United in History: A personal experience of collaborative research in museums and academia

The International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Towards the end of 2012 I received an invitation to join a panel at the upcoming International Congress of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine looking at collaboration between universities and museums.

The symposium was called ‘Research in Science Museums: The State of the Art’ and I was part of the first panel, ‘Museum-university collaborations: an ideal marriage?’. The symposium had been put together by Rebekah Higgitt (Royal Museums Greenwich, United Kingdom), Tim Boon (Science Museum Group, United Kingdom), Martin Collins (Smithsonian Institution, United States) and Helmuth Trischler (Deutsches Museum, Germany). The panel I was part of was principally coordinated and chaired by Rebekah Higgitt.

My contribution to the panel was to give a student’s perspective. During my MA I had completed an internship at the National Maritime Museum looking at submarine telegraph cables and I have blogged about it here. Being part of the panel gave me a chance to think about what I had done and where I was trying to go with my work between academic study and museums. As the number of Collaborative Doctoral Awards or Partnerships as they’re now called are growing maybe we need to think more about the role and benefits for the student in this. Consequently I thought I’d blog my paper and welcome your thoughts and contributions.

Finally I should thank Rebekah Higgit and Tim Boon for asking me to part of the panel and the amazing conference that is ICHSTM, and also to the British Society for the History of Science for the funding to attend.


In danger of sounding like a cliché I came to the decision that my future lay in history whilst travelling. I had finished an undergraduate degree in history at the University of Liverpool but was clueless as to what career I wanted to pursue; after briefly dabbling in music industry I decided to follow an ambition to go travelling.

An excuse to get my travel pictures out: Cuba's Museum of Revolution

An excuse to get my travel pictures out: Cuba’s Museum of Revolution

Somewhere between Cuba’s Museum of the Revolution and Boliva’s Coca Museum, I realised that museums excited me as a way of connecting the public to history; informative and inspirational, conventional and controversial, museums can help us understand our world today. It was only when I was back in the UK that I realised I wasn’t the only person to have this revelation and that building a career in museums was, and still is, very competitive. Eventually I realised that to develop a career working with collections I needed to do an MA.

After much deliberation I decided on an MA in Historical Research at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). I knew I wanted my dissertation to use museum objects, so when I spotted the National Maritime Museum’s paid internships I jumped at the chance.

Commemorative Medals for the laying of the Atlantic Cable made by Tiffany. Image copyright Royal Museums Greenwich.

My dissertation looked at the material culture surrounding submarine telegraph cables, and I soon discovered that though I wasn’t short of objects; the NMM collection is varied and I found relevant objects in the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, the Science Museum and the Museum of Freemasonry. Finding objects wasn’t hard, but what I did find challenging was how to focus my work with these objects into a research question. Fortunately I found great support from the NMM and the IHR, and both supervisors were able to offer background and museological/historiographical reading and I eventually settled on looking at the transitional identity of the Atlantic Telegraph cable through these collections.

I really enjoyed working with the different museums and their collections, and was amazed at how each museum went out of their way to help me in my research. Furthermore, I felt I was able to build a relationship with these museums. As part of the paid internship at the NMM I had tangible outcomes which included updating their collections database, a blog post and a rather nervous paper at a lunchtime seminar. For Porthcurno, I used a week of my summer to volunteer in their educational summer programme whilst doing research. This was all valuable in widening my ‘hands on’ experience and meant I saw a different side to the museums, as well as helping me locate the different objects within the different museum cultures. I hope the trip and other outputs benefited them as much as it did my research and museum experience.

General Post Office, St Martins-Le-Grand, from The Illustrated London News, 1843

After completing my MA I realised how much I enjoyed research, and started to consider a PhD. The Collaborative Doctoral Awards looked like the perfect way for me to maintain the collaboration I initially explored through my MA dissertation, and I have since started a CDA with the IHR and the British Postal Museum and Archive looking at the Victorian Post Office. My PhD is currently very archive focused, but I am hopeful that my research will involve some of the BPMA’s museum collection. I believe each CDA is organised differently and as part of mine there is an expectation that I will work on a project for the BPMA for a certain number of days a year and I see my relationship with the BPMA growing as my PhD develops.

