At Gressenhall we have over 50,000 objects. From trinkets to tractors, each one of these objects has a past, a present and, if we do our job well, a future. To look after these objects we need to know what they are and where they are. Put simply this is ‘collections management’ but what does that really entail?
Imagine for a moment if you will standing in the queue at Argos. You’re after a kettle. You would like a colour to match your kitchen and you know that it needs to be small enough to fit under your taps.
Luckily, Argos have an extensive catalogue that you can flip through to find just the thing you are looking for. The description gives you its measurements, a photograph and the code you need to purchase it. Importantly, Argos also know where it is and how to get it to you.
The beauty of this shopping trip is that you have all that information at your fingertips. There is no need to march around on a busy Saturday afternoon with a tape measurer and colour chart in hand.
Now let’s head back to the museum. Collections are used in a variety of different ways; exhibitions, educational workshops, historical research, on the back of a postcard and sometimes even on the telly. Objects can have huge potential but only if they are accessible. So to make the most of collections we need their information at our fingertips. But with 50,000 objects where do we begin?
To know what’s what, each object has a unique identity number called an ‘accession number.’ This number begins with the letters of the museum it is from, followed by the year it entered the museum and then a number that denotes at what point it arrived. The accession number is very important as it links an object with all the information a museum holds about it.
Take this doll for example
• Location (building, room, shelf, box number)
• Provenance (Does it have a story behind it? How old is it? What was it used for? Is it unique?)
• How it arrived in the museum
• A detailed description including its measurements and the material it is made from
• Its condition (How long will it last? Does it need conserving? Can it be used for a handling activity?)
The database is incredibly important because it provides this information at the click of a button. You don’t need to rifle through the boxes or hunt for hours. It’s not purely for convenience. It means an object which may be fragile or very old need not be disturbed unless absolutely necessary.
What is exciting about this is that everyone has access. Using Norfolk Museums’ online service you can browse through the collections without ever leaving the sofa. Take a look and see!
In order for that information to reach this stage it takes a surprising amount of leg work. This is where my traineeship begins. I’ve been involved in the audit of a social history collection and I’ve been building my skills along the way.
What’s in the box? Checking the database is correct and documenting the object; taking its photo, writing a description, measuring it and updating its location. This can also include who donated the object and what do we know about its history. Ensuring all information associated with the object is recorded and accessible for a variety of users.
Are all the objects present and correct? Ensuring all the objects in the box are labelled or marked with their correct accession number. We use methods that are conservation approved to do this. Different types of objects call for different methods but it should always be secure yet reversible, safe for the object, and discreet but visible.
Are the objects safe? If a box is packed poorly the objects can suffer from long term damage such as breakage or distortion. We need to ensure that the objects will not come into contact with one another and that the packing materials used will not cause any damage either. Materials such as acid free tissue paper are light weight and protective. Packing the objects well can also provide shock absorption to prevent damage from any movement and insulation from dramatic changes in temperature.
Where is it? Once everything is safely stored in the box we label the box with a unique code and ensure that its location has been updated on the database. If we ever move an object from its normal location then we complete a ‘movement’ card that is left in place of the object. This movement is also entered onto the database as a temporary location.
The whole process can take a considerable amount of time and may seem like over-egging the pudding but the benefits of a well managed collection are countless. Not only are the objects preserved for generations to come but they are accessible, inviting us to explore their potential.
Undertaking box audits has been such good experience. I’ve learnt about the collection at Gressenhall and so much more. I have gained an understanding of the science in conservation and a new appreciation for data management. It’s also been a very thought provoking exercise in what objects mean to us and what we leave behind when we are gone.
In opening the box my eyes have been opened. So next time I’m standing in a queue with a little blue pen in hand and hear “cashier number five please” I will not sigh, but smile and think of Gressenhall with all its boxes, full of stories.
Etta Griffiths, Rural Collections Management Trainee