Jack Kirby is Group Head of Collections Services for the Science Museum Group. He has worked with diverse communities in London and Birmingham and curated collections of national significance. Jack has responsibility for caring for, digitising and managing the Science Museum Group’s internationally outstanding collection. Based in Manchester, UK, he leads teams across five museums and two collections facilities, from County Durham to Wiltshire.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
Before the Covid-19 lockdown I visited the construction site of our new building at the National Collections Centre in Wiltshire. This is an absolutely vast space – a warehouse nearly 300 metres long and 90 metres wide. The space is the equivalent of 600 double decker buses. When completed, this low energy structure will transform the way we care for the nation’s collection of scientific, technological and medical heritage.
The new collections facility is a project I’ve been working on since 2015. Once we’re back on site, and the building is complete, it will take us two years to move in up to 300,000 objects. So we’re nowhere near finished yet, but it’s a great feeling to see such a huge, purpose built space.
What does being a curator mean to you personally? As a child were you interested in collecting?
I collected the sort of things that children often accumulate: stamps, train tickets, and badges. My collecting was never that serious, though: I was probably more into libraries than museums. I had (and have) my non-fiction books arranged in the Dewey Decimal Classification order that libraries use.
When I was eleven I saw the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial display in the British Museum, and that was the first time I thought about working in museums. Over time, I became increasingly interested in non-written sources and what they can tell us about history. There is evidence in buildings, landscape, maps, pictures, and artefacts, as well as intangible sources like place-names and oral testimony.
Relating all of these different sources to one another results in a much richer picture of people and places. Museum exhibitions often draw on multiple different types of material to illustrate their subjects. For interpreting both historical and contemporary science and technology, it’s an advantage to be able to use objects to give visitors a way in to understanding a subject. Objects are far more memorable than abstract descriptions, and provide a basis for inspiring stories.
They’re very close in name but how do you see the links between the words curator and curiosity?
Starting off literally, both words have their roots in Latin. Curator is derived from the Latin word curare, meaning to care, while curiosity comes from curiosus, meaning (approximately, I’m not a linguist) careful or inquisitive.
The two words sums up quite nicely two different senses of what a curator does. Partly a curator is looking after a collection for both current and future generations. Also a good curator brings ideas and asks questions: this is how objects get new interpretations, and subjects for exhibitions are conceived. And curators want to inspire others through their work: to ignite a sense of curiosity that leads to enjoyment and learning is one of our ambitions.
Has the role of the curator changed in the 21st century?
It’s evolved, in a good way. There’s now much more awareness of how non-specialist visitors understand and learn, and training in writing skills. That has helped to make exhibitions more dynamic in presentation. Text and labels are much clearer and easier to read.
There’s also conscious inclusion of a wider range of people and perspectives in exhibitions. For example, people with disabilities are much better represented in the new displays in Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries at the Science Museum than they were in the previous medical history galleries, which opened in 1980.
The other big development is the development of digital collections. An increasing proportion of new acquisitions will be wholly or partly ‘born-digital’. For example virtually all photography is now digital. This presents new and very big challenges in how we can preserve this material for the future. Even if we can protect digital files safely, will we be able to run the software on computers in the future? For me as somebody who is responsible for preserving a national collection, digital is both daunting and exciting: a whole new set of skills to learn and develop.
Can you tell me more about the big digitisation project you’ve embarked upon?
The new building that I mentioned will rehouse up to 300,000 objects that are currently in older facilities. We have to handle and move all those objects, making it the ideal time to add them to our online collection. There are two elements to this work. Firstly, every object needs a digital record. So an inventory team works through the collection, adding and upgrading records so that there’s at least a minimum amount of information to go online. Sometimes that means curators identifying objects, and where possible adding more details about them. It’s a great opportunity to solve some historic mysteries.
Secondly, every object is photographed. To photograph so many objects, we’ve reversed the usual process: instead of the objects going to the photography studio, a mobile studio goes to the objects. The inventory team has already given each object a barcode, and by scanning that, the photographers can instantly associate their image with the data for that object, saving several minutes of admin time for each object. The photographers are supported by some of our brilliant volunteers, enabling them to capture thousands of very varied objects every month.
How can we best convey wonder through the display of an historic object?
There’s no single way, it depends on the object. Some objects are natural sources of wonder in themselves: take Tim Peake’s Souyz space capsule. It’s extraordinary to think that this object protected three astronauts as they descended through the earth’s atmosphere. It’s naturally inspiring to see it, and the capsule toured museums around the UK, and was even displayed at Peterborough Cathedral.
Others objects require more interpretation, but are still amazing. The collection contains some simple wooden spheres connected by sticks. They were commissioned by John Dalton in Manchester to help develop his ideas about the structure of atoms. They are the first known models of atoms, dating from 1810.