De-installation in preparation for the new 'Line of Kings' exhibition

De-installation in preparation for the new ‘Line of Kings’ exhibition

Though I have the luxury of being a funded PhD student, I have felt that gaining practical everyday museum experience was important if I wanted to consider a museum role after my PhD. Consequently I also work part-time as curatorial assistant of Tower collections for the Royal Armouries. Research is integral to museums but a PhD is unlikely to involve practicalities such as auditing a collection, arranging an object loan or providing a handling session for 10 year olds.

I believe there is a lot of value for both historians and museum professionals in museums and universities working more closely together. Not only for developing audiences and skills, disseminating knowledge, also enabling us to view collections and history differently, and importantly, funding is available. However, my only caution is where this leaves the student. I see myself as ‘hedging my bets’, I love history and I believe it is important and want to communicate this but am I being trained for academia or museums? Both, I hope. I believe CDAs were developed to give students more practical skills, but this could be dependent on how the institutions want to deliver the collaborative aspects of the PhD and how aware the student is as to what they want to get out of the experience. Perhaps the CDAs should take longer and involve a job role for two days a week, or perhaps the student should complete the Associateship of the Museum Association (AMA) alongside their studies.

I’d be interested in others thoughts on this but to end on a positive note I want to emphasise that it’s through collaboration that I’ve had some of the most rewarding experiences in the academic and museum world, and I think it is something we should all seek to encourage.

Firemen and the Sea

‘Torchlight Procession Around the World’, NMM object no. PAG8264

You know that frustrating moment when you discover something that would have been really useful for your previous piece of work? Well I had that joy a few weeks ago when looking into the employment culture of occupations to compare to the Post Office.

This story starts with this engraving, an image I discovered during a research internship at the National Maritime Museum as part of my MA. I was intrigued as to why an image created to be sold and celebrate the landing of the Atlantic submarine telegraph cable in New York, in 1858, would have firemen as the central figures.

At one point my dissertation supervisor and myself discussed the use of firemen and the possibility of looking at the American use of the image as an opener to my dissertation. However my research didn’t get very far and I went with the evening celebrations at the Imperial Institute marking the jubilee of submarine telegraph communication with the Far East in 1894. But those firemen have continued to bug me.

Then, some six months after I have handed in my dissertation and subsequently started my PhD, I came across an article by Shane Ewen called ‘Managing Police Constable and Firefighters: Uniformed Public Services in English Cities, c.1870-1930’ in the International Review of Social History, 51 (2006). In Ewen’s article I was introduced to the relationship between firemen and the Royal Navy in British cities. Ewen details how in Birmingham, between 1880 and 1920, approximately half of new firemen were recruited from the Royal Navy due to perceptions of an overlap in the need for disciplinary procedures and control. This wasn’t universal, Leicester and Edinburgh principally targeted semi-skilled and skilled workers, seeing the value in having practical skills among recruits. So it seemed, the origin of firefighter recruits stemmed from the perceived importance of certain attributes, either their skills or their ability to follow orders and live in a quasi-military regime.
Ewen didn’t go into too much detail about the American system, though he did note that the nineteenth century saw the transition from a voluntary to municipal paid firefighting system. This was partly in an attempt to deal with the ‘acute ill-discipline’ suffered by the service in the 1840s and 1850s. Perhaps due to the bad behaviour, sailors were first choice for American firefighter recruiters too.

From a review in April’s Labour History Review, I see that Ewen has written a book on the development of the fire service in Britain: Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service, 1800-1978. Robin Pearson’s review is full of praise of this work and through his review one of my questions is answered: why sailors and not the army? Sailors were preferred as they had the physical strength, and were used to working at heights and extreme conditions – heat, cold and damp conditions especially.

Truly fascinating stuff, and I will definitely be keeping an eye for Shane Ewen’s book (it’s currently over £50 in Amazon which is a bit over my budget). It also shows that as historians, our work is never done. Even once the work is handed in/published you still make new discoveries and these revelations give some way to shedding more light on this intriguing engraving.


