Visit Six – Stanley the Cat and USB drives at the Churchill Archives

Although it started with insufficient amounts of coffee, my morning continued with a visit from the other Graduate Trainees to my library (which went much more smoothly than expected), followed by a visit to the Churchill Archives.

Our tour began in a semi-permanent exhibition space, focusing on Winston Churchill’s political career. Mostly comprising photos and quotes (we would find the real treasures of the archive a short while later), it was an engaging display and one that I would like to revisit soon.

We then went into the reading rooms – quiet spaces where readers can consult archival material, but which are also used to store a number of books. There is always someone at the front desk who supervises the readers and they are given a short training on how to handle the material when they first come into the Archives, and I could indeed tell that all three people in the room at the time were treating the documents with great care.

Another small – but fascinating! – display had been prepared for us in one of the reading rooms. The Churchill archives preserve millions of historic documents, most of them related to political or scientific figures, and we were lucky to see a well-curated selection of some of the most interesting. Winston Churchill’s school reports – he was a good student, yet occasionally rude and ‘greedy at lunch’ – sat alongside Margaret Thatcher’s handbag (an interesting choice of object to donate to an archive) and various documents about libraries roughly from Churchill’s time. We were also told about the recent exhibitions the Churchill archivists have put together, like the one on women in science, with documents by and about Rosalind Franklin, Lise Meitner and others. It was probably the most enlightening part of the visit for me to learn how much you can do with an archive, how much collections of documents can communicate, when I had (embarrassingly) lived under the impression that an archive is, to a certain extent, not much more than a well-looked-after storage space.

From the reading room, we went ‘behind the scenes’, to the safe rooms where boxes upon boxes (all neatly tagged, all the same pleasant paper-y colour) safeguard the archive’s documents. An interesting issue that came up was copyright, both for personal papers – how do you determine who holds the copyright for a photo when you can’t even recognise the people in it? – and for digital documents – is any form of online distribution a breach of copyright? It was mentioned that the Churchill Archives will receive a large number of documents from/by/about Gordon Brown sometime in the future, but all of these will come on USB drives. In that case, how should they be stored? Are they the originals that need preserving? How should they be shared with readers?

Our visit ended with Heidi, Archives Assistant and one of the three lovely ladies who showed us around the archive, sharing her favourite item in the collection with us. This was Stanley the Cat – a toy cat, black and fluffy, which guarded 10 Downing Street (photographic proof was provided!) throughout some of Thatcher’s regime. It was a delightful ending to a delightful visit, and has also led to my discovering this wonderful wikipedia page.

Featured image for this post is mine, taken in London a couple of years ago.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Gerry Meeten says:

    Interesting…………..but disappointing!
    So if Thatcher bequeathed her handbag, Churchill could at least have left a few malodorous cigar butts.


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