The Holy Grail and other Unaccessioned Objects

This week, Ruth Burwood (Museum Development Project Officer for Collections) reflects on the highs and lows of collections review and rationalisation, and shares some top tips…

I once had a dream that I was in a museum store auditing a box of men’s collars.  The brown acid-free box that I opened contained more boxes.  Some were smaller, older, brown boxes, with scratchy biro writing on.  Others were presumably the original round boxes that some of the collars had once been stored in by their owner.  There were also loose collars stacked inside one another, still starched and stiff; some with accession numbers on.  As I started to work my way through the box I read the accession numbers aloud.  “1978.3.2.1”…worried I had mis-read the number, I tried again, ”No wait, 3.3.1”…”No,”…”No, hang on,…”.  I woke in a troubled state, soon made worse by the realisation that the box of collars did not just exist in my dreams, but was an actual nightmare waiting for me at work to resolve.

Shoes! All photographed, catalogued and labelled. The work of one volunteer who reviewed the collection.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE auditing collections.  I have even been known to gleefully sing, “I love to audit, audit” to the tune of the song “I love to move it move it”.  But there was a dark moment that morning when my colleague found me with a sob in my throat, surrounded by 138 men’s collars, some of which had the correct accession number, and most of which were not in the correct corresponding box.  For the first time in a collections management project, I nearly gave up.  No-one had sorted the problem for the previous 30 years, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to just put the lid back on the box and put it back on the shelf.  It was in good condition, the collection fitted nicely into the box, and was causing no harm to anyone.  Except me.  And here is the first lesson: a friend and colleague once said…”Let’s make sure we always leave the box (or record) in a better state than how we found it.”  With this attitude, you can chip away at a review or backlog every day.  It might take longer, but you can be safe in the knowledge that you have saved another curator in the future some time.  So fuelled by some steely determination that there was scope to reduce the number of collars, and ultimately save space in the store, I ate some biscuits and went back to work.

WARNING! Collections review is not always fun. Here, a colleague crouches under a snow-laden tarpaulin, examining old farming equipment.

Because the truth is, reviewing and rationalising collections IS a responsible part of being a curator.  Yes, it’s time consuming and can feel massively overwhelming, but the outcome is actually just what the public think we have achieved already.  Most people are blissfully unaware that once they have donated an object to a museum, there is a complex but important sequence of tasks needed before it is happily united with a unique number and corresponding database record including location. The donor has no idea that they have just added another item to a collection that is trying to catch up with itself.  Indeed, only those that work in collections management really understand what a backlog is and the history of why it happens – no extension numbers added here, a temporary number there, an incorrect label, a missing location.

Guaranteed to raise a groan…someone has labelled an object with NN, meaning “No Number”.

Others may mock us for obsessing with systems, but it is such a delicate sequence that if things get missed, it quickly becomes a problem for everyone.  And there is nothing funny about being confronted with someone asking to see an object you can’t find.  Falling behind with accessioning new (or rediscovered) objects may have started 10, 20 or 30 years before in your museum, but before I start laying the blame at the feet of our predecessors, here is lesson number 2: you may not have created the backlog, but you can stop adding to it.  Stop! It’s tough, and yes, it might be that you don’t have that particular example and the donor has threatened to burn it if you don’t take it off their hands, but the trick is to stop the offer getting in the building before you see it.  Tell the front desk staff, tell the trustees…just say NO! (but nicely, and add, “thank you for thinking of us”).

Object waiting to be accessioned, or discarded curatorial clothing? No-one knew. The cardigan hung there for years…

I remember when we announced we were going to attempt a particular audit, one colleague laughed, “Good luck with that!” and another made a comment that the idea of knowing what you had and where it was, was a bit like the search for the Holy Grail.  The collections management database contained around 26,000 records.  We knew there was more in the stores than that.  Despite being met with some cynicism, I am pleased to report Reader, that we did it.  I say “we”…it took 8 years and many staff and volunteers, but the collections database now pretty accurately reflects a collection of over 40,000 items, each with an up-to-date location and improved record.  The work has unlocked the collections.  Not only did the disposal and compaction programme create much needed storage space, we re-discovered some real gems.  Staff and volunteers learnt more about the collections, new research projects were identified, and more members of the public were able to access the items in store.