I discuss the engraving in more detail in the blog I wrote for the NMM: http://blogs.rmg.co.uk/collections/2011/09/

Here is my dissertation on submarine telegraph cables (please note this opens a PDF document): http://sas-space.sas.ac.uk/3388/1/McIlvenna_MA_dissertation_2011_-_Experiment_to_Relic.pdf

Link to Shane Ewen’s ‘Managing Police Constable and Firefighters: Uniformed Public Services in English Cities, c.1870-1930’ in the International Review of Social History, 51 (2006). (Please note you’ll have to pay to get this article): http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=420762&fulltextType=RA&fileId=S0020859005002312

Shane Ewen’s Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service, on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fighting-Fires-Creating-British-1800-1978/dp/0230517102/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1343582080&sr=8-1

Volunteering at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

In the last week of July I spent my time volunteering at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall. I’ll admit that this wasn’t the easiest museum to get to from London, and so may a first appear to be an odd choice of museum to volunteer for. However it all becomes clear when I explain that Porthcurno was the site of the Eastern Telegraph Company telegraph office, and was at one point the biggest and most important telegraph office in the world.

Porthcurno World War Two Tunnels today

Established in 1870 this telegraph office connected Britain to the British Empire and the European Continent through networks of submarine telegraph cables. Porthcurno was chosen due to its remote location and sandy beach which meant it wasn’t used by fishermen and would present less hazards for the iron roped cables. By the Second World War this telegraph office was so important that heavy defences were established such as flame throwers on the beach and camouflaged tunnels in the valley walls. Today you’re more likely to see tourists on the beach than flame throwers, and the tunnels form part of the Museum’s buildings, housing most of its collection; and what a collection it has! One of the most popular activities is an interactive Mirror Galvanometer, and unsurprisingly one of my favourite cases contained a large variety of cable samples, ranging from samples dating back to first international submarine cables to more recent fiber-optic cables. The museum also has a gallery full of working instruments, helping to create the atmosphere and sound of a working building, transferring electrical information from the world to London.

As you can probably tell, this museum was right up my street, and what I thought it did very well was underline the modern significance of this Victorian enterprise. Even I was surprised to discover that 95% of our international communication today is still sent via submarine cables. Satellites are obviously used today, but are better for television broadcasting, GPS and satellite telephones; even mobile phones, though they initially send information wirelessly,  connect to a server or base station, which is connected to cables, consequently if the call is international underwater cables are required. Furthermore the location of the old submarine telegraph cables are still important today as the new fiber-optic cables follow their course, and fishing vessels and renewable energy companies need to know where they are. Frankly the sea bed is becoming an increasingly important area of real estate and there is a lot going on under the water that we just don’t know or think about.

Connecting Cornwall/Nerve Centre of the Empire Exhibition

As well as being an international telegraph office Porthcurno was also a training school for telegraph engineers, many of whom were subsequently sent off to remote outposts across the British Empire, and in later years trained engineers from around the world. Consequently the Museum has very strong collections relating to social history and local history, demonstrated through the Nerve Centre of the Empire Exhibition. As well as objects like the engineers tool boxes, important because they contain all the necessary tools to fix the telegraph machines, as help was a long time coming to these remote outposts, like the Cocos Islands or Ascension Island, and a ship could take days costing the company as well as other businesses a lot of money.

The other area the museum is exceptional at is interactives and education. Part of my role as a Volunteer Learning Facilitator was to help supervise a room with several science activities from magnets and optical illusions, to circuit building. This was extremely popular and complemented the other interactives in the museum, including the activity that enabled families to use Morse Code to telegraph each other across the Empire or dress up as Victorians. Many a visitor would exclaim their surprise at the amount of activities for children and the amount of fun they were having. And yes, the adults had as much fun and the children, I built circuits with pensioners as much as toddlers, and more often than not it was dad who wanted to dress up first.

As well as my volunteering I did get to do some research too. It was a treat to get into Porthcurno’s incredible archive, and all the staff were exceptionally helpful and interested in my work. I almost didn’t want to leave!

