afternoon, v4

Hans Sloane the art collector

A huge thank you to Isabel at the British Museum Department of Prints & Drawings for hosting a visit today. George II, Harriet and I were very lucky to see some pieces from Hans Sloane’s own collection and it was magic.

Sloane wasn’t just a natural history collector, but had quite the eye for art as well. Apparently there were some 144 Albrecht Dürer prints in that first bequest. We saw one of his drawings today, a study for his later Adam and Eve.

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Isabel is pointing at a set of three different cataloguing systems’ marks in that picture. And each work’s mount is also embossed with the Sloane mark and catalogue reference.

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We were also very excited to see a bound folio of natural history prints, some (if not all?) printed on vellum, and they were so colourful and detailed. Also noted the little British Museum stamps on each one which, while somewhat understandable, seems a bit cheeky.

The space itself, the Prints & Drawings Study Room is beautiful. No pens allowed, and lots of people looking at interesting things. Anyone can do this, provided you have something specific you’d like to see and have made an appointment.

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We’re circling our next few visits to try to see more of Sloane’s collection, and also to hopefully start to trace what he might have acquired as he lived at 4 Bloomsbury Place. It would be brilliant if the display might reflect that sort of history. Could we show things that crossed the threshold in something like the order they actually might have?

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afternoon, start, v4

The Small Museum V4

Perhaps if I start writing about it, it will happen.

As you may have heard, my company has found a great little studio in Bloomsbury. The crazy part is that it’s at 4 Bloomsbury Place. That address is significant because it was owned at one time by Sir Hans Sloane, whose brilliant library and natural history collection was bequeathed to the British Museum upon his death in 1753.

I find this hugely inspiring.

Today, the foyer is the epitome of 80s utility, replete with terrible hotel-style art, and if you look closely you can see that the “art” is two copies of the same two terrible pieces.

Imagine the walls covered with things from Sloane’s collections, or letters he may have written here, or specimens from his amazing natural history bits and pieces. That would be better. If you have a look at the things he bequeathed to the British Museum, it’s a rich, colourful, informative, beautiful selection of all sorts of things.

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I love that he let people come to visit, and have enjoyed reading various accounts in a handy book called The British Museum: a case-study in architectural politics.

Sloane’s private museum began as a collection of botanical specimens which he brought back from France and the West Indies. John Evelyn noted in his Diary for 16 April 1691:

I went to see Dr. Sloane’s curiosities, being an universal collection of the natural productions of Jamaica, consisting of plants, fruits, corals, minerals, stones, earth, animals and insects, collected with great judgement; several folios of dried plants, and one which had about eighty, several sorts of ferns, and another of grasses; the Jamaican pepper, in branch, leaves, flower, fruit etc.

Even though the idea has been floating about since we moved here in March, I’m calling yesterday Day 1. I went to the National Archives in Kew to start my search to find records about him, and found an ‘office copy’ of Sloane’s will. It’s a bit hard to read, but I’m looking forward to ‘getting my eye in’ as the enquiry desk helper assured me I’ll be able to. I’ll post a transcript if/when I have one. My quick searches there suggest I should go to the London Metropolitan Archives, the Historic England Archive, and the Chelsea Physic Garden.

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Another interesting element about Sloane’s collection is that it’s now dispersed across London. There are bits in the British Museum, the British Library, Natural History Museum, Chelsea Physic Garden, and places I haven’t discovered yet. I’d love it if our foyer could bring some of those bits and pieces back to where they were together, once.

I’ve also discovered that, of course, someone else is interested in Sloane, and has been researching him deeply for years. Lisa Smith, a historian, has been documenting and writing about him on Sloan Letters for some time, focused around his correspondence with his patients. It’ll be good to meet, and hopefully, collaborate.

Does this sound interesting? How could we do it well? Would you like to help?

I guess I should ask the landlord, whose ancestor Bedford probably knew Mr. Sloane.

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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.