Showing off – a MODES grid in use to track assessment, protocol, and eventual disposal of items. Beautiful.

Now, if these numbers are making you think, “Pah! They clearly had lots of people and experts and time and money”, then compared to some museums, you would be right.  But this is my final lesson: it is possible.  It is possible to know what you have and where it is.  Don’t just take my word for it, there are lots of museums of different sizes that have reviewed, assessed and rationalised parts of their collections.  I have even met one small volunteer-run museum in our region who has cleared their backlog entirely.  It is possible.

But wait, I have one more vital piece of wisdom, let’s call it 3.1…HELP IS AT HAND.  Whether planning an audit or thinking about disposal, your mentor (if you have one), MDO and myself are all here to assist and advise.  There are resources on the SHARE website to guide you through the process of rationalisation, and we will be running more training on the theme in our 2017-18 programmeThe Collections Trust have an excellent range of advice sheets and information on their website, and are going to be focussing on helping museums to clear their backlogs as a priority.  For those of you that are already thinking about getting some expert advice on a collection, or planning a storage move, SHARE Museums East are currently offering Collections Review and Rationalisation grants of up to £2000 to accredited museums in the region.  Visit the page to find out more.

Getting in the Corners

On 21st January 2015, around 80 delegates gathered at Hughes Hall, Cambridge, for the first ever SHARE and UCM Collections Care Conference. Ellie Ohara Anderson, UCM Intern, gives us her thoughts on the day.

Hello. My name is Ellie Ohara Anderson. I am in my final year of the MSc degree ‘Conservation for Archaeology and Museums’ at UniversityClare H College London. Since September 2014 I have been with the University of Cambridge Museums for my 10-month conservation internship.

I am expected to experience a wide range of conservation activities during the internship and attending conferences is one of them. So, I was grateful for the opportunity to go to the first SHARE & University of Cambridge Museums Conference on Collections Care in Cambridge on 21 January 2015.

The conference opened with a warm welcome by Simon Floyd (SHARE) and Julie Dawson (Fitzwilliam Museum). Both Simon and Julie thanked Deborah Walton (University of Cambridge Museums Regional Conservation Officer) for thinking up and organising the unusual conference programme. As the title Getting in the Cornerssuggests, the day lifted the lid on collections’ issues that tend to be shelved away somewhere in the corner of museums – but which everyone knows need to be tackled!

The first speaker was Quinton Carroll (Cambridgeshire County Council Historic Environment Team). He talked about solving the problem of storing a huge quantity of archaeological material by outsourcing to a commercial storage company. While outsourcing sounds a bit radical for traditional museums, the Council’s solution is not so different from many museums’ off-site storage spaces. The key is, as Quinton said, to have a very good catalogue so that you can pinpoint and retrieve individual items without opening boxes.

Repacking workshopSandra Freshney (Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences) told us how to approach piles of accumulated paper-based documents. She provided resource contacts for professional advice, funding, training, and record management. Her practical tips included ways to minimize physical damage to documents as well as a list of packaging materials for document storage.

Presentations shifted from archives to dealing with the museum building when it is an historical object in its own right.  Jenny Mathiasson (University of Cambridge Museums) and Clare Hunt (Southend Museums Service) presented their personal experiences of how historic buildings work as display spaces. They showed how, through careful visual arrangement and sensitive placement of information, it is possible to engage visitors whilst preserving the identity and fabric of the building.

Chris Knapp (Imperial War Museum Duxford) touched on the ethical issues of conservation and curation of huge working objects, such as aeroplanes. There is no simple answer to decide what stage of an object’s history should be restored, and just how much restoration will be needed or acceptable.

The afternoon session was all about how to deal with museum objects that contain hazardous materials – from poisons to explosives!20150121_123921_resized

Laura Ratcliffe (freelance conservator) gave the wise advice ‘Don’t Panic’! A hazards survey is a useful tool for getting to know your collections and planning further steps. As all the afternoon speakers emphasized, the ultimate concern has to be museum workers’ and visitors’ health and safety.

Larry Carr (Science Museums Group) discussed how to maintain a collection of hazardous chemicals that have historical significance. His talk included an impressive video of the controlled burn of a dangerous chemical by experts, whilst museum staff filmed from a safe distance!

