The Physical Display Case

Over the last 24 hours I’ve been curating an exhibition of vintage computer artefacts. Well, not really. In fact, I’ve just been repopulating the display case that I emptied when I moved it. But I have tried to apply a bit of rationale to my selections to try and get a bit of an understanding of the issues that real curators face. As is evident from the images below, this has resulted in a significantly different display from that which was in place previously.


I deliberately chose to make the new display a lot less cluttered to enable viewers to settle their eyes on just a few specific items. However, this inevitably led to what is, I guess, one of the main challenges that curators have – having to make difficult choices not just about what to include but also about what to leave out. Following on from the selection activity, I encountered a variety of other curation issues including:

  • Having to go to and from the storage area (in my case, the loft) to collect different items is a time-consuming and irritating process (my selection decisions were taken on a shelf by shelf basis).
  • Having limited shelf space means that some topics, or groups of artefacts, that would be desirable to include, simply can’t be accommodated.
  • Sometimes a choice has to be made to either put like objects together regardless of the date they were made; or to keep items from the same rough date of manufacture, together.
  • Stands or other mechanisms are required to enable objects to be displayed upright instead of lying flat on a shelf.
  • Items at the front of shelves can obscure items at the back of shelves.
  • Shelves closer to the floor are more difficult for the viewer to see to the back of, or to inspect closely.

As for providing descriptions – well that’s another level of complication I haven’t ventured into. I imagine it would significantly reduce the space available for artefacts; and decisions would have to be made about how much information to provide. My let-out for not providing descriptions is that some further information and extra images are available in the digital display on the iPad.

The job of a curator clearly requires a wealth of knowledge, skill, and experience. Right now, I’m on the very lowest rungs of that ladder.


The Digital Display Case

While I was cataloguing and marking the items in the display case collection, I took the opportunity to photograph each one. Not just a single photo; multiple digital images taken from different angles so that viewers could get a feel for all aspects of the object.

Of course, proper 3D images would have been preferable – but I don’t have the equipment or the focus at present: I want to get on with this journey and get the newly moved display case back in action.

The destination for this digital version of the collection is the iPad app, SideBooks, which I have used to display objects emanating from many of the different OFC journeys, and which makes it easy to import files by providing a specific option to download from DropBox (a Dropbox account is easily set up and free to operate at a small scale). Uploading and downloading to and from Dropbox is very quick through a modern broadband connection. SideBooks displays the first page of multiple PDF files in a bookshelf format (with a selection of themes) which can be expanded or reduced to show more or fewer items accordingly, as illustrated below by a view of the complete display case collection next to a much-enlarged version.


In this digital version of the collection, each item is represented only by a single file regardless of how many individual elements it comprises. For example, the Sinclair Cambridge Calculator is accompanied by a plastic case, an instruction booklet and the cardboard box it was packaged in. Multiple images of each of these four items are all contained in a single PDF file, even though they are each individually catalogued and indexed. This is achieved by assigning an overall reference number to the set of related objects (X-002) and by assigning sub-reference number to each object: X-002-01 for the calculator, X-002-2 for the plastic case, X-002-3 for the instruction booklet, and X-002-4 for the cardboard box. Each of these individual items has its own PDF file containing the relevant set of photos, and these are the master digital files associated with the index items. However, for the purpose of the digital display in SideBooks, all the images contained in each of the four PDFs are collected together in a single PDF file titled “X-002 – Sinclair Cambridge Calculator which I gave to my father, Fred, for his birthday in 1977.pdf” as shown below.

In cases in which an object has no associated elements, there is no need to use sub-reference numbers, and the same PDF file can be used as the master digital file and the file for display in SideBooks, for example “X-019 – Blackberry Bold 9700 similar to the one I started to use in CSC in 2009”.

This approach to indexing has been specifically designed to accommodate the capabilities of the digital display application that I am using – SideBooks. If some other mechanism is used, an alternative design may be appropriate. SideBooks enables individual items to be selected and then for each page of the PDF file to be leafed through. Consequently, each photo has been given a separate page in the PDF file. Some brief information about the contents of each PDF is provided at the base of each of the first photo in each file. A more thorough approach might label every photo in every file, but I didn’t think there would be sufficient benefit to make it worth the effort. A more worthwhile exercise would be to provide a short narrative for each object, telling the story about what it is and how it came to be in the collection. This could be provided on the second page of each PDF; and perhaps also delivered as a spoken word sound file which could be selected and played. Such a sound file might also be used to augment the physical display if viewers were able to verbally request that it be played – “Alexa, play X-019”.

