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By Stewart Emmens on

Mundane Remains?

Reading Trilce’s recent post, I was reminded of objects from Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition within our vast medical collections. Simple items and anonymous fragments, easily overlooked on their storeroom shelves. But they are reminders of one of the most obvious, yet magical things about museum collections – even the most mundane looking objects can be transformed through association.

Razor from Franklin Expedition
Razor from the Franklin Expedition (Science Museum)

This razor belonged to a member of Franklin’s team. Physically, it’s virtually indistinguishable from others in our collections. But by association, this simple and very personal object becomes infused with some of the enigma and poignancy of the doomed expedition. This got me thinking about other examples.

Marwood's penknife
Combined penknife and corkscrew, c.1875 (Science Museum / Science and Society)

Resembling a basic Swiss Army Knife, this other handy little tool was catalogued as a “relic of W Marwood”. Who was he? A country gent? A local doctor perhaps? No, “W Marwood” is William Marwood, shoe-maker… and executioner. The inventor of the ‘long drop’ technique of hanging, he oversaw 176 deaths in a nine year career. Presented with this information, a rather prosaic object somehow gains in power and presence.

But there are also humdrum objects that flirt with the possibility of such added cachet. Victims of historical uncertainty.

Cotton lint dressing
Cotton dressing, 19th century (Science Museum / Science and Society)

This cotton dressing was “possibly” owned by Joseph Lister. But possibly not. Was it the property of one of the leading figures of modern medicine or is it just a piece of cloth of unknown origin? We’re never likely to know for sure.

Not that everyday objects need associations with the famous – or infamous – to make them stand out from the crowd. An interesting back story can help. For example, things don’t get much more mundane than a humble button, but occasionally one can have such an exciting adventure that it too is saved for posterity…

Button with label
A very special button..... (Science Museum)