Derek Brain presented case studies showing how arsenic and asbestos, two of the most common hazardous chemicals in museum collections, are managed by Birmingham Museums Trust. Martin Adlem (independent health and safety adviser) summarized some of the legal and operational requirements for dealing with hazardous collections and the importance of proper risk assessment.

The conference closed with a Q&A session with the panel of hazards experts – an opportunity to discuss common concerns and seek advice and reassurance. The conference provided not just an occasion to learn new things, but also lots of networking among the museums.

I appreciated all the speakers who shared their knowledge and expertise through their personal experiences. I particularly enjoyed the drop-in workshop sessions held by the morning speakers where I could ask questions in a relaxed atmosphere and get some practice by taking Sandra’s ’15 Minute Archive Repacking Challenge!’.

It was clear to me that every attendee aspired to raise the quality of collections care with their colleagues within each museum and through the resources provided by the SHARE network and University of Cambridge Museums. I found it very inspiring, and I look forward to the 2nd Collections Care conference next year!

Ellie Ohara Anderson, Conservation Intern of Antiquities, University of Cambridge Museums

SHARE Conservation & Archaeology Networks: Visit to Wiltshire &Swindon History Centre

SHARE Conservation Network and SHARE Museums East Archaeology Networks: Visit to Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre

by Deborah Walton, Conservation Network Co-ordinator and UCM Regional Conservation Officer (Cambs and Peterborough)

History CentreAt the end of January a group of conservators and archaeologists from the East of England went on an expedition to Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.  When I organised this I thought it was a really good idea.  Wasn’t so sure when it came to leaving the house at ‘seriously!’ o’clock in the morning (5am!)

The History Centre combines a huge range of heritage services, essentially everything except the Wiltshire museums.  The staff had very kindly agreed to show us their facilities, host a series of talks about the types of work they do and critically, how the shared building works.

TourOne of the advantages of a shared building is that it makes it easier for staff and projects to be utilised by the different divisions.  The digitisation room is used part time for one project, but because of its location the room and equipment can be by used by others when it is free, and the digitiser has access to other expertise whenever needed as ‘little questions’ come up in the course of the work.  Some of the staff are also shared. Education expertise can in this way be available to all the service branches in a way which would be almost impossible if everyone were still in separate buildings.

Paper LabWe had a really informative tour of the building. I was particularly impressed by the foresight which has meant that the paper lab has an enormous wall (with no obstacles) with a stage which they can use to work on very large objects such as maps.

The objects conservation team is split in two sections, income generation and support for Wiltshire heritage organisations, as well as hosting placement students.  The flexibility of the space (all the benches are on wheels for example) available means that all the conservators can benefit from access to more equipment than they would otherwise have access to, and also are able to share expertise and thus increase the value of their offer.

ArchivesThe History Centre also houses Wiltshire and Swindon Archives and Local Studies Centre.  We were able to examine one of the many strong rooms which were built to be BS:5454 compliant (pre 2012 update).  The amount of air conditioning ducting was truly amazing.  I think we were also all struck by not only the amount of space which is recommended (and that is actually needed for manoeuvring given the size of many documents) but also how vulnerable that space is to being filled.

StorageWe were particularly interested in the adaptation of curtain hanging techniques which had been used to allow compact storage of many large maps.  This is another piece of work which has come about because of the presence of the paper conservation team in the same building.

In the afternoon we were treated to presentations from the different teams who work in the building and had the chance to interrogate everyone about what they do and how they take advantage of the changes in working the shared building has brought about.

Made it home at 8.40pm after a very long day, but it was well worth the visit to see that shared services can work.

Very grateful thanks to all the staff in Wiltshire who gave up so much of their time to give us all a very enjoyable and helpful day.  Special thanks to Beth Werrett who was our main contact and all the following who were speakers and tour guides:

  • Peter Tyas (Arts Service)
  • Dorothy Treasure (Wiltshire Buildings Record)
  • Helen Williams, Tim Burge, Kelly Deakin and Wendy Somerville Woodiwis (Conservation and Museums Advisory Service)
  • Terry Bracher (Archives)
  • Laurel Miller (Education)
  • Melanie Pomeroy Kellinger (Archaeology Service)

Below are a selection of images from the day.

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