Before retiring at the end of this month, the senior registrar at Jersey Archive had the chance to renew acquaintance with the Ferranti computer she first used after starting her job in 1987.
‘We had one computer with about as much memory as most people’s digital watches have these days,’ she recalled.
Mrs Nelson worked on the computer to catalogue the thousands of items owned by the Jersey Museums Service, before the clunky old machine became part of the collection itself after being replaced in 1991.
Compiling the database was no small task, with only a minority of the items on display at Jersey Museum.
‘There were things everywhere – stuffed in cupboards and attics, in a tomato shed at Fauvic and a Methodist chapel in St Ouen and I had to try and get them in some sort of order,’ she said.
The benefits of the cataloguing process were realised when the Island’s new museum opened in 1993, and then later in the 90s when a permanent storage base was secured behind the Sir Francis Cook Gallery at Augrès in Trinity. There is no end point, with new chapters of history being written every day and new items added to the Jersey Archive collection. There are now 27,000 items at the Trinity facility. Mrs Nelson described it as ‘full to bursting’ and said she hoped an extension would eventually be added to create more capacity.
The starting point for Mrs Nelson’s long career came when she answered a single-column advertisement in the JEP in 1987, five years after moving to the Island from her native Scotland.
‘When I first started, I thought it was a job I would like, but it was also convenient in being part-time and fitted in with my daughter going to school,’ she said. ‘I never envisaged how fascinating it would be and how I would fall in love with it.
‘I’ve always been a curious person – my mother said I was nosey – and I’m never short of questions.’
Mrs Nelson’s enthusiasm shines brightly, and she welcomes the fact that more Islanders have shown an interest recently as a result of having staycations while travelling further afield has been difficult.
‘One of my ex-colleagues called it the “gosh factor”, showing people something they didn’t know,’ she said. ‘They may only have come in because it was raining, but we just want to show a child, or a sceptical adult, one thing that they think is pretty cool.’
Mrs Nelson’s job has grown in scope and complexity – she highlights one ‘game-changer’ being the development in the mid-90s of the collection of artist Claude Cahun, who moved to Jersey in 1937 with her stepsister and lover Marcel Moore and was imprisoned for resistance activity during the Occupation.
The Cahun collection put Jersey on the international art map, with items being loaned to galleries and events across Europe, as well as New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Sydney and Sao Paulo.
The other game-changing development has been the internet, both for the way it has made research easier for someone in Mrs Nelson’s role, and in allowing a huge online presence for the archive, stimulating interest from all around the world.
Mrs Nelson has dealt with all types of artefacts during her time, but has a particular interest in textiles, something which stems from her grandmother teaching her to sew on a treadle machine in Dundee. Outside work, she oversees the wardrobe of the Jersey Amateur Dramatic Club, having worked on costumes for many of the club’s performances, and will continue in that role.
The decision to retire comes after her husband Geoff, a quantity surveyor, made the same move and just as the couple prepare to become grandparents for the first time.
‘I’ve not run out of enthusiasm, but don’t have as much energy by Friday afternoon as I used to. It’s time to do other things, before there’s not enough time left,’ she said.