It’s worth noting that the physical display case used to present objects in this collection is too small to accommodate all the items at once; whereas the digital display mechanism can display all the items. This is the obvious but significant difference between physical and digital displays of larger collections: all items in a collection can be made accessible digitally, but may be too great in number to be presented physically to the viewer. Having said that, ordering the presentation of items in a digital display may require further effort. SideBooks presents files in the alphabetical order of their file names, which, in this collection, always start with the Reference Number. However, the allocation of Reference Numbers is random; the next item gets the next available Reference Number. Consequently, the items of this collection were somewhat mixed up when the files were presented in SideBooks, whereas I wanted to have all the computer-related items together followed by all the personal items, and ending with the items associated with our visits to four special restaurants. To achieve this ordering, I added a further set of numbers to the beginning of the filenames in Sidebooks, for example, “X-019 – Blackberry Bold 9700 similar to the one I started to use in CSC in 2009” became “SB42: X-019 – Blackberry Bold 9700 similar to the one I started to use in CSC in 2009”. The need to add such numbers is a little irritating, but necessary with this particular digital configuration. SideBooks does allow searching of the filenames – but this can only be done across all the different collections in SideBooks, which, in this case includes many hundreds of mementos, books and papers; and I don’t believe it alleviates the need to deliberately order the digital presentation of the objects.

The ability to have the whole collection on hand in the highly portable iPad is a great advantage – especially when it comes to wanting to take a look at items that haven’t been viewed for many months or years. The sheer accessibility of this combination of slim and lightweight tablet and highly visible software interface, provides a very useful and useable way of keeping a handle on what is in a collection.

Storage Strategies

I had previously kept the packaging for my display case items in a squarish cardboard box measuring 44x44x37 cm. As I emptied the display case and catalogued the items in it, I continued to use the box, piling the items on top of one another, and then removing them to investigate marking mechanisms and to come up with photos used in the previous post. The more I removed, replaced, and searched for items, the more I realised that this storage box was not effective. Smaller items would have to be gathered together into single containers; groups of containers would have to be stored in drawers; and items and containers would have to be placed in numerical sequence. With these principles in mind, I set about amalgamating groups of items into single boxes. The result is shown in the before and after images below.


I then set about trying to find some cheap stacks of plastic drawers, but couldn’t find any with suitable dimensions (they would have to accommodate the largest item – the packaging for a ZX 82 computer, measuring some 36x21x10 cm: the brown box in the second line of objects in the photos above). However, when I was in IKEA buying a new bookcase, I did find something that I thought might be big enough, for just under £30. I took a chance and bought it, but, as can be seen in the image below, it was too small and couldn’t accommodate the items sitting on the top. The answer was to stand a plastic storage box on the top. Labels for each drawer were secured in tightly behind the corner strut of each drawer; and, for the transparent box, was lodged inside against the outward facing side wall.


My plan was to locate this storage facility in my loft, and on this occasion, I got lucky; the gap between the loft rafters is some 1.5 cm wider than the rack of drawers so it fits between them perfectly.


Having got all the items stored away, in order and easily accessible, I am now able, at my leisure, to select which one’s I want to put in the display case at any one time.

Marking and Labelling experiences

The Collection Trust booklet provides very specific guidance on marking items. It advises that items are labelled and marked in ways which are:

  • Secure – The chances of accidental removal of the label or mark from the object
  • must be extremely low.
  • Reversible – It should be possible for a label or mark to be removed intentionally
  • from an object, even after 50-100 years with as little trace as possible.
  • Safe for the object – Neither the materials applied to the object nor the method by
  • which they are applied should risk significant damage to the object.
  • Discreet but visible – The recommended methods should not spoil the appearance
  • of the object, nor obscure important detail. However, the number should be visible
  • enough to reduce the need to handle the object.

For the positioning of labels and marks it suggests that you should:

  • Avoid physically unstable surfaces. Also avoid placing labels or marks across a line
  • of weakness or fracture.
  • Choose a position so that the number is unlikely to be visible when the object is on
  • display but is accessible in store.
  • Avoid decoration and painted/varnished/pigmented/waxed areas.
  • Avoid surfaces where the mark is likely to be at risk from abrasion, such as surfaces
  • on which it normally rests, or where touched during handling.
  • Locate the number so that the handling necessary to read it is minimised (consider
  • marking the packaging or adding an extra tie-on label as well).
  • With composite objects, mark the part on which the most secure method can be
  • Where duplicate marks are made these should be in different positions on the object
  • (bearing in mind, of course, the other principles listed above).

