Prima Facie: Collections

So far, we’ve talked about ethics.

Collections management

Developing a collections management policy; Acquisition and accessioning; Deaccessioning and disposals; Numbering and marking of objects in the collection; Loans condition reports; Collections storage; Handling and moving collections; Photography; Insurance; Public access to collections; Display and exhibition galleries and rooms; Research of collections.

Harriet: Collections data has always struck me as hugely annoyingly inconsistent. How is it so hard to agree some basic principles and everyone work to them? Trying to find a specific British Museum object in the collections database has always flummoxed me. I never quite know which of the various numbering systems I should be using. Though I love that one of the systems is awesomely titled the ‘Big’ number. This helpful tip for collections online says it all really: The user may have to try several punctuation alternatives … it may be in a non standard format such as dashes rather than commas and full-stops or a zero appended to a number.

How can it be so hard?

Oh, turns out that it is really hard.

We had just 10 objects in The Small Museum Version 1. We put them in a spreadsheet and added the basics (name, place, date). Turns out those aren’t so basic after all. I’m still not sure our names are particularly consistent, we have Goddess Hathor, Buddhist goddess Tara, and Figure of Xochipilli. Should we have used Hathor, Tara, Xochipilli? And places and dates come with their own issues (more on that with the Inventories chapter). Luckily we have a straightforward 8-digit unique (big?) number…for now.

The web pages were another hub of information, I admit I was quite nerdy about these – the inner content producer/editor came out – but it was difficult to maintain consistency across just 10 objects. We didn’t have the same information for each and invariably some had more interesting acquisition stories and others had more interesting contextual stories. In the end I learnt to let go a little!

And it’s just struck me that we had two acquisitions/gifts/bequests. One from Dr James Lattin and one from Arthur and Henry. While we documented these on the blog, they haven’t been formally added to the register.

I think we had (and still have) good intentions about our data management – but it’s harder than I thought.

According to the handbook ‘…the most important museum collections document is the Collections Management Policy’. We haven’t got one of these. In fact the objects we 3D printed were those for which we had relevant files. A number of visitors asked ‘why did you select these objects?’ and that was a tricky one to answer. Perhaps we should get that policy document underway.

George: We were truly liberated by two things: 1) having a very small collection of ten objects, and 2) having those objects be facsimiles of existing things from another institution. The small collection let us not be distracted by having to deal with a giant collections management issue right off the bat. Having a starting position of 200,000 archaeological artifacts, as suggested by Ed Rodley in his 2012 Making a museum from scratch: Part One blogpost just immediately puts you underwater, and perhaps unable to consider questions other than what to do with those dusty, unclassified objects. Maybe, by flattening or simplifying that issue, but still having some objects, you can find a space to think about things other than the sheer weight of your collection. Is that crazy?!?

That said, we did still have a small collection to manage. We did some simple things to get started:

  • Made a simple spreadsheet to list each object
  • Gave each object a unique ID
  • Added links to various BM collection data sources
  • Made a page on the web for each object
  • Added imagery and narrative about each object through research of the BM catalogue

Digital Catalogue
The catalogue was very simple. Here are the column headings we selected, with an emphasis on digital descriptions and links into other datasets: Object Name, MIAB_ID, MIAB_URL, BM Explore URL, BM Collection URL, BM Open Data URL, Wikipedia, MyMiniFactory ID, Country of Origin, Place Found, Period, Date, Measurements, Material, Notes. We published it on Github too, because that’s what you should do.

The crazy part is, we’re already a bit behind, in particular because we had planned to supplement our original pages for each object on WordPress with information and content we made during our residency at Somerset House. You can see we’ve done that for some objects, like the Colossal Foot, but haven’t quite finished yet.  We generated a ton of great content about our daily displays, but it’s now scattered across several services online (Flickr, Twitter etc.) Ideally, each object’s catalogue record should connect to that documentary content too, so people can see the sorts of displays and blog posts we wrote about them. Content is hard to maintain!

Donations / Bequests
We were also absolutely thrilled and surprised to receive two museums in boxes from visitors! The first was a donation, and we decided to make the second one a fun bequest, because it was made by Arthur and Henry Maxwell, two smalls who belong to Harriet, and had made their own museum in a box after visiting. IT WAS ADORABLE, but we haven’t catalogued either of them anywhere yet, except a reference blog post.

Ephemeral Content/Connections
Gathering related digital things is a huge interest of mine. There’s so much the web can say to supplement the classic “tombstone” records that most collections contain. We made a gesture towards this idea with our addition of Wikipedia links in the catalogue, but there’s a LOT been written about each of our ten famous objects. The question begs, whether or not institutions should be starting to collect broader digital metadata and context from the web about their collections. I think the answer is yes, but, it’s bloody hard. Even just representing the residency itself across the various publishing platforms we used to make the thing is difficult to manage, and that’s just for ten things and ten days.

A later approach might be to consider a tool like the Internet Archive’s Archive-IT service, or look into the work of Ilya Kremer‘s pywb, both of which are actively developing around the idea of crawling and indexing specific slices of the web.

I know understand why it’s possible and quite common for folks who work in institutions to rarely be certain of the entire contents of their collections. It’s no longer a surprise that some institutions make amazing discoveries within their own collections. (Sandwich Magna Carta, anyone?) I now sympathize with all the archivists I’ve met who apologize for the state of their archive.

Content development and catalogue maintenance are laborious endeavours. You have to be on the ball and proactive, and that’s all there is to it.


5 thoughts on “Prima Facie: Collections

  1. Pingback: The Small Museum: Prima Facie Writeup(s) | Good, Form & Spectacle

  2. Pingback: Prima Facie: Inventories and Documentation | The Small Museum

  3. Pingback: Prima Facie: Care and Preservation of Collections | The Small Museum

  4. Pingback: Prima Facie: Displays, Exhibits and Exhibitions | The Small Museum

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