object that is so relatively ordinary to look at can start to evoke really important industries and the technological underpinnings of our societies,' Bradford said. (Submitted by Science Museum Group)

"It's certainly not something that's particularly beautiful, or not the kind of thing you would necessarily put in a glass showcase in your own home. But nevertheless, it clearly has been part of an industry."

So far, members of the public have suggested it might have been used in sail making, compressing sand, shaping molten glass or leather working.

A foot-operated saw

A saw with foot pedals that's part of the collection is a little less mysterious, but the stories that people are sharing with the museum are helping enliven its story.

This pedal-powered saw was used in intricate woodworking, such as building dollhouses or model boats. (Submitted by Science Museum Group)

After seeing it, a museum curator shared stories about using one to build model boats. Someone else came forward with memories of a family member who used one to build intricate dollhouses and model farms for children.

"It's often the case that when we know what an object is, we nevertheless haven't at the time collected some of those personal human stories that really bring the collection to life," Bradford said.

"Our call-out to the public is partly for identification, but it's also for sharing stories and helping us to bring the collection to life."


Written by Mary Vallis. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now