And for writing on objects, it recommends the following:

  • Apply B72 20%-in-acetone as a base barrier coat on the object.
  • Write the Ref. No. with a permanent black or white marker.
  • Apply B67 20%-in-white spirit as a top coat.

Should a mistake be made, this combination can be easily removed with acetone.

I duly searched the internet and found several suppliers of these items. In the end I bought small bottles of 20% B72 and 20% B67, a bottle of acetone, and a fine marker pen for about £20 from ZOIC PalaeoTech Limited.

After a couple of tests applying base coat, pen, and top coat, I set about removing the items from the cabinet, matching them up with any packaging etc. that had been stored separately, and creating relevant index entries.

Guidance on drying times for base coat, pen, and top coat, ranges from a few minutes to 24 hours. I chose to try to space out each part of the process by at least a few hours, and then it soon became apparent that I needed some systematic way of knowing which items were at which stage of the process. My answer was to have separate adjacent areas on my desk for each stage, so that the objects would progress from right to left.

Use of the B72 and B67 solutions wasn’t difficult; the brush applicators built into the bottle tops make it easy to apply a line in a single stroke. However, my nose certainly did pick up the strong odours emanating from the bottles; advice on open windows and, possibly, wearing a mask is worth taking note of.

Decisions on whether to use either a black marker or a white marker were easily made based on which one would stand out best on the relevant background. However, marker pens were certainly not the only way I labelled items. My preferred option was to used stringed labels whenever I found a way of attaching them: of the 223 separate objects dealt with in this exercise, stringed labels were applied to 134 of them, while Ref. Nos. were painted onto only 51.  The table below summarises all the different labelling techniques I used across the collection.

Did I follow the advice in the Collection Trust booklet? Well, broadly speaking, yes when painting-on the Ref. Nos. or using stringed labels. However, for the 12% of items on which I pencilled-on the Ref. Nos. I suspect I wasn’t following best practice; and, as for the use of Post-IT notes, well I know myself that they come away very easily. In my defence, all of the Post-IT items had been previously labelled in that way and I saw no better way of labelling them. The final category in the table above – ‘No Ref. No. applied’, is of course completely contradictory to the guidance. However, there were good reasons for not labelling each of them: one is a SIM card that is just too small to write on and, in any case, is unlikely to be lost as it is located inside an iPhone; another is the commemorative coin shown in the table above, for which a painted-on Ref. No. would certainly detract from its quality. A similar rationale applies to the tooth shown in the table – it is too small and irregular to have a Ref. No. painted-on, and even the string of a label wrapped around it would obstruct its inspection. The  final items are three pieces of terracotta pottery which, according to the marketing letter accompanying them, are supposed to have just been found in the desert sands – a claim which would not stand up if a Ref No. appeared on them in any shape or form.

Regarding my use of stringed labels, I found a variety of different ways of attaching them, as illustrated in the table below.

Although I felt my use of stringed labels was quite successful, I did realise half way through the exercise that the cotton thread I was using when I needed longer string lengths, was not strong enough and might easily break if caught or pulled; and in any case might deteriorate over time. This prompted me to look for archival quality thread and stringed labels, and I duly acquired them for about £15 including postage from Preservation Equipment Ltd as shown below. I shall use them to swap out the labels I have already applied, at some time in the future.

Indexing Arrangements

If I was to catalogue all the items as I removed them from the Display Case, I needed a clear indexing regime. There seemed to be two options; either to create a separate index, or to include the items in one of my existing indexes. I have some experience to draw on in making this choice. In my earlier work on Mementos, I’ve set up an index for my own personal items (with a Ref. No. prefix of PAW), and another index for items special to both myself and my wife (with a different Ref. No. prefix). For the most part, this separation has worked fine, but occassionally I’ve forgotten which set an item might be in, and I’ve found myself having to check both indexes. In fact, I’ve concluded that it will be better to merge them at some point in the future, especially as both indexes have the same fields, and the different Ref. No. prefixes will ensure uniqueness.

In fact, this assembly of different sets of material in the same index has already been shown to work in my PAWDOC work filing system. This includes many different types of items ranging from documents to ring binders and 35mm slides. All have different Ref. No. prefixes which not only ensure uniqueness in the numbering system, but also enables different sets to be stored in different places. The PAWDOC filing system has been stress-tested for over 40 years and has demonstrated that this approach does work in practice.

