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.


Prima Facie: Ethics

OK, here’s the idea. There are 11 chapters in the UNESCO Running a Museum handbook (and we’ve added a twelfth, Commerce). Harriet and I will be writing on one chapter at once, in the order they’re listed in the handbook. So, to start, we’re writing about ethics. We thought you might enjoy a comparison between our observations, so we’ll combine our reports into a single post for each chapter. A little background about us both, too… George is a web designer essentially, with a penchant for clever, friendly interaction design. I have about 20 years experience making software. Harriet recently left the British Museum after nine years, having made her way into a senior content production role. OK. Here goes.

Professional Code of Ethics Historical background to collecting; The first public museums; Minimum standards & professional ethics; Managing the museum; Making and maintaining collections; Interpreting and furthering knowledge – accessibility; Appreciating and promoting the natural and cultural heritage; Public service and public benefit; Working with communities; Legislation; Professionalism.

George: Let me start by saying I’m not a “museum professional.” I am maybe a bit more like an artist/designer type who’s circling around what museum means, and is indeed liberated in that “amateur” position. That said, I’ve been around museum professionals in all sorts of partnerships and engagements for the last eight years or so, so it’s not as if I’m stumbling in the dark. In fact, the challenge for me will be to try to practice Shoshin, or beginner’s mind; to stay open, eager and to beware preconceptions as I study The Museum.

On that note, it really didn’t take long for me to realize the real power (and potential ethical quandries) of an editorial point of view when describing things for the public. Our collection of ten objects from The British Museum’s collection lent itself easily to making our displays and work be about how those objects came to be in the collection of the museum. From Hoa Hakananai’a’s unearthing to the lonely Nandi Bull, these stories of imperialism and acquisition formed the central theme of Version 1. It opened lots of conversations about repatriation and the nature of collections, to be sure. Personally, I think the BM collection is incredible and stupendous because it’s collected so much, and actually, its biggest acquisition years came well after the peak of the British Empire’s colonial exploration (as shown by adjacent visualization work in another G,F&S project, Two Way Street). Diffusing it back into the world isn’t clearly better, not clearly the right thing to do. It’s amazing simply because of its scale. I think. As one visitor remarked, you could empty every museum. I certainly also felt a keen ethical pinch as visitors asked me and the team our opinions on such a big question.

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A Live Experiment
Positioning ourselves as both a small museum and a live experiment seemed very approachable to people. Using “museum” as a descriptor immediately seemed to create certain conditions in people’s minds. But then, to say we’re were making things up, and changing things every day, and taking lots of photos, and talking about the whole shebang in public changed some of those conditions, and favourably too.More than one visitor told us how much they enjoyed being able to talk with us directly, and hear directly from us about what we were doing. You might say that should be in the remit of any and all museum professionals’ work, but as Allegra Burnette just tweeted, Richard Evans says “as you progress in your museum career, the further and further away you get from the visitor.”

Untitled This work of interpretation is fraught with ethical challenges. Boy! In one of our pieces, which we called “Diplomacy,” my not-so-secret motivation was to be intentionally incendiary. It was a day spent thinking about the Goddess Hathor, and we discovered in the object’s description that she’d been acquired from a man called Henry Salt. He was British Consul-General to Egypt in the early 19th Century, and our scant research identified him as, let’s say, a colourful character. We deliberately wrote the phrase “Henry Salt sold 1,659 objects to The British Museum” on the display, even as we knew that Hathor, in particular, was bought via an auction house. Even as we made this display, even just discussing the semantics of bought vs sold and being open and honest about our superficial research into Salt, that openness created an excellent stage for some really interesting conversations about the nature of museums. You can also see — again from Two Way Street’s “acquired from” list — that Henry Salt is hardly the largest “giver of things” to the museum, and the data says that actually 1,679 things were acquired from him. (That was an unintended error by me, that incorrect count.) By highlighting him directly, and constructing a display with a certain feel, we were able to crack open a conversation I don’t think you’d ever hear within the walls of the official institution. (I’m happy to proven wrong on that.)

Working in Public
We documented the work heavily, taking hundreds of photos, writing loads of blog posts and tweets, and talking directly with anyone who entered the room. I wonder if there’s something to that style of approach generally for institutions. It just seems better all round from where I sit to be open and proactive about showing your work. Perhaps there’s something to be learned there from the way that software folks work these days. Prototyping, deploying basic minimum viable things, writing up your process, sharing code and all that has helped to generate and now facilitate a wholly new way of working. There are some museums now talking about working with an Agile mentality — where Agile is a style of software project management — so I suppose that’s good.

I’m wondering too if there’s actually an ethical angle to this; to work in public and be explicit about things like acquisition and deaccession and funding and conservation and stuff like that. Every museum has skeletons in its closet though, so that’s a tough one. To sum up my feelings on ethics, I don’t think it’s actually that appropriate to subject our short residency/art project to the same level of scrutiny that a Proper Museum should be. As you’ll read in the next chapter, we were absolutely in a liberated position because our collection was so small and actually copies of official things. If anything, we mostly probed at the sorts of ethical things that the handbook suggests every museum should be scrutinized about, perhaps in the context of some kind of post-imperial environment we now find ourselves in.

Harriet: When I worked with the British Museum collection as my day job, I was always acutely aware of my responsibility to the original cultures from which the objects came. I wanted to be sensitive and considered in my treatment of images of the objects and in my language when talking about them. I was also aware of my responsibility to the institution – not to bring it in for any flack. For obvious reasons all text and crops of images for publication would go through multiple sign off procedures. Kind of understandable, but kind of frustrating. There are some huge ethical questions about the way in which a lot of the objects came into the collection. It was hard work avoiding them.

