Dusting off the paper trail of history

29th October 2004 at 01:00
"Deeply grieved say that during night we received word steamer foundered about 675 souls mostly women and children saved."

With these words, the secretary general of the Post Office in London was notified that The Titanic had failed to reach its destination. The handwritten telegram that conveyed this message is among the historical documents currently being drawn to public attention, as a means of highlighting the diversity of Britain's archive collections. With it is the earliest preserved Valentine card, sent in 1790. A handmade puzzle, the card opens up gradually to reveal poetic declarations of love.

Steve Gardam, learning and outreach officer for the Royal Mail archives which contains both the telegram and the card, said: "There is a perception of archives as dusty and irrelevant. But there are photographs, artwork and letters, all created by humans, preserved by humans and read by humans.

People do not realise what a human environment it is."

Several initiatives will take place nationwide until the end of the year, as part of a campaign organised by the National Council on Archives. At the Manchester museum of science and industry, participants will use a display of wartime documents and photographs to explore their own families' past.

In Birmingham, a talk will highlight the conditions in a Victorian lunatic asylum. And in London, medieval dental instruments will be displayed alongside an account from the first person to undergo the "heavenly" experience of anaesthetic.

Isobel Siddons, who is overseeing campaign events in London, said: "Lots of people don't think they are interested in history, but they will know the full history of their football team. Or they may be interested in looking at the British Library's original Beatles song manuscripts. Through archives you can understand something about people's lives and spirit."

Keith Willey, assistant head and humanities teacher at South Halifax high, Calderdale, said: "You've got to give pupils something they can relate to, to encourage them to address important historical questions."


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