Porthcurno Beach

I will try and write a post on some of the information I found there but I finish this post with a few links:

Obviously here is a link to the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum itself: http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/

Here is also a link to it’s mention with other locations of communications history in Cornwall on the British Society for History of Science (BSHS) Travel Guide: http://www.bshs.org.uk/travel-guide/porthcurno-telegraph-museum-cornwall

Also Porthcurno are looking at ways to increase their national participation and impact, and one way they are looking at this is through Virtual Volunteers. So if you have any ideas of how you (or someone else) could help the museum in their many research, education, exhibition and outreach activities let them know. See their Virtual Volunteers site for more info: http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/page.php?id=286

The Artist-Scientist in the history of the Submarine Telegraph

Samuel F. B. Morse’s painting “Gallery of the Louvre” from Art Knowledge News

Previously I’ve briefly discussed some thoughts on the links between art and science through the telescope of history. Through my research into the history of submarine telegraphy I’ve been struck by a continued link, and not just through representations and display, but through professions.

At least two telegraph engineers (that I’ve come across so far) had a previous career as an artist before turning to a life of experiment and science. One is probably one of the most famous men linked to electrical telegraphy, Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse’s career as a painter brought him to England in 1811, where he studied under Washington Allerton, and was eventually allowed into the Royal Academy. Morse went back to America in 1816 and enjoyed a successful career painting portraits of many prominent politicians. In 1830 Morse decided to return to Europe to improve his painting skills, and it was on this trip that he began to develop his concept of the single-wire electric telegraph.[1]

The second artists turned engineer was John W. Brett, one of the pioneers of submarine telegraphy. . In 1831 it appeared he was on the cusp of breaking through as an artist himself, but in October, a few days before the infamous Bristol riots, a fire broke out that destroyed his entire collection which included his own work as well as rare works he had acquired.[2] It appears that this personal disaster spurred Brett on to achieve success in an alternative way, through study and collecting Old Masters, this wide-ranging collection of fine art was highly credited and Brett consequently loaned works to exhibitions held in Manchester, the South Kensington Museum and the Royal Institution of British Architects.[3] However this wasn’t the only source of his fortune, like many people Brett’s imagination had been ignited by the recent success of the overland telegraph. In a conversation with his younger brother, Jacob Brett, it was suggested that if cables had been laid underground, why not underwater. The seed had been sown, but France wasn’t the first location the brothers wanted to connect via submarine cable, in 1845 Jacob Brett registered a company to unite Europe and America, when this was deemed too risky and large a scheme for such a young business the Bretts suggested a cable between England and Ireland, but this was declined by the British Government. According to the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography an agreement was eventually made with the French government in 1847 and it was decided to lay a telegraph cable between Dover and Calais.[4] A cable was eventually successfully laid in 1851, and was the first international submarine telegraph cable.

I’m sure there are many more artist turned scientists, there is after the Jungian Archetype of the Artist-Scientist, of which Wikipedia suggests Su Song, Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin (another pioneer of electricity). Perhaps it is the showman ship early electricity experiments encouraged, or the creativity of invention that attracted the cross-over, or perhaps it is some sort of psychological trait and there are many modern and ancient examples that I haven’t discovered yet.

Collecting Cables

From Sheerness to Valentia, on board Brunel's paddle steamer 'Great Eastern'. Copyright National Maritime Museum. The NMM got some cable samples thrown in when they bought this at auction!

Last week I got into the National Maritime Mmuseum’s institutional archives, held at the LTE stores, to try and find out a bit more about the provenance of some of the cables now at the NMM. As with most museum archives the records held on objects were a bit hit and miss, some had a large file full of correspondence, and others didn’t even have a file, well not one I could find!

However, from the files I did get a look at, there did seem to be a pattern emerging; the cables themselves were not something the keepers of yester-year found exciting. More often than not the bits of cable appear to have been acquired along with other objects, and was often just listed on an inventory list or, my favourite, appeared as a condition for acquiring a painting at auction. (It appears the presentation box of cables wasn’t listed along with the painting and just suddenly turned up on the later paperwork, I imagine the Museum was very surprised).

