“I’ve handled thousands of medals, and you know that behind each one there’s a story”
Rod Cooper helps to bring Britain’s military past to life for schoolchildren.
My day is quite varied; some of it can be deskbound which means you’re searching the museum’s database, researching items from the collection that might be useful for learning purposes. Once we’ve made a list we go up to the museum’s storage facility in Stevenage and search out the objects.
You can really lose time in there – there are so many fascinating things. I’ve handled thousands of medals, and you just know that behind each one there’s a story.
The best part of this job is that you’re always looking for something new. You’re sitting in front of the computer screen and you just don’t know what’s going to come up next. There’s always something around the corner that will lead you off in another direction.
This is the National Army Museum – some of the things are not going to be pleasant – and you do come across some unusual things.
There was a print from the 19th century that was pretty awful and you have the moral dilemma of what do we make of that. So you have these difficult moments, confronting things that we did in the past with the best of intentions.
One thing we’re doing at the moment is rules of engagement, the rules of war and how you apply those in the heat of battle and so on. It’s something I put together for a learning module.
I’ve always enjoyed going to the schools. Another area I’ve been working on is sourcing letters and transcribing correspondence from combatants on the Western Front in 1914 and 1915. In the learning session for the children I can incorporate certain aspects I’ve learned from those letters.
For example, there was a second lieutenant who was frequently writing home for food and clothing – jam figured a lot. One of his requests was, Please send me my gramophone and collection of records. So there he was in a trench and he had his gramophone! I compared it with today’s compulsion to carry our music around with us on iPods.
I love volunteering. It’s always something to do in later life when retirement finally beckons!
The National Army Museum is closed until later this year, but you can find plenty of information about the collections and the volunteer programme on its website www.nam.ac.uk in the meantime.