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, 3.2.1.1”…”No, hang on, 1.3.2.1.1…”.  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.

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