The models require more interpretation around them than the space capsule, but knowing that so much of subsequent science has developed from Dalton’s thinking, they represent one of the foundations of modern chemistry. That’s where interpretation and telling the story well makes the importance of the objects come across.
You help oversee a team that has the responsibility of looking after 7.3 million objects held by the Science Museum Group. What are your biggest challenges with caring for and displaying some of these items?
The biggest practical challenges are often with the bigger objects. We moved Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive to the National Railway Museum last year, its third move in two years after being displayed at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester and before that Discovery Museum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
You might think a railway locomotive would be pretty robust, but Rocket dates from 1829. It’s really quite fragile. For each move it had to be carefully packed, with the chimney removed, and loose parts protected, lifted onto a covered trailer, and then the whole process reversed for installation at the next venue.
Other challenges increasingly come from modern materials used in 20th and 21st century objects. Metals are often alloys and plastics are polymers. We usually have little knowledge of their composition and structure when they enter the collection, but they can deteriorate quite fast.
For example we have puppets made for film and television in the 1980s using plastics that are starting to break down. The properties of the materials will affect how they degrade, so we have to work to understand them to decide how best to project them through storage or other treatment. Some of the puppets are kept in low oxygen environments to slow down deterioration.
Do you have a particular object that you cherish or fascinates you?
With 425,000 objects in the Science Museum Group Collection, it’s really difficult to pick just one. But if pushed, a favourite recent acquisition is the InterCity 125 locomotive, or to give it its proper name, the Class 43 High-Speed Train (HST) power car. The wedge-shaped design by Sir Kenneth Grange was iconic, and did a lot to transform the public impression of British Rail’s long distance operations. It’s a personal favourite because I had a model of it when I was a child, and travelled on HSTs to York. It’s a perfect dream to go from having a model to caring for the real thing.
And is there an object that is a source of constant woe? (perhaps because of the danger it presents or conservation challenges)
Lots of historic scientific and technological objects contain hazardous materials, but generally we can manage them safely. For example, most old thermometers contain mercury, which can give off toxic vapours, so we carefully check and label each thermometer before we do anything else with it.
Asbestos was used in many different objects throughout most of the twentieth century. It has great insulating properties, so it was used for its resistance to fire, heat and electricity, until its danger was understood. Mostly asbestos is found in stable condition, but if we find that it has deteriorated then we might have to get specialist contractors to remove or encapsulate the asbestos so that it’s safe.
Sometimes there are objects we no longer require, and here the best answer is to find someone else who can make more use of an object than we can. For example, we had collected several examples of the first home computer, the Altair 8800. It was very unlikely that we would ever use them all simultaneously. So we transferred one to the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge for display there.
What object is on your future wish list to acquire?
There are some very exciting ones in the pipeline, but they usually have to remain confidential while negotiations take place. Sometimes we can say a bit more. For example the National Railway Museum wants to acquire a Class 313 electric train. It’s a type of commuter train that is less glamorous than, for example, our Eurostar locomotive, but actually really important as an example of everyday travel on the railways, as experienced by millions of people. This type of train is due to come out of service in the next few years, so we’ve included it in our Operational Rail Vehicle Strategy as one that we would like to have in the collection.
When we label/categorise/name an object, animal or concept, what do we gain and what do we lose?
Classifying and documenting objects is really important because it enables us to understand the objects and their place in the history of science. The better the information we record, the more people can find and use the objects. Our whole online collection is only searchable because naming and categorisation has taken place.
However, the way that objects have been collected and documented in the past inevitably reflects the attitudes of the time. My colleague Hattie Lloyd recently uncovered the story of a chemist, Frances Micklethwait. She was part of an all-female team that investigated chemical weapons during the First World War. She was awarded the MBE, and was a prolific author of scientific papers. Yet in large part because she was a woman, her story hasn’t previously been widely known.
The Science Museum Group Collection is focused on Western science and technology, and particularly that of Britain. But it’s important to recognise that there’s always been more than one way of looking at the world. One of my colleagues, Donata Miller, blogged about a Chinese incense clock that she found in the collection. It’s a fascinating object, and as Donata said in the film she made about it, ‘it shows that Western culture doesn’t own time.’
If you were to open your own museum, what would it be like? What would you include?
That’s really difficult. There are so many museums out there already, I’m not sure we need (or can sustain) more. And I have such a good collection to work with professionally, I don’t really need my own!
That said, my personal interests include overlooked parts of everyday design in our streets: telephone kiosks, pillar boxes, street lamps, bus shelters, traffic signs. At their best, with great design these objects transcend utility: look at how the red telephone box is a symbol of Britain, while the British road sign system has influenced others worldwide. Quite a few objects are preserved in museums, in addition to those that survive ‘in the wild’, so to speak, but there’s not a museum telling the story in a comprehensive way. So that would be my geek’s choice, but I don’t think many people would visit compared to the millions who come to the Science Museum Group’s five museums every year.
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