Frozen books and adopted bugles – here’s how the Royal Marines Museum is moving its two million objects to its new home

Moving house is often referred to as one of the most stressful times of a person's life.

Thursday, 16th January 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Thursday, 16th January 2020, 6:00 am
Models of HMS Invicible and HMS Bounty boxed ready to go. Picture: Habibur Rahman

But most people don't own more than two million items that need to be catalogued, carefully preserved, and easily tracked at all times.

This was the daunting task facing the staff of the Royal Marines Museum, in Eastney Esplanade, when at the end of 2018 they were given the go-ahead to move to a new site at Royal Navy's Historic dockyard.

The move has been in the planning stage for 10 years, but it has not made the logistics of moving an entire museum any less of a 'challenge' according to curator Alexandra Brown, who is leading the work.

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Alexandra Brown with the artefacts. Picture: Habibur Rahman

The 29-year-old said: 'We began to go through the items in January 2019, and we want to be clear of the building by March 2020.'

And getting clear of the building has proved to be a challenge, with a 12ft painting of George III, painted in 1797, requiring an entire window to be removed in order for it to be lifted out of the building.

Alexandra added: 'So far the biggest challenge was a collection of canoes situated on the third floor. We had to carry them down six flights of stairs. That took quite a while.’

As well as moving the canoes, Alexandra and a team of five staff have spent the last year building custom boxes and storage units for 1,000 full length uniforms, 2,500 paintings, and 1,200 boxes of photos. The museum's 5,500 books needed to be 'literally frozen' in storage, according to Alexandra.

A button stick and a photoframe, wrapped up ready to go. Picture: Habibur Rahman

She said: 'We have frozen our library, archive, and our uniforms. Literally frozen, in freezers.

‘Pest infestations and mould are a big problem for museums, and freezing is one way to tackle that.’

But the books won't remain on ice at their new home in the Historic Dockyard, which will have a collection open to the public and researchers.

Despite the delicate state of the items, with thousands dating back to the 19th century, only one item has been damaged in the process of the move.

Transporting the artefacts Picture: Habibur Rahman

Last year, a painting suffered a small 'dent' in the canvas, which has now been repaired.

And despite the scale of the task, so far no items have gone missing, with the move providing an opportunity for the museum to collate its records into a central database

Alexandra attributes the success to the methodical 'process' that has seen her team and scores of volunteers from businesses across Portsmouth dedicate thousands of hours to the project.

She said: 'We have been going room by room, really taking the time to pack each item based on its needs.

A Royal Marine Drum ready to go. Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘Every item has a condition report so we know if anything has been damaged during the move.

‘Each items is issued with a barcode, each box is issued with a barcode, and each storage cage is issued with a barcode.

‘It's a great team that has worked very hard.’

But once the items are placed in their new exhibits in the dockyard, they will still require constant care and attention.

Jacquie Shaw, PR manager at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the umbrella organisation responsible for the Royal Marines Museum, said the public can adopt objects from First World War bugles to 17th century cannons to keep them as shipshape as possible.

She said: ‘Obviously, they don’t get the objects. But their donations make a big difference.

An emptied room Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘People don't realise how much ongoing care items need. Keeping them clean, preserving them, checking them for wear and tear take a lot of time and energy.

'We have developed an 'adoption' scheme, were we have 12 to 15 items that people can adopt, and get a certificate and an information pack about the item.

‘We also had a boot sale with the public buying items not in the historical catalogue. This raised more than £5,000 in May.'

Jacquie added: ‘We would not have been able to do this without corporate support. We had BAE and Calor Gas provide us with five to 40 volunteers at a time. We had more than 1,000 man hours from volunteers.’

Attracting more interest in the history of the marines is the driving reason behind the move, as the museum hopes the new site will attract more than 850,000 visitors per year - compared to the 25,000 visiting the current site.

Jacquie said: ‘It's tough to get here. The building was no longer fit for purpose. We will have more interactive and engaging displays at the Historic Dockyard to attract a younger audience.’

Alexandra, who came to the museum to help curate the HMS Warrior collection in 2017, can attest to the 'challenges' the old building presented.

She said: 'When I was wearing my FitBit, I was averaging 12,500 steps a day during the move.

'It's a big building.'

The building has attracted the interest of a developer, who hopes to exchange contracts with the museum later in the year, according to Jacquie.

She said: ‘The building will remain listed, which will limit possible changes to the facade and the staircase.’

And the 18ft Yomper statue will remain on the grounds of the building.

It has been an emotional experience working through the objects donated by soldiers and their families, including every Victoria Cross awarded to a Royal Marine, according to Alexandra.

She said: ‘Going through the objects has made me appreciate which objects are important in my life. It really makes you think what you would go to the effort to keep.’

And when it comes to the Royal Marines, the effort is worth it.

Jacquie said: ‘The Royal Marines have a real interest in their story.’