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Ask the Expert Q&A, 12 February: Museum Documentation by Alan Bentley

Alan Bentley, Museum Development Officer for  West Yorkshire Harrogate & Craven, will be answering your questions on Museum Documentation on Friday 12 February  between 2-3pm GMT.

Alan Bentley has worked at Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, the Bass Museum in Burton Upon Trent and was the Director of the Bronte Parsonage Museum. He has also worked for the Museums Documentation Association.

Do you know what you have and where it is?

Although it is a key part of the Accreditation scheme (and Registration before that) I still regularly encounter museum professionals who, almost with a sense of pride, tell me that they don‘t know how many objects they have in their collections or where they are. I am continually surprised by the amount of people apparently content having documentation backlogs of one type or another. It’s almost as if they are saying, “Our collection is so large and important we can’t possibly be expected to know all about it”. This is not how responsible managers care for their collections and it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for not disposing of anything during times of rationalisation.

What is a backlog?

Do you know what you have and where it is? There will be times when items are being processed through the accession and documentation system, but if they don’t progress through that system in 3 to 9 months , there is a problem with the way you are working and it needs addressing or your backlog will get bigger whilst your grip on the collection gets weaker.

Why you must make this your priority?

Collections are what make museums unique. They are our main assets and the biggest liability an organisation holds. They are the key to the success of your organisation. You wouldn’t think much of an airline that didn’t know how many planes they had, where they were at any one time or to be honest whether their engineering inventory was up to date. We should be no different in our approach to collections. The better an organisation’s knowledge about their collection(s) the better they are going to be able to serve their audience and care for that collection.

What have you tried?

Comments I’ve heard time and again; “Well this is really important so I (or everyone with collections responsibilities) will spend a day a week on this until it’s done”, or “We will rejig our staffing budget and get a collections assistant”.

Did it work?

In my experience these strategies are rarely successful for a number of reasons. It is too easy for those involved to get distracted from the task because there is always something more urgent and more interesting to do. The strategy is too slow to see an impact or to maintain momentum. As collections are core to the organisation they are constantly being used and moved around buildings or sites making documentation more difficult. By squeezing it in to time that is already promised to a thousand other tasks you’re never highlighting the importance of documentation to the powers that be, it does take time and it’s back room work, but without it the organisation and the collection is at risk.

How can you tackle the problem?

Stop collecting – Don’t be afraid to have a time limited moratorium on new things coming in to the collection, it’s not forever but it will help you to get to grips with the existing collection. Review procedures, are they too complicated, could they be simplified and speeded up? Don’t try and do too much. Set a realistic deadline for your collection to have a basic, accessible record of everything you are responsible for. Look at your resources, if you have budget see how it can be remodelled to pay for a team of short term staff or apprentices who can focus on the task in hand and make a real difference to a backlog. There are lots of people looking for experience in museum work, this is a great way to experience the nuts and bolts of the profession. This group may also be volunteers but whoever this team are they will need clear and active management together with a simple plan they can work to. Celebrate your projects, share results not only in terms of collection documented but the impact it will have on engaging people and accessing collections.

Break the project up into achievable chunks. Be objective and realistic about the timetable, as well as the resources required to make your project a success. Make a detailed plan, decide how you are going to approach your collection, perhaps you could you could divide it by location, material or type. Decide what information you want to capture, but remember, keep it simple but effective.

Gather a team around you, as the collection professional you should be managing the project. Your day to day work will probably be carrying on alongside this project so to expect you to work as a member of team is unrealistic.

Clear as big a working space as possible and incorporate quarantine or holding areas if you can. Make it as easy as possible for the team to access items and cater for the size of objects you may be moving, this may mean having to hire trollies, trucks or even specialist lifting equipment. This will ensure you are taking your H&S responsibilities seriously whilst also protecting the collection. Ensure you have enough packaging materials, conservation resources and IT provision. Make sure that you have a clear communication and management plan so the team know how and who to go to for information or advice.