Interestingly some of these objects were family papers, or other items, linked to men that either worked in the cable-laying industry or had another maritime or naval connection. It is generally assumed that the section was acquired in their line of work, though I found it interesting that one set of objects were part of an Admiral’s collection of ‘relics’.

Another large group of cables came from the Royal Artillery Museum along with a number of ship models, I think, and I’ve found documents relating to transfer of the ship models, but not the cables. A book on ship models at the NMM does detail that a number of objects were transferred over as the Royal Artillery Museum realised they had a lot of objects not related to artillery in their collection, but I seem at a dead-end for paper work related to this.[1] Furthermore the Royal Artillery Museum couldn’t find any documentation related to the move either (though I have to commend them on the speed at which they got back to me!)

Overall I’ve learnt a valuable lesson about the difficulties in obtaining an object biography of particular objects, you’re often relying on the administration principals of past policies of a museum, and record keeping culture, like collecting culture, changes over time. Some of these records seem to portray the perceived importance of what the object represents and the larger story it can tell rather than an interest in the object’s individual story. This leaves me at looking for the bigger picture myself, but taking into consideration the individual clues left by the object, in this case clearly pointing in the direction of the cable repair ships in collecting and possibly disseminating the sections of cable.

[1] B. Lavery & S. Steohens, Ship Models: Their Purpose and Development from 1650 to the Present, (London, 1995)

Brief Historiography of Submarine Telegraphy

Charles Bright, 'Submarine Telegraphs - Their History, Construction, and Working', (London 1889), AtlanticCable.com

I haven’t done a blog for a while, mainly as I’m still trying to get my head round such a huge topic that just seems to be growing and growing. Last week I put together a short paper look at where and was and thinking about where I’m going. As part of this I wrote a very brief historiography of the Submarine Telegraph and Submarine Telegraph cables. This is probably the section of that paper that made the most amount of sense so I thought I’d share it with you:


There are some key areas that work on submarine telegraphy tends to focus. These include the technical aspects of the cable which looks at the science behind the invention, application and development; this works spans from nineteenth century work up to more modern titles.[1] It is for these sorts of works that I believe the sections of submarine cables still held at museums have been predominantly used for; they are records of the materials and techniques used over the course of the submarine telegraph industry.

A more recent, but very popular, area of work looks at the political and imperial aspects of the cable i.e. how policy and empire was affected by the cables or vice versa.[2] Themes of empire and technology seem to have grown and developed of the years, and it is interesting that I have found one of the earliest examples of this sort of work, Kennedy’s ‘Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914’, one of the most informative of the relationship between the British Government and the submarine telegraph. Another strong body of work are the narrative histories of cables and biographies of dominate players; these histories tend to focus on the most famous cable, the Atlantic cable and have been written since the cable began to be laid in the latter half of the nineteen century.[3] In recent times the subject of the submarine telegraph cables has been revisited by other disciplines, appearing to become increasingly relevant to the modern world reliant on fiber-optic submarine cables for transmitting information around the world.[4]

Cultural aspects are touched on in some of the above works, but it on the whole the history of submarine telegraphy has been untouched by postmodernism. There are a couple of exceptions which includes Gillian Cookson’s paper given at the Science Museum in 2006 entitled ‘Submarine Cables: Novelty and Innovation, 1850-1870’ in which the theory is argued that by 1870 the submarine telegraph was no longer a novelty to the public or commerce. There have also been some interesting avenues of research in an overlapping area of study, the regular overland telegraphy. I. Rhys Morus’ ‘The Nervous System of Britain’: Space, Time and the Electric Telegraph in the Victorian Age’ looks at the imagery associated with the telegraph and consequential meaning, suggesting that the embodiment of the telegraph through nervous system metaphors underlines its intelligence and speed but also suggests a system of management and a network of surveillance and discipline.[5] R. Menke’s Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems takes an alternative route of looking at language by using Victorian fiction as the starting point. Menke uses the idea of Media Ecology, the concept ‘a culture’s range of technologies and codes of communication dramatically shape and are shaped by human experiences, thoughts and values’,[6] to suggest that the Victorian idea of networks stemmed from the natural structures and so was then translated to technical structures, also the increase in data available through the telegraph helped develop the idea of information instead of knowledge.[7] These are features that can be seen in Victorian fiction, though Menke also points out that though Victorian novelists, like Dickens, were interested in the technology it was only from the 1860s and 1870s people ‘begin to imagine the fictional possibilities of electric telegraphy’.[8] This appears to be a growing area of study as I noticed at a workshop held by the Commodities and Culture network on ‘Commodities in Motion’ in July 2010 Clare Pettitt gave a paper entitled ‘The Telegraphic imaginer: Scrambled Messages in the 1860s’, that explored the forms of address and authority constructed by the technologies of the telegraph and the realist novel in the 1860s and 1870s, considering ‘the ways in which both proclaim themselves as representative of an ultimately knowable world susceptible to infinitely connective network’.[9]