Learnings
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.

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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’.

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Prima Facie Reportage

As we noted back in January in our What Is It A Museum Of? post, we’re aligning our thinking and progress with the UNESCO Running a Museum: A Practical Handbook. We thought, therefore, that the structure in that document might be useful to borrow for our write-up of the fabulous 10 days of The Small Museum Version 1.

Both Harriet and I will be reflecting on our residency along those lines, so please stay tuned for further updates. In the meantime, here’s the general structure of that handbook so you can see the sorts of things we’re thinking through. Isn’t it interesting that collections management is only a small piece of what museums are?


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.

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.

Inventories and documentation

Acquisitions, long-term loans and accessioning; Inventory control and cataloguing; Syntax and terminology; Object numbering, labelling and marking; Location and movement control; Backlog accessioning, inventory control and cataloguing; Manual and computer-based cataloguing and retrieval; Images; Web access to the information about the collection; Staff and Financial Resources; Recommended cataloguing fields.

Care and preservation of collections

Deciding priorities and assessing risks; Reducing future loss and damage in 100 years or more; Classifying risks to collections; The Nine Agents of Deterioration; The collection preservation cycle: Step 1: Check the basics – Step 2: Survey the risks – Step 3: Plan improvements to collection risk management; Examples of specific risk assessments and individual solutions; Integrated risk management of pests (IPM); Integrated, sustainable risk management of lighting, pollutants, temperature, and humidity; Museum lighting guidelines; Museum temperature and humidity guidelines; Museum pollutant guidelines; Integrating management of all four agents.

Display, exhibits and exhibitions

Types of displays; The object: interpretation within the exhibition context; Exhibition management in relation to other museum activities; Design: the basic planning and designing process; Creating the planning brief; Developing the exhibition; Production and materials; Completing the exhibition; Evaluating the finished exhibition

Caring for the visitor

The benefits for museums?; What are the underpinning principles for providing quality visitor services; Some key issues to consider in developing a visitor services policy statement; Defining and understanding the visitor; Types of visitors and their needs; Planning and managing visitor services; Specific areas for attention; Checklist from the visitors’ point of view.

Education in the context of Museum function

Collections and education; Developing and managing museum education; Museum education and the community; Designing educational programs: the basic principles; Choice of teaching and learning methods in museum education; Museum publications; Types of didactic material commonly used in museums; Extramural activities; Informal education.

Museum management

Management structure; Teamwork; Leadership styles of directors and other senior staff; Building a mission statement; Financial management; Six rules for planning a budget; Museum ethics and management; The planning process; Issues to be considered; Evaluation; SWOT analysis.

Managing people

Understanding personnel management; The main categories of museum work and museum employees; Personnel information, involvement and fairness; Recruiting and retaining high quality staff; Recruitment and promotion selection methods and approaches; Minimum requirements for a statement or contract of the terms of employment; Staff management, training and professional development; Disciplinary and grievance procedures; Health and safety at work; How to assess risks in the workplace: five steps in risk assessment.

Marketing

Introduction to marketing; The current orientation of museums in relation to marketing theory and practice; Product, price, promotion, place; Strategic market planning; Mission and vision; Internal and external factors; Target groups; Promotion; Advertising; Public relations; Building a museum “brand”.

Security

Who is responsible for security policy and its enforcement?; Risk analysis and the security plan; Implementing the strategic plan for museum protection; Measures to ensure security in display and exhibition rooms; Intruder Detection System (IDS); Access Control System (ACS); Closed Circuit Television (CCTV); Automatic fire detection and alarm system (FAS); The Emergency Plan.

Commerce

TBD 🙂


The Version 1 experiment certainly didn’t cover each and every aspect of this handbook’s suggestions, but we did touch some of them, even in the 10 days. We’re going to write a bit about each chapter and how it manifested during the experiment. In some ways, the residency was something of an ersatz museum, and frankly, that’s interesting in itself!

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