Disposal case study: Bristol Culture

Andy King, 01.01.2020
Andy King shares two positive examples of disposal
Over the past 40 years, many items have been disposed of from the social and industrial collections at Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives.

Most recently we reviewed the agricultural collections, which were largely amassed during the 1940s and 1950s. The collections ranged from farm wagons to hand tools and numbered well over 3,000 items. Many of them were incomplete and in poor condition.

About 10% were earmarked for potential disposal.

Our approach has always been to align our retained material with the collecting policy. This identifies Bristol and its immediate environs as the area in which we collect.

The process that we always follow is to first interrogate all forms of documentation about individual objects to establish their histories – in the case of the agricultural collections, we commissioned an expert to give us an opinion on some of the material, particularly the larger items. One of the drivers for disposals is also to weed out those objects that have no provenance.

A list of potential disposals is then drawn up and the obligatory notice placed in Museums Journal. The most effective approach is contacting potential recipients directly, trying to do a hard sell and continuing to pester until a response is forthcoming. The subject specialist networks are also consulted.

So far we have found homes for more than 20% of the items. Our next step will be to review the remaining items on the list and, having exhausted the potential candidate among registered museums, then to look to the private collectors of this sort of material.

I would expect the whole process to take about three years from start to finish, although it can take longer.

The disposal process delivers many positives

  • We have a better documented, more useful and smaller collection relating to agriculture around the city. Every item in the collection can demonstrate its right to a place in the museum.
  • Sometimes the research into apparently ill-provenanced material reveals information that had become lost or detached, helping to establish whether or not an item belongs in the collection. The opportunity to closely inspect individual objects is a rare one and can produce great benefits.
  • We have more space.
  • We have weeded out poor and badly damaged items that could never have played a useful role in display or research.
  • Recipient museums’ collections are enhanced in ways that are often not possible by any other means – the sort of material we pass on may no longer exist outside museums.

Another collection that Bristol Museums has successfully disposed is a large collection of Gauge 1 model railway items, acquired from one individual in 1979.

The collection of more than 200 locomotives, wagons and coaches, numerous accessories and pieces of track represented most of the railway companies nationwide but had no direct connection with the city.

When the Bristol Industrial Museum (where the items were on display) closed for conversion into M Shed in 2006, it was clear that there would be no place for this collection in the displays, nor any likelihood of it being used again.  

We looked for another registered museum that would be prepared to accept the entire collection (in line with the late donor’s original wishes).

We knew that the donor had unsuccessfully approached a number of museums in 1979 before reaching Bristol. These were all railway museums – the donor viewed his collection as models rather than toys and they were never used by children – so this time we concentrated our efforts on museums with good collections of toys and models, and museums in the Midlands where the donor had lived throughout his life.  

We were keen to find a home with the curatorial knowledge to contextualise the collection, both in terms of the manufacture and marketing of toys that were realistic enough to be considered models and to sympathetically present the story of an individual and his hobby.
Having obtained permission to dispose of the material from our director, we notified Museums Journal and directly contacted the museums we had identified.

We were fortunate to find a registered museum with the right credentials that was prepared to take on the whole collection.

The positives that have come out of the disposal/transfer process:

  • The recipient museum has improved its collections significantly.
  • Bristol has a more streamlined and useful collection that can be curated more effectively.
  • Bristol has released storage space for other collections.
  • Research during the disposal process revealed a lot of useful information that has been transferred to the recipient museum with the collection.
  • The modern working locomotives purchased for the layout have been retained in Bristol and now pull a small train on an overhead line, which visitors can operate with a 20p slot machine – the museum is benefitted with about £100 per month from this.

Andy King is the senior curator of social, industrial and maritime history and working exhibits at Bristol Culture