Clearly the themes of imagery, representation and metaphor with regards to submarine telegraphy have only begun to be explored by historians, and as I am mainly focusing on objects these areas are central to my work.

If you know of any other works that I’ve missed here, and I know I’ve missed many, please do let me know. It’s worth mentioning that the Atlantic Cable website has quite an extensive bibliography, this includes references to biographies and local histories that I haven’t quite got round to:

[1] C. Bright, Submarine Telegraphs, (London, 1898); V. T. Coates & B. Finn, A Retrospective Technology Assessment: Submarine Telegraphy. The Transatlantic Cable of 1866, (California, 1979); K. Haigh, Cable Ships and Submarine Cables, (London, 1968)

[2] B. Finn & D. Yang, ed., Communications under the Seas: The Evolving Cable Network and Its Implications, (Massachusetts, 2009); D. R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1981); D. R. Headrick, The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics 1851-1945 (New York, 1991); B. Hunt, ‘Doing Science in a Global Empire: Cable Telegraphy and Electrical Physics in Victorian Britain’, in E. Lightman ed., Victorian Science in Context (Chicago, 1997); R. Kubicek, ‘British Expansion, Empire, and Technological Change’, in A. Porter ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Nineteen Century, Vol. 3 (Oxford, 1999); Y. Bektas, ‘The Sultan’s Messenger: Cultural Constructions of Ottoman Telegraphy, 1847-1880’ in Technology and Culture, vol. 41 (2000); and finally P. M. Kennedy, ‘Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914’ in The English Historical Review, vol. 86 (Oct. 1971)

[3] G. Cookson, The Cable: The Wire that Changed the World (Wiltshire, 2003); B. S. Finn, Submarine Telegraphy: The Grand Victorian Technology (Margate, 1973); J. Steele Gordon, A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (Bath, 2002); S. Carter, Cyrus Field, Man of Two Worlds, (New York, 1968); B. Dibner, The Atlantic Cable, (Norwalk, 1959).

[4] E. J. Malecki & H. Wei, ‘A Wired World: The Evolving Geography of Submarine Cables and the Shift to Asia’ in Annals of the Association of American Geographers vol. 99 (2009) and M. Sechrist, ‘Cyberspace in Deep Water: Protesting the Arteries of the Internet’, in Harvard Kennedy School Review, vol 10 (2009-2010) are good examples of articles written in the past two years looking at modern-day cables with reference to the Victorian invention.

[5] I. Rhys Morus, ‘The Nervous System of Britain’: Space, Time and the Electric Telegraph in the Victorian Age’ in The British Journal for the History of Science, vo. 33 (2000)

[6] R. Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems (Stanford, 2008) p. 12

[7] Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems p.18

[8] Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems p. 163

[9] Abstracts from papers presented at the workshop: http://www.commoditiesandculture.org/fileadmin/Documents/Abstracts___Bios_copy.pdf (22 June 2011)

First Week of NMM internship: First thoughts on the submarine telegraph cables

National Maritime Museum from the Royal Observatory. © Jonathan Eudall

This week I have started a 6 week internship at the National Maritime Museum. This is a great opportunity for me to work within a national museum and a museum I really admire. This is a particularly exciting time at the NMM as it is building up to the opening of their new wing, the Sammy Ofer Wing, in July, it is also exciting for me as I can get my hands on their world-renowned collection!

