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Going behind the scenes at The National Archives at Kew

PUBLISHED: 10:32 17 September 2019 | UPDATED: 15:24 17 September 2019

There is a huge room dedicated to maps (Photo by Claire Saul)

There is a huge room dedicated to maps (Photo by Claire Saul)

Claire Saul

With over 11 million important hisotrical documents, The National Archives at Kew are a real treasure trove. Claire Saul went behind the scenes

The National Archives at Kew, Richmond (Photo by Claire Saul)The National Archives at Kew, Richmond (Photo by Claire Saul)

Given the arsenal of historic riches at the National Archives at Kew - over 11 million documents and items dating from A.D. 974 including treasures such as the Domesday Book, William Shakespeare's will, the (rather shaky, post-interrogation) signed confession of Guy Fawkes and the abdication letter of Edward VIII - one might be forgiven for thinking that the sprawling riverside building tucked behind Kew's smart residential streets is just for the finest minds of academia. And of course, those good folk do pass through these hallowed doors, but so too can anyone visit.

Historic maps, war records, property deeds and much more are accessible to anyone wishing to research their family history or to investigate a subject of personal or professional interest. And, every month, an enticing programme of activities and events offers opportunities for all ages to visit the archives to engage with items, themes and expertise drawing upon and relating to its considerable resources. Of course, you don't even need to come to TW9 at all. The online Discovery catalogue allows you to access these historic riches from the comfort of your sofa.


Tour de Force

The popular, monthly Behind the Scenes tour allows a small group to step beyond the public interface of the building to marvel at the operation and contents of some of the seven individual, temperature-controlled repositories on site, which between them house 180km of shelving brimming with documents, maps, art, furniture, textiles and even the odd medieval rodent. The 90-minute tour is a wonder of intriguing factual nuggets delivered as your tour guide leads you through the labyrinth of corridors, while some of the 600 staff bustle around you to deliver requested items to the Reading Room well within 60 minutes - a target time all the better appreciated having witnessed the scale, organisation and retrieval process of the collection. Hot tip - pre-order specific records you want to see prior to your visit and they'll be waiting for you on arrival.

Among the archives (Photo by Claire Saul)Among the archives (Photo by Claire Saul)

En route you'll hear about every aspect of the archives - origins, capacity, scope, safety and security, operations and more - a running dialogue punctuated with short stops to study historic goodies in close proximity. The beginning of the route, for example, leads past a display of old chests, including a 14th century 'muniment chest' of the type that churches once used to store parish records and money. Further into the tour, the group pauses to admire the colourful fabrics in a large 1850s Board of Trade design register, and later on the official consent of King George VI to the marriage of HRH Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten.

Nuggets of information are gleaned about the very fabric of the purpose-built building too. From a high walkway mid-tour, the group reappraises the reception area, learning that the design of the Archives' striking stained glass window and floor mosaic was inspired by details on some of the historic records themselves. The central floor roundel actually incorporates granite from the former Public Record Office building on London's Chancery Lane that preceded the Archives.

Many facts and figures - and plenty of steps - later the tour concludes with a visit to the Talks Room where a further exciting array of documents are displayed for close scrutiny. Here the group pours over an eclectic range of items spanning the centuries, including a papal bull ordering the arrest of the knights Templar, a cipher used to decode a treasonous message implicating Mary Queen of Scots, a highly decorated address presented to Queen Victoria and wartime posters reminding us that 'careless talk costs lives'.

Kew also offers a world-famous attraction of the botanical kind but for over 1,000 years of history forming a unique tree of knowledge at your fingertips, the National Archives is the place to be. 

The National Archives at Kew TW9 4DU. Book ahead for the monthly Behind The Scenes tours. £10 per person

Helping hands

The Archives' Collection Care department have the considerable responsibility of the long-term preservation of the collection.

Their gargantuan task includes conservation and repair, researching aspects such as the physical properties of items, their manufacturing process and their degradation pathways to better inform preservation methods and, ultimately, improve the accessibility of the public to them.

In addition to conservation science research, the department also prepares items for exhibitions and loans and works on the digitisation of documents.

Collection Care is out of bounds to the general public, but different departmental projects draw upon the assistance of small teams of volunteers. For one day a week over the past year, one such group have been conducting a survey of 2,500 transparent paper items in the collection, assessing aspects such as discolouration and brittleness.

"These are more fragile than non-transparent papers and very complex materials," explains Dr Helen Wilson, heritage scientist at the National Archives. "As with all historic papers you have the problems associated with the papers themselves but you also have to be mindful of manufacturing processes and any ink, pencil and so on them because that can lead to further complications in treatment."

Data compiled by the volunteers has been used to support Dr Wilson's pioneering research on transparent papers while also creating a richly detailed resource for the department - and beyond.

"Collection Care has such a diverse range of items to work with and also a variety of tasks to undertake so it has a lot to offer in terms of volunteering," she says. "This project's volunteers have provided a level of resource which will really help the whole sector, not just The National Archives. They have really invested in what they are doing, they have been so good with critical thinking and important in helping develop some of the tools used in the survey."


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