So when I was thinking about the ethics of The Small Museum collection, my first thought was “phew”. I don’t think we had any ethical dilemmas about how we’d acquired our collection – all our objects were 3D prints. 

No dodgy diplomats or controversial acquisitions were involved.

We didn’t have particularly sensitive objects, they weren’t human remains, we wouldn’t be facing requests for repatriation of cultural property and there were no conflicts of interests with (non-existent) sponsors or donors.

One paragraph did however pop out: “Museums should respect the integrity of the original when replicas, reproductions, or copies of items from the collection are made or used in display. All such copies should be clearly labelled and permanently marked as facsimiles.”

All the objects in our display were copies. I guess we thought that was super obvious, so we didn’t label them as such. I hope none of our visitors felt duped.

We chose to bring some of the ethical questions about acquisition squarely into focus through our displays. This was extremely liberating for me! In putting some of our 3D objects back into something closer to their original context, I felt we were able to  pay respect to the original cultures from which the objects came. We played Hoa the ambient background noise (the waves off Easter Island) he would have originally heard. I particularly liked putting Nandi Bull back in context, in the Museum he’s in such an austere setting, cold and lifeless. It felt right to put him back in a vibrant setting of noise and colour and people.

Don’t get me wrong, I do recognise the dilemma – we wouldn’t have had these objects to 3D print from if the Museum hadn’t acquired them.

On a more specific note, the handbook mentions the need for accessibility in this chapter. We adopted a Show Everything approach, published the collections database on github and did all our prototyping in public. So I think we did a pretty good job on that. As for the accessibility of our display, we found that we hadn’t considered all of our potential visitors, but I think this should be covered in another post ‘Caring for the visitor’.

somersethouse, v1

Our First Display

Here you can see the ten Museum in a Box objects arranged by size.

Also, if you’d like to visit, our front door says Civic Bureau.

In the time it’s taken me to upload this post on my phone, Harriet’s made the second arrangement, this time by height. Next, we’re making a simple timeline and Tom’s cutting out a bright pink world map.


What is it a museum of?

As I chat with people about the general idea, the first question I get in response is usually what is it a museum of? Given that, it’s useful for me to write down the answer, roughly anyway.

In some ways, the collection is irrelevant. What I’m interested in exploring is the mechanics of a small cultural institution, the thing itself. Yes, that means exhibitions and caring for a collection (or else is it even a museum?), but it seems to me that a lot of the tools specific to the sector are about collections management, digital asset management, and customer relationship management. By us not focussing directly on the collection, it might allow us to ask new questions and develop new tools for the more prosaic operations that small institutions perform. The research challenge here is to try to help keep small institutions alive, and an expensive piece of software that only looks after their collection isn’t the way to do that.

One friend referred me to the IMLS definition list: “Museums include, but are not limited to, aquariums, arboretums, art museums, botanical gardens, children’s/youth museums, general museums (those having two or more significant disciplines), historic houses/sites, history museums, natural history/anthropology museums, nature centers, planetariums, science/technology centers, specialized museums (limited to a single distinct subject), and zoological parks.”

To try avoid getting stuck in the collection diversity question, or perhaps at least delay attention to it, my current plan is to perhaps only have a single object in the museum, perhaps even for as long as a year. So, a collection, to be sure, but a very small one. This is for various reasons:

  1. To think long and deep about how practice can start changing to gather and collate and keep multiple descriptions and perspectives on objects, with rigour. I bet we won’t be able to resist collecting other bits and pieces along the way to help describe the First Object, but would try to keep that to a minimum.
  2. To constrain research and exploration to the set of infrastructural things small institutions need to be able to run. I’m thinking mundane things, and I want to understand all (other) aspects of small institutions, not just their collections. My hope is that the R&D we do to create the small institution and have it run well and smoothly will not be about collection stuff, but about infrastructural support with things like volunteer management and transaction management. In time, the tools we might design and build to help run our small museum might be able to be generalized for these other types of institutions. It’s almost as if the collection is irrelevant. There’s a ton of interesting work to do exploring that One Object concept.
  3. The one object is going to be something mundane. A modern day amphora, if you will. Something full of stories that lots of people are familiar with and possible even have.

As I’ve chatted to friends about the idea, more than one of them have responded with “It’s a museum of museums,” and I really like that. Another description is “a museum of metadata,” which is also growing on me.

I’ve also been really inspired by the UNESCO Handbook for Running a Museum. It was published in 2004, I think, and basically intended to be distributed around the Middle East as the war raged around it. You can see from the list of subjects that there’s a bunch of other stuff that museums need to do apart from looking after their collections:

  • The Role of Museums and the Professional Code of Ethics
  • Collections Management
  • Inventories and Documentation
  • Care and Preservation of Collections
  • Display, Exhibits and Exhibitions
  • Caring for the Visitor
  • Museum Education
  • Museum Management
  • Managing People
  • Marketing
  • Museum Security, including Disaster Preparedness
  • Illicit Traffic issues

I’ve copied the chapter headings on to my notebook so I can drill them into my brain.

Chapter Headings

So, what’s it a museum of? We’ll find out.

(I’m keeping people anonymous for now, since this site is a bit new and I haven’t asked permission to identify anyone.)

You may also be interested to listen to the Gin and Innovation #005 podcast from Strange Telemetry (George Voss and Justin Pickard talking to James Bridle about copper and museums) that I’m listening to right now, as I write this post.