I’m there to do some research into the Museum’s collection relating to submarine telegraphy (unsurprisingly), and am particularly interested in the commemoration and celebration of the various cables. The majority of their collection relating to submarine telegraphy consists of samples submarine telegraph cables, and this week I was lucky enough to get into the stores with Curator of Navigation, Richard Dunn, to have a look. This blog post is to convey  my initial thoughts on the cables as examples of a material culture relating to submarine telegraphy, or perhaps the ‘cult of the telegraph’, (I admit that might be a bit strong).

These thoughts are purely based on the aesthetics of the objects and so are quite superficial observations. I am still working on the object biographies, making my way through the paper copies of acquisitions and other material, and will hopefully be able to share a more critical analysis of the objects in due course. I should also mention that unfortunately I’m unable to put any pictures up, so I hope you can visualise the cables by my descriptions!

What strikes me the most is the variation in presentation and appearance of the submarine cables. They can vary from very small sliver of cross-sections of cable to large wooden boxes lined in blue felt and a glass top containing five or six differing size cables with their comparable cross-sections or sections finished with a shiny black jute tar with brass bands at either end to stripped back layers displaying the copper wire core and layers of gutta-percha and hemp.

The different styles and methods of display suggest different audiences or targets, as well as the obvious different designs of cable. The use of a display case is the more clearly designed presentation of the cables. The expense and size suggest that these were of a certain importance, perhaps presented to an investor of the corresponding cable, or a display case for a company involved. These cases are large and heavy and would appear to demand a prominent place of display. Some detail on the plaque inside the case also invites some discussion about the cables, why they are different and how they are used.

In contrast, the small pieces of cable could easily be pocket-sized souvenirs, some have an inscription of the relevant cable e.g ‘Dover to Calais’, and also a company. There is an element of advertising in the use of company name. In fact, some companies appear to have a style of display, for example in the collection are a series of Siemens Bros & Company inscribed sections of cable. They are of different widths and possibly different cables, but they have the same black tar and brass end finish, but what I find interesting about these pieces of cable is that they are all numbered. Unlike other inscribed sections of cable they don’t have the locations they are associated with, just the company name and a number.  R. S. Newall’s cables are also presented in the same way with an outer layer of nine galvanised iron wires with brass ends, though these have locations inscribed as well as the company. These sections of cable are earlier than the Siemens cables and some are associated with cables that failed, such as the Red Sea cable of 1858, perhaps Siemens learnt a lesson from this and wanted to avoid any unfortunate association with future failures. 

Finally this are also a group of cables that don’t appear to be ‘finished off’, there doesn’t appear to be any attempt to display them or note a company or cable association with it. They could easily be left over parts, or unofficial souvenirs, perhaps found or sawn off. The intrigue of these bits of cable is enhanced with some of their obvious deterioration, perhaps these are sections that have been recovered from the sea.

With these clear distinctions there seems to be an obvious hierarchy of display and commemoration. There also appears to be a contrasting very formal setting for some of the cable alongside a very unofficial setting for others. Sitting within the ‘Miscellaneous Antiquities’ category of the Museum’s collections means the submarine cables sit in a classification alongside preserved food, geological specimens, musical instruments and items relating to maritime custom and superstition. To me this highlights the relationship between maritime culture and these sections of submarine telegraph cables, these cables were one of the first uses of the seabed, only recently measured by Matthew Maury, so I wonder if there is a level of superstition surrounding the cable. There is clearly a feeling of prestige and respectability surrounding the submarine telegraph cable for those that wanted to large presentation boxes, there is also an element of education and possible interest in the workings of the cable for the layered and cross-sectioned items. Though the small and also nondescript items suggest a more popular interest.

I haven’t really discussed the different cables in terms of location, needless to say that the transatlantic cable definitely generated a lot interest. Though the interest did not end there, and the sections of cable do cover many locations, however as many cables do not have an inscription I need to go through the paper records in more details before I try to draw any conclusions regarding relations between presentation and location.