Telling Stories – Objects Out of their Box

To celebrate National Storytelling Week we’re launching a project to tell new stories. Bill Longshaw looks after the Social History collections at Gallery Oldham. Here’s his story…..

My name is Bill Longshaw and my job at Gallery Oldham is to look after the Social History collections. As well as all kinds of art and natural history specimens, Gallery Oldham has a large and varied social history collection. This includes things that were made, used, worn, bought or sold in the town. These objects can help us to tell the story of  the town from the point of view of the people who made it. These stories of the past are often entertaining and surprising, but beyond this, they can inspire us and future generations and help to build a sense of pride and belonging amongst Oldhamers young and old.


Looking after the collection means doing many different tasks; from checking that objects are kept in the right conditions to dealing with offers of things from local people that we might want to add to the collection. As part of my work I am currently doing on-the-job training to gain a professional qualification and become an Associate of the Museums Association. The final part of this programme is to deliver a work-place project.

Model of Buffalo Bill


My project, entitled ‘Social history Collections-out of their box’ aims to shine a spotlight on the collections I look after and find different ways of adding value to them. Perhaps not surprisingly amongst so many thousands of objects there are quite a lot of things in our collection that we really know nothing about. The project is designed to get a least some of these things ‘out of their box’ so they can begin to tell a story. Sometimes, a bit of research can work wonders and as my displays will show, things like a statue of Buffalo Bill and a set of horse clippers that have been languishing in the stores for years can now reveal fascinating stories of life in Oldham over a hundred years ago.


Other objects seem to demand to be taken out and given new life. The Social History collection is made up of objects that once had a very different life and purpose, so I am planning to take objects out of the box, out of the building and back to the kind of places where they would have once been used. I will be visiting a co-op shop and Oldham’s parks department and I look forward to hearing what today’s workers think of the kind of equipment their predecessors would have used.


I will also be asking some of the Gallery Oldham staff to choose objects that appeal to them from the collection. Social History objects have a great power to make us think and feel about our own life and past. You only have to think about programmes like the BBC’s The Repair Shop. I will be asking each staff member to write a little about the objects they choose and what they make them think about. I can’t wait to see what they choose, and it will also be great to find a little bit more about them and what makes them tick.


Chipper once used to make chips

One of my jobs is to look at what we might want to dispose of, to make our collection better and provide room for more things to be collected. Sometimes, we have more than one example of an object, or things that are in such a poor condition that they do not warrant being kept. I am hoping to work with local artists and makers to see how these things can be up-cycled or re-purposed.

So look out for my pop-up displays around Gallery Oldham in the coming months; starting with a chip making machine that had been in a box for more than thirty years before I got it out and took it back to a fish and chip shop.

Investigate our social history collections and find out more.