Volunteering, Collection Highlights

‘Re-inventorying the Wheel’ – The Changing Face of Collections Management

Museum of the Order of St John Jessye Norman, Jonathan Seal and Rob Backhouse, Inventory Card Project Volunteers

As volunteers working with the Collections Management System, we have had first-hand experience of the challenges that face museums when identifying objects and auditing their collections. While we have been digitising object records from their current inventory card state, this was not how they were originally recorded. Here we want to share our story, and the challenges that we have faced so far, and also highlight the journey that the Museum’s collections management has taken over the past 100 years. To do this we will demonstrate how a coronation medal record has progressed through the Museum’s collection management history.

Fig.1 1915 Museum Catalogue

Seven lines of typewritten text with two photographs affixed to the opposite page. It might not seem like much, but it’s how the records for many of the objects in our collection began. This is the Museum catalogue. In fact, in some areas not much has changed. The elements of physical description will be familiar to anyone working with museum records today: material (silver); creative method (struck); size (1⅜” diameter, although now we prefer millimetres); a short description; and a record of the inscriptions on either side. While such a catalogue record is accurate in describing an object’s aesthetic quality, it leaves many questions unanswered. To whom was such a medal awarded, and for what service? How and when did this object make its way into our collection? Is it an exemplar piece, or does it have some personal story attached to it? And how do we decide what information is actually relevant? It may be that information that we consider to be important today was not thought of as necessary to record 100 years ago.

We could look for other similar entries to see if any of them contain information that might give us a clue, but here we run up against another problem. Other than tabs separating different object types there is no efficient way to search the text and, while it might be enjoyable simply to flick through the book, at almost one hundred years old wear and tear quickly becomes a concern.

While the accessibility of modern technology and an emphasis on object biographies and social history might cause us to be frustrated by a bound volume that seems rooted in antiquarian concerns, we should not overlook the scope or the importance of the work. Spanning 27 years, this catalogue (see Fig. 1) was compiled single-handedly by H.W. Fincham. Now 100 years old and no longer used for its original purpose, this catalogue is now an artefact in its own right.

The next step in the evolution of the Museum’s collections management was the introduction of inventory cards. Figure 2 shows a modern example of an inventory card, which were either printed or handwritten depending on the period of recording. The new system was implemented here at the Museum from the 1970s, replacing the original Museum catalogues that we have already explored, and following the development of collections standards both nationally and internationally.

The Museum Documentation Association was formed in the 1970s to create and design a series of catalogue cards for describing objects in museums. This has since seen the development of SPECTRUM, a nationally and internationally recognised set of guidelines that informs good practice in museum collections management. Working within the SPECTRUM guidelines is one step towards a museum’s process for Accreditation – rather like Ofsted for Museums.

Fig.2 Inventory Card
Fig.2 Inventory Card

The new system of individually accessible inventory cards allowed a more consistent approach to information retention. As the example in Fig. 2 demonstrates, the descriptive approach of Mr. Fincham has been replaced with a more formalised method where key information types are compartmentalised and easy to follow. This new approach presupposed a change in mindset that no longer only privileged the aesthetic qualities of objects, but also looked to record the qualities that would define an object’s conservation needs.

While inventory cards have offered volunteers and staff easier and more portable access to object records, there is a limit to what, and how much, information can be retained. As volunteers working with these cards, it has also often been found that there is in fact very little information recorded on some of the cards in the first place! Although such records may seem of limited value, their digitisation lays a foundation on which a more comprehensive record can be built.

The most important aspect of cataloguing is the preservation of information. As Inventory Card Project Volunteers we are attempting to transfer all available information from the inventory cards to one single database called MuseumPlus. This database is used by other institutions such as the Wallace Collection in London, the Design Museum, London and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

This is very much an ongoing process at the Museum and every time we transfer records from the inventory cards to the database we run the risk of changing or accidentally destroying information that may never be retrieved. So as simple as data inputting sounds, it is actually a very important and sometimes complex job!

Fig.3 Incomplete record on MuseumPlus

Like its predecessor, MusuemPlus has standardised fields to input a large range of information in a consistent manner. However, one advantage of MuseumPlus is that it is fully searchable and makes navigating the object record easy. Each record is easy to save, access and share, creating a better resource for the Museum that can be digitally backed up for greater security. A fully functioning form of MuseumPlus for the Museum would allow anyone with a connection to the network to search for any item within the collection and be able to see both its information and a graphical representation of the object. However, the final produced database is only as good as the information we actually have and sometimes that is very little. Following the theme of Commemorative Royal Medals, Fig. 3 shows a typical record on MuseumPlus as it has previously been entered into the database. The majority of the fields are empty with all information in the title rather than the in the appropriate fields. There is a date that has been transcribed incorrectly and several abbreviations that could be confusing to future users of the database.

The transferring of data from inventory cards to MuseumPlus is the first step to having a complete collections database. Like the introduction of inventory cards before it, the digitisation of object records not only represents an evolution of the Museum Collections Management System but is also necessary for any museum to comply with SPECTRUM guidelines, which cover:

  • Object Entry
  • Acquisitions
  • Location and movement control
  • Cataloguing
  • Object Exit
  • Loans In
  • Loans Out
  • Retrospective documentation and Making an Inventory

While this contributes to a museum’s accreditation, a comprehensive Collections Management System makes objects more accessible and identifiable in the short-term and facilitates future audits of the Museum’s physical collection. The project is still an ongoing process, but the work that we have contributed so far, and will continue to do, will help create a lasting legacy for the Museum and its stakeholders both in the present and future.

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