I thought I would write a little about why we are doing an inventory of collections at the Collection Centre. Creating a definitive list of the store’s contents is one of the most important jobs going on here. Keeping track of objects moving around the museums and galleries service is only possible if we know what we have in the first place, and this can be a huge challenge.
Here be Dragons
Ask anyone working in museums if they know exactly what they have in their collections, that everything is listed in an easily accessed format, and precisely where everything is at any given time, and I bet they will say “no”. If they don’t, they’re either extremely lucky or they’re lying.
Setting up good practice today is a great start, but we’ve all inherited stores and collections the contents of which were only every in one curator’s head and never written down. When that person left, those remaining are faced with an overwhelming black hole of information. This black hole of doom every museum faces is summed in one small word.
Backlog. The dreaded, reviled, undefeatable, fire-breathing and gold hoarding backlog.
Like dragons, there are different types of backlog, each with their own characteristics and different ways to tame. But an inventory of the store is always going to be the best way to start to tackle all backlogs.
At the Collection Centre, we’ve been systematically going through the store, shelf by shelf, box by box, down to the tiniest dragon egg.
If an object is already listed on our museum catalogue software (a programme called EMu which many museums use), and it has a valid museum object number- that’s great. We just check the record is accurate, update it to give it a correct box or shelf location in the store, and that’s it. All done. One object fully inventoried and traceable for anyone who needs it.
But sadly this is not always the case. Some items have a number but no record, a record but no number, or a number and a record but none of them match up to the object. Backlogs are ancient and have had thousands of years to evolve. The 3 page flow chart I made to “help” volunteers work their way through this quagmire is testament alone to the fantastically bewildering mix ups and convolutions we encounter.
Slowly but surely we’re building up an accurate list of what we’ve got. We’re making a record for every item, whether it has a number or not, so that at the very least we can find it on our database, and then find it in the store. As we go through the store, we’re getting an idea of the scale and nature of the dragons we’ve got hiding there, and it turns out they’re not all that bad. They just need reigning in, a bit of care and attention and a LOT of acid free tissue.
We’re also finding out that some of the dragons which have been hidden from human eye and database alike are really quite extraordinary. We’ll be sharing some of these discoveries on this blog over the coming months.