A famous propeller and an introduction to the whirl of museums

On 25 July 1909, Louis Blériot made the first flight across the English Channel in his heavier-than-air aircraft the Blériot XI. The event caused a major reappraisal of the importance of aviation, especially in Britain. When reporting on the story, the Daily Express led with the sensational headline ‘Britain is no longer an Island’.

Plane competing in Brooklands to Brighton Aeroplane Race, 1911

Brighton, together with Hove and Shoreham, became a notable centre for early aviation in Britain. On 4 July 1911, Horatio Barber flew a box of Osram light bulbs to Hove, landing on Hove Lawns. This was the world’s first recorded cargo flight, and not a single light bulb was broken.

The first London to Brighton flight was undertaken by Oscar Morison in his Blériot XI monoplane, flying from Brooklands Aerodrome near Weybridge on 15 February 1911. He mistakenly landed on the beach near the Banjo Groyne and smashed his aircraft’s propeller at either end on the shingle. Though broken, the propeller would quickly find a new home.

Oscar Morrison’s propeller
Menu card autographed by Morison
Menu card autographed by Morison

Harry Preston, a local businessman and keen supporter of aviation, sailing and motor sport in the town, hosted a banquet at his Royal York Hotel to celebrate Oscar Morison’s feat. A brochure in our collections details the celebratory dinner held in Mr Morrison’s honour. It appears Harry Preston requested to have the broken propeller as a souvenir – being an entrepreneurial sort, perhaps he spotted an opportunity to entice people into his hotel.

The propeller eventually became a memento of the Brighton branch of the Royal Air Force Association. They kindly donated the item to Royal Pavilion & Museums in 2008. Its repurposing for display on a wall can be seen by the brackets at the back.

Museum Futures

Earlier this month we took the propeller out of storage to show to a group of young people who had come to Brighton Museum to learn more about the digital work that goes on behind the scenes here. The event was a Taster Day held as part of a recrutiment programme for a new trainee funded through the Museum Futures programme, supported by the British Museum and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

We used the propeller for a simple ice breaker exercise. We presented the propeller as simply a ‘brown thing’ and invited the participants to think of two questions they would ask the curator to learn more about the object.

This might seem like a strangely analogue way of introducing digital work in museums, but this task touches on the importance of data. The data we use to catalogue our collections is the first step in making them meaningful. Whether an object eventually becomes rendered in 3D, or the topic of a longread story, that work is usually built on the foundations of good data.

Our Museum Future trainee should be in post by January next year, and one of their first tasks will be to help us collect and manage that data, so that objects like Oscar Morison’s broken propeller can be made meaningful to more people in the future.

We are still working through the recruitment process but we look forward to welcoming our new trainee to our museums next year.

Dan Robertson, Curator of Local History & Archaeology & Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager

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