Run each part of the review in 8 to 10 week blocks:

Week1 – Training the team. As well as giving them an overview of the project’s aims and objectives you must stress the importance of the team’s work and you need to give clear guidance on the type of documentation you need them to record, you are responsible for ensuring the quality of their work. Show them reference materials, print off preferred terms, guidelines to marking objects and classification information, they won’t need this straight away but they can be a useful guide as the project progresses. This should be the most labour intensive week in terms of your time as you will be needed every day to run the training sessions.

Week 2 – You should have a Monday morning meeting for a quick update and to run through the plan for the week. You should be on hand to help with queries or questions and to monitor the team’s work. Make the Friday afternoon meeting a celebration, after all you’ve just completed another week of documentation! Use the time to share anything interesting the team have uncovered or to share experiences and skills.

Week 3 – You should now be in a position to start to leave the team for most of their day but be available for support, maybe arrange a time with them when you will be able to pop in and see them each day. Don’t forget to keep your Monday and Friday meetings going.

Week 4 – The team should now be working at full speed, you will need to keep dropping in every now and again but everyone should feel confident in the team’s work and they should be trusted to be left to get on with their task. Its good practice to keep up your weekly meetings though.

Week 10 – Review and celebrate your achievements, you may need to have break at this point to catch up with work uncovered during the project. If not keep going and move on to the next block.

Alan Bentley

Alan Bentley, will be answering your questions on Museum Documentation on Friday 12 February  between 2-3pm GMT.

You can post questions before the Q & A session, on 12 February  , or you can converse in real time with our expert. You can use the comment box below to post a question, or you can use twitter with the hashtag  #mdyask.

Comments have to be moderated, to protect the blog from spam, so if your comment doesn’t appear straight away, don’t worry, we’ll get to it as quickly as we can.

If you have a problem submitting questions, either in the comment box, or via twitter, please email your questions to [email protected]

If you have ideas for subjects you’d like to see us cover in future, or would like to take questions yourself, please get in contact with us and let us know.


Your Comments

  1. Gerard McGowan |

    I would be interest to know whether the Entry Form used when acquiring an object provides adequate legal entitlement to ownership of an object based on the conditions on the reverse of the Entry Form, i.e. ‘…transfers to the museum’s governing body absolute ownership…together with any rights of copyright or reproduction held by the owner…’.
    Or do we actually need a Transfer of Title Form drawn up by legal experts?

  2. Gillian Waters |

    Would you recommend a collections management database?

  3. Alan Bentley |

    While there are combined entry and transfer of title forms available and they are better than nothing, i think that they do potentially blur the entry procedure. Entry is only a temporary state before you decide if you are going to accept the item into the collection. So a separate transfer of title is better. It also does give you the chance to have a more bespoke transfer of title process checked by your organisations legal advisors.

  4. Alan Bentley |

    Collections databases are very useful as a way of accessing information about your collection but they are certainly not necessary for all museums. They should not be seen as a replacement for all hard copy documentation. In particular it is in my opinion very difficult to satisfactorily replace the accessions register. I would advise against making your own database there are a massive range of exisiting museum databases some of which are free. You will also need to take actions to look after the data. There is nothing worse than loosing years of hard work.

  5. Alan Bentley |

    When choosing a database think about what would most benefit users both internal and external.

  6. Alan Bentley |

    Good documentation is an incredibly valuable asset to your organisation. With poor documentation is a big risk you don’t know the extent of your liability and you can’t service your users as well as you potentially could.

  7. Mike Linstead |

    Would a funded project to improve the situation work rather than with volunteer’s? As tis would allow consistency of approach and a well managed process.

  8. Alan Bentley |

    Having a funded project is fantastic but even then i would look to use volunteers as well. It is better to have more people to speed up the process. Who ever is doing the work there is a need for clear and good management. The more people you have involved the better the quality control as you can have the documentation peer reviewed as part of the process.

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