A bad curator blames their tools

Identifying measuring and finishing tools
Identifying measuring and finishing tools
M-Shed, tells the story of Bristol especially its industrial and social history
M-Shed, tells the story of Bristol especially its industrial and social history

I have been a member of the Social History Curators Group (SHCG) for a few years now. Of all the professional groups and societies dedicated to museum and collections work I have found SHCG to be the most useful. Most degrees and qualifications in museum studies (or indeed heritage management) lack opportunities for sustained subject-specialist training unless it is part of an internship, vocational attachment or similar activity. That’s why SHCG and other curatorial networks are so important.

FirstBASE is SHCG’s recently launched online resources centre, an invaluable library of information for anyone dealing with social (and industrial) collections. SHCG also organises training events and when I saw one advertised for identifying tools I leapt at the opportunity. Here is my review, which will also appear in a forthcoming SHCG newsletter.

Training Review: What is it? Identifying mystery objects: trade tools

Venue: M-Shed, Bristol, 4 March 2013

I didn’t know a twybil from an adze before the training. By the end of the day I could enthusiastically explain the difference between a dado plane and a plough plane.

Display of cooper's tools (Tools and Trades History Society)
Display of cooper’s tools (Tools and Trades History Society)

The training day was delivered by TATHS (The Tools and Trades History Society). Jane Rees, Vice-President, began with an illustrated beginner’s guide to identifying tools. The main principle is to treat tool identification as a puzzle:

• What does it do? (Cut, join, bend, hold etc.)
• Is it for heavy or light work?
• What materials is it made of? (Don’t be misled by ivory in the pre-plastic era)
• Are there any maker’s stamps, registered design or patent numbers?
• Does it seem complete or incomplete?
• Might it work as a pair or a set?
• What do the wear marks tell you?
• Look for residues, e.g. sawdust or straw, before cleaning.
• Never take a hand tool apart for storage especially mixed media objects like planes.
• Use trade catalogues, directories and specialist publications like Shire books to aid identification.

'Whatsit?' Quiz
‘Whatsit?’ Quiz

The “Whatsit” Quiz was the most edifying part of the day. Split into teams we were invited to identify 20 tools placed in themed groups. Guessing the theme was half the battle, e.g. metal working, measuring, leather working. Gently guided, we learned how to exercise our powers of deduction. Memorable was a salt saw with a copper blade (steel would have corroded) and a shoe stick (for measuring shoe sizes) which I had figured, erroneously, was for measuring yarn. It’s the mistakes that help us never forget.

Identifying measuring and finishing tools
Identifying measuring and finishing tools
Not just a woodworking plane
Not just a woodworking plane

Two talks with illustrations and handling followed, on heavy edge tools (bill hooks) by Bob Burgess, whose personal collection numbers 6000, and woodworking planes by Jane Rees and David Schweizer, the range and variety of which will make you embarrassed for documenting them simply as ‘woodworking plane’. With the erosion of subject-specialist curatorial training, the role of societies like TATHS in helping us manage and interpret collections cannot be overestimated.

I am very grateful to SHCG for awarding me a travel bursary to travel to Bristol from West Cornwall. I look forward to sharing my knowledge with my colleagues here.