Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Spotlight on the Retreat archive: An unexpected find

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts celebrating the Retreat archive and our digitisation project as it nears completion. The Retreat is one of the most important institutions in the care and treatment of mental health patients. Over the last two and half years, staff at the Borthwick have been working through the archive, preparing the documents for digitisation, carrying out conservation treatments where appropriate and photographing each item page by page.

This has been a huge task. Over 650,000 images have been created in total and the focus has been on handling each item with care and capturing a high quality image efficiently and effectively. Of course there have been many items that have caught our eye along the way. In this series of blog posts project staff pick out some of the interesting items that they have encountered.

Here Tracy Wilcockson, Conservator for the project discusses an image of York sculptor G.W. Milburn and links with other archives in our holdings.


I have had the pleasure of seeing many interesting documents pass through the studio as part of the Retreat Digitisation project and as a conservator it is not often that my interest in the image or text overshadows that of the physical makeup or condition of an item. But during my work on part of the Retreat archive, I was intrigued and excited to come across this.

Reference: RET/1/8/6/7/8

In the modestly sized silver based print on a paper support, I recognised a familiar face. Not of the York sculptor G.W. Milburn, as this was the first photograph I had seen of the famous sculptor, or of the patient Frederick Pryor Balkwill, whose records I had yet to assess and conserve. It was the statue of Queen Victoria that first caught my attention, having passed by this actual statue many times while walking in West Bank Park, Acomb, York, and knowing its sculptor to be G. W. Milburn.

The image shows the eminent sculptor working on the Queen Victoria commission in his studio, whilst his friend Frederick Pryor Balkwill looks on. The work was originally commissioned and sited in the Guildhall, but was moved to a number of locations before its final installation in West Bank Park.

I had a keen and personal interest in Milburn as prior to seeing this photograph, I had been fortunate to view Milburn’s Day book in a private collection, which documented many commissions for carvings in buildings throughout Yorkshire of architectural or ecclesiastical significance. Within this intriguing and fragile volume I had observed many of Milburn’s commissions but was delighted to recognise both concept drawings and photographs of final pieces from plans in the Atkinson Brierley Architectural Archive held at the Borthwick and recently conserved by our conservation volunteers, linking Milburn to another of our holdings. These carvings from Sherburn Church (possibly -in-Elmet), are just one occasion that we have speculated that Milburn’s work appears.

Reference: ATKB/6/98

Reference: ATKB/6/98

There is also evidence of his York firm in the 1930 additions and alterations to Harewood House (correspondence file ATKB/8/155) and estimates from his firm for the Canon Guy Memorial Stone in Fulford (correspondence file ATKB/8/156/7).

This is just a short example of where a single item within the Retreat Archive can provide unexpected avenues of personal interest and connection beyond the expected parameters of a mental health archive. The Retreat archive might not have been the first place (or even the tenth place) a researcher might look for an elusive picture of Milburn, but it displays quite eloquently the breadth of material now available and searchable for free online thanks to the Wellcome Trust funded project and how further research leading from the Retreat archive is supported by the wider holdings of the Borthwick.

More information about the Wellcome Library funded project to digitise the Retreat archive can be found on the project pages of our website. Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive project are available via the Wellcome Library.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Saying goodbye to Project Genesis

Two years ago I embarked on Project Genesis.  It was my first professional job after qualifying as an archivist and I knew then how fortunate I was to find such a varied and interesting post when I was just starting out.  Over two years, my job would be to create collection level descriptions and authority records for as many of the Borthwick’s archives as I could, making these available on our new online catalogue.  Alongside this work I was expected to blog, tweet and facebook about my progress and the intriguing, exciting, or just plain unusual records I found along the way.

Two years on, our catalogue Borthcat is very much up and running.  It boasts 563 collection level descriptions, 914 authority records, 304 subject terms and 305 place names.  

You can find records of individuals and families, of great estates, large and small businesses, churches (of multiple denominations), societies, manors, hospitals and political and cultural groups and associations.  The scope of the full collection stretches out from right here at the University of York to North and South America, Australia and Japan, via continental Europe, South Africa, India, and Russia.  

Programme from a German POW camp in World War II (Alfred Peacock Archive)

As Project Archivist I have had access to all of the Borthwick’s fascinating archives, a dream come true for anyone with a love of history.  It was clear from the very beginning of the project that this was not straightforward retroconversion, a case of simply putting existing finding aids online.  To make sure the catalogue was as up to date, as complete and as user friendly as possible, I would need to become very familiar with the strongrooms!  I have counted thousands of boxes and rolls, checked hundreds of finding aids against existing holdings and delved into countless archives to find out more about their contents, check dates and even box list where necessary.  I’ve held the 17th century deeds to Clifford’s Tower in York, read a first hand account of the Charge of the Heavy Brigade at the 1854 Battle of Balaclava, and even unpacked a 19th century Quaker bonnet.

The deeds to Clifford's Tower, York (Munby & Scott Archive)

In turn writing the authority records (short histories of individuals, families and corporate bodies who are the creators or subjects of the records) has introduced me to a vast interconnected cast of people and organisations and uncovered more than a few surprising links.  From the Hickleton Paper’s Earl of Derby who donated the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup to the unexpected appearance of Sarah Harriet Burney, sister of novelist Fanny Burney, as governess to Lady Houghton of the Milnes Coates Archive, my research has taken many unexpected turns.  Closer to home, writing the histories of parish churches, Methodist chapels and various businesses in York has helped me to see the city in a new light and I’ve become a dab hand at spotting the signs of the chapel-turned-restaurant and the remnants of long lost shops and factories.

I’ve also learned a great deal about AtoM, the archives management system developed by Artefactual which forms the basis of the catalogue.  I had no experience of AtoM when I started the project in 2015 and the first few months were something of a crash course as I learned how to create basic descriptions and authority records, how to input hierarchical descriptions and how to link descriptions and authority records to draw out connections between creators, subjects and the records themselves.  

Records of the Earls of Derby in the Hickleton Papers

AtoM is an open source system that can be shaped by the needs of its users and, as the catalogue developed, we were able to put our own stamp on Borthcat.  With the help and expertise of colleagues at the Borthwick, the Digital Library and IT, we’ve inserted parish record finding aids into their collection level descriptions, introduced an option in the ‘free search’ box to direct users to information about our probate records, simplified the user interface and made the entire catalogue searchable via the university library’s main ‘Yorsearch’ database.  I’ve had the opportunity to share my knowledge and experiences of AtoM with colleagues both at home and abroad, delivering papers at the Archives and Records Association Conference in London and the International Council on Archives Congress in Seoul, South Korea.

Alongside all of this, I have enthusiastically blogged, tweeted and facebooked, sharing photographs and stories from the archives on a regular basis and using my growing knowledge of our holdings to contribute to our Christmas social media campaigns.

A favourite find tweeted for Christmas 2016 (Sessions of York Archive)

I hope that the catalogue is a resource all our staff and visitors can use and enjoy and that you find its contents as informative, interesting and surprising as I have.  Project Genesis, as the name suggests, is really only the beginning for the Borthwick’s catalogue and while I will miss my role enormously I cannot wait to see where Borthcat goes next.

Sally-Anne Shearn