On Monday 27th April the Social History Curators Group (SHCG), in partnership with SHARE Museums East, ran a seminar day at Peterborough Museum entitled ““Knowing and Throwing – How to identify and rationalise your social history collections”. Steve Yates, Collections Information Officer from Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service was one of over 30 attendees, some of whom had travelled from Plymouth and Scotland. Here are his thoughts on the day:
“The morning session, facilitated by Steph Mastoris of Cardiff’s National Waterfront Museum, tackled the “Knowing” element of the day. Delegates brought along either a mystery object or photograph of one for analysis and discussion. Using a schema for basic analysis and identification each object was forensically examined (albeit without cutting, drilling, sawing, use of chemicals etc). What is its function? What is it made of? Are there any signs or use, marks or inscriptions and what does its design and form tell us? My object turned out to be a ‘storm glass’ or ‘Goethe barometer’. I should have known as it had the maker’s name etched onto the back although previously in the poorly lit store I couldn’t see it. A salutary lesson! Actually the identification came less from our detailed scrutiny but rather from Steph’s comment “isn’t it a barometer?” when he passed by our table. When the pressure’s on (no pun intended) you can’t beat an experienced curator with ‘the knowledge’.
What I took from this session was that without knowing what a museum holds, how significant those collections are, and what their relevance is, it is not possible to make rational, well informed decisions when assessing and developing the collections for the future. It led neatly into the afternoon topic, “Rationalisation”
After lunch , Glenys Wass (Heritage Collections Manager) from our host museum, talked about a rationalisation project for their museum’s cellar stores followed by a brief tour.
Rationalisation, or disposal, of museum collections can be a controversial issue so needs to be handled sensitively, is carried out by following a logical process which is open and transparent, is approved by the relevant governing bodies, meets the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics and is recorded thoroughly at all stages.
Jamie Everitt, Collections Development Manager at Norfolk Museum Service, set out the processes that his museum follows when dealing with rationalisation. Selecting objects (“Knowing” comes into its own), the mechanics of proposal and approval and the processes involved in re-homing objects were all examined as were common problems and suggested solutions. Case studies of real objects proposed for disposal and their approval or rejection concluded the session.
The cost of storage is not cheap and with many museum stores at bursting point or perhaps unsuitable for the objects they hold, the only way for museum collections to continue to develop are for some sensible decisions to be made about the collections of the past. Although the road to rationalisation can be long and tortuous and may have a few potholes for the unwary to fall in, the ultimate prize is increased accessibility to more relevant and perhaps significant collections.”
If you are working or volunteering in Essex and want an input into future local training events, please read this post on how to feed into plans for 2015/16.