Time traveller Chris Wild arrived in Northumberland yesterday to help unlock the potential of more than three million items in archives spanning 800 years of the county’s history.
Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn Museum, near Ashington, includes objects, paper records, audio and film, maps, photographs and artworks from councils, landowners, busnesses, individuals and the Diocese of Newcastle.
But the wealth of historical images and information is an unknown quantity for most people.
Now Woodhorn has taken on Oxford-based Chris as its first guest curator to tempt people to explore and enjoy what the archives have to offer.
Five years ago Chris launched his Retronuat website, which displays 30,000 pictures which challenge people’s view of the past.
The website has up to 100,000 page views per day and 200,000 Facebook fans.
Chris chose the name of retronaut to describe a time traveller into the past.
He said: “Archives are like a department store without a shop window. There are a huge number of items inside but people passing by are not going to call in.
“It is about creating a real, or an imaginary, shop window.”
Chris plans to select items from the archives for the “window” to encourage people to delve into the archives.
“It’s like looking for hit singles for the radio, with people listening to the album later,” he said.
“The past is sometimes seen as a dusty, obscure and over-and-done-with place but we should see it from a time travel view as a fascinating place to explore.”
An exhibition on what Chris finds will be staged in the autumn.
On the images chosen for the Retronaut site, Chris said: “We tend to think of Victorians as stern and stuffy but because the exposure time for early photographs was so long they had to pose stiffly or blur the picture.
“But I show later images of smiling Victorians.
“We also think of the past in black and white but early colour photographs look like now, or a different version of now.”
The Woodhorn project involving Chris is supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, run by the Museums Association.
His role at Woodhorn will be to find new ways to share some of the fascinating and unique content from the Northumberland Archives collections with a wider audience who may have never before considered visiting a museum or archive.
Keith Merrin, director of Museums and Archives Northumberland, said: “Archives remain one of the best kept secrets of the heritage sector.
“They contain amazing records covering all aspects of life in the communities around the UK but many people are unsure how to access them or what they contain.
“At Woodhorn and our other museums in Northumberland we have a brilliant track record of enthusing people about their local history and we are keen to find new ways of making sure that our archive collections can also reach the widest possible audience.
“Through his Retronaut work Chris has established himself as a leader in terms of bringing archives to audiences that otherwise would never see them.
“The archives belong to local people and whatever their interets, there will be something in the archives which relates to them.”
Chris said: “Before I was a full time Retronaut, I worked in the museum and archive world for the best part of a decade, so to be able to put Retronaut directly at the service of museums and archives – and as inspiring and comprehensive as Museum and Archives Northumberland – is a dream come true.”