Taking all this into account, I decided I would simply add these display case items to my personal PAW mementos index; and that I would employ the prefix ‘X’ in front of the reference number. I chose X because I wanted to make the Ref. No as short as possible, as easy to write as possible, and as clearly distinguishable as possible, because I anticipated having to mark some of the display case items in small font with a marker pen.

I’ve always found marking items to be a bit of challenge. For many of the items in my document collection (for which there was no need to retain the integrity of the items), I was able to just write the Ref. No. onto the top left of the document. However, sometimes there wouldn’t be enough empty space to write in the Ref. No., or the material wouldn’t absorb the felt tip pen ink. In these cases, I wrote the Ref.No. on a rectangular piece of paper with adhesive backing and then stuck it onto the item. For the items in my loft storage experiment I’ve used stringed labels, though sometimes it’s been difficult to find a way to attach them: and for the memento collections already mentioned, I’ve been using cut pieces of Post-IT notes which have an adhesive backing which peels off very easily. This last solution ensures that the items concerned are not defaced – but I find that many of the labels simply come off in the course of handling the items, turning pages, or with the passage of time.

For this exercise, therefore, I decided I would try and do it properly and find out what the professionals do. On trawling the net, I quickly found a very useful Labelling and Marking Booklet produced by The Collections Trust with the help of Vivien Chapman at the National Conservation Centre, National Museums Liverpool (NML). This advises that not only should you give a unique number to each accessioned object and securely label or mark it with this number; but also that all detachable parts of an object should be marked using suffixes to the Object number. The latter part  of this advice was of particular significance because some of the computer objects in the display case have accessories, documentation, and  boxes with removable inserts.

Having taken this advice on board, and sticking to the principle of keeping the Ref. No as short as possible, I decided on the following reference number scheme:

  • Use the prefix ‘X’ followed by a hyphen followed by a three-digit number starting with 001 where, for numbers less than 100, there are two leading zeros;
  • For single items with no detachable parts, use the next available number, for example, X-015;
  • For items with detachable parts, add another hyphen and follow it with a serial number with no leading zeros, for example, X-056-1, X-056-2, X-056-3. Note that, in this case, there would be no X-056: the main object would have the first of those numbers – X-056-1.

In addition to the Ref.No., the existing index I intend to use contains the following fields: Description, Facet 1, Facet 2, Publication Date, Earliest Year, Physical Location, Digitisation Method, Electronic Format, # of Digital Files, Creation Date, Notes. The Description field can contain any text unconstrained by length. This is how I shall be indexing the items in the display case and all their accompanying accessories and boxes.

The Case of the Computing Collection

Sometime around the late 1960s or early 70s I acquired a Chinese abacus complete with instructions on how to use it. I already had a slide rule and associated log table and booklet of mathematical formulae for use by candidates of A Level Mathematics and Physics papers from the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board. Some years later, in 1981, my wife bought me a Sinclair ZX 81 for my birthday – an iconic present at the time: computers were NOT home devices in those days. It took me a few years to join the dots, but I gradually realised I had the basis of a collection of computing-oriented items, and that I was slowly adding to it as time went by with items such as floppy discs, calculators, and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). Once I’d cottoned on to the possibility, I remembered I also had a program on Paper Tape that I’d produced at University, and a pack of punched cards that I’d used for my final year project. The notion of a collection of computing objects became cemented in my mind; and I made sure to keep relevant objects as I replaced them in the surging wave of technology development.

However, it wasn’t until  around 2010 that I decided to actually exhibit the pieces. The notion was probably inspired by seeing various display cabinets for sale when going round IKEA.  I eventually decided I’d buy one of the units and I duly bought it, assembled it, installed it in my study in Aylesbury, and put all my computing items into it. When we moved in 2015, I took the cabinet with me and installed it in my new study as shown in the photo below.

However, by 2023 I’d run out of bookcase space, and I realised I could fit in just one extra bookcase by moving the display case  about 50cm to the right. As I started to plan this change, I realised it was a tremendous opportunity to explore how to curate 3D objects properly. I would have to remove everything from the display case in order to move it, and, as I did so, I could index every item and then explore how to mark it – a problem I had previously encountered with paper mementos and loft items. Then, putting the objects back into the display case would enable me to explore the crafts of display and description. I had also started putting non-computer objects into the cabinet, and this exercise would also enable me to investigate the challenges of mixed collections, of too little space, and of how to manage items that have to be kept in store. That is the journey I’m about to embark on.