Objects in museums are often defined by a neat little label bearing a list of adjectives: A name, an artist, a year, a medium and a donor. Perhaps augmenting this label is a more information on the artist or exhibition at the entrance of the space. Labels abound in the RSL LifeCare War Museum, but the stories tied to them are so much more alive. This is by design, as the museum’s collection is almost entirely composed of items belonging to residents of the Narrabeen RSL LifeCare Village that surrounds it. Suddenly, a medal isn’t just a symbol of service, but a small window into the harrowing experience a Village resident faced so many years ago. It is the strength of the connection between the community and their collection that makes working at the RSL LC War Museum so fulfilling but also so challenging.
Our latest trip to Narrabeen is testament to this. It involved a group of four – two graduates from Grimwade Centre, a recent graduate and a current student – and had two major goals. First, assist in any general museum upkeep issues that have arisen since our last trip. Second, make sense of the museum’s storage and train volunteers in accessioning practices. The first goal is a norm for most of our previous trips and involved everything from cleaning bugs to awkwardly dressing mannequins to fixing a large map that had since fallen off its mount. The personal connection between the community and the collection is evident here, as shown by the Museum Committee, composed of residents from the Village. These volunteers are always willing to lend a helping hand to maintain their collection, and are always far more knowledgeable about what is in the cases than we are. The connection has also lead to some interesting results. For instance, one veteran was adamant that the boots on a mannequin were laced the wrong way. We would have happily obliged to the change, except they had been laced that way by another equally adamant veteran. We had to explain that it was likely that both of them were right, which was grudgingly accepted. Evoking some Solomonic wisdom, I wanted to suggest that we lace each boot a different ‘right’ way, but quickly thought that was a terrible idea.
The next big project was the museum’s storage space. The space was a mix of good intentions and planning, hampered by an excess of enthusiasm. A general lack of space and a lack of shelving within that space exacerbated matters. This resulted in a store room where half was filled with accessioned objects beautifully stored in archival storage, mixed in with unaccessioned items placed wherever fit best. Thankfully, the museum committee had largely stopped the influx of donations, but the problem of not having unaccessioned items in a database persisted. In talking with the museum volunteers, we realized that most people who ask for items in storage were looking for something they, or a relative, donated. We then realized that it would be best to box items based on donor, and place it where it physically fit best in the small space while also making sure that items were within easy reach for the Committee. The idea of ordering the boxes by era was briefly considered, but there were too many exceptions to the rule. For instance, a donor had items from both World Wars and modern conflicts, skipping Vietnam. Instead, each box was numbered and all known information about the contents was written on the front and on an Excel file. Once accession numbers are known, that too will be noted. This gave us a reasonable middle ground between the knowledge only accessioning of every object can deliver (impossible in our two-week deadline) and having no knowledge of the items in storage (unacceptable to us and the museum volunteers). Now the work rests on the museum volunteers, who have been trained in accessioning these objects.
Work at RSL LifeCare is often hectic and challenging but always fruitful. Working so closely with the committee meant having gaining knowledge beyond any object or history book. It is these stories, coupled by the variety of work, that keeps bringing me back to Narrabeen. Students interested seeing how a community can engage so fully with a collection should definitely join us for one of these trips.