Disposal case study: Royal College of Physicians Museum

Lowri Jones, 01.01.2020
Lowri Jones on the challenges and rewards of a rationalisation project
The Royal College of Physicians Museum in London has been working on a rationalisation project for the past two years.

Being in the unusual situation of being a museum based within a wider, non-heritage organisation has provided some interesting challenges – the Royal College of Physicians is a healthcare charity and membership body for physicians, and the museum exists as part of one department.

As such there are a large number of uncatalogued, unprovenanced items that have accumulated over time from various activities of the organisation. For example, diplomatic gifts from other organisations, college memorabilia from past events, and things that seem to have been missed when cataloguing.

Work on these items had begun at various points in the past, but due to the time-consuming nature of rationalising had not progressed very far.

In 2018 we decided to restart the project and to use it as the basis of a student placement; two students worked with the collections officer to document, photograph and research about 160 objects.

From this, it was established that none of the items had been previously accessioned – despite being in the museum store for years – and so the focus of the project has been to get them all approved for either formal accessioning or disposal.

The museum team is small, and so the student assistance was invaluable in providing the object information needed to move the project forward.

Staffing and timing has been difficult throughout the project; with just one member of staff’s role focusing on collections management and our approval committee only meeting two or three times a year, getting items signed off for accessioning or disposal has required some strong planning.

Grouping items by similar theme and similar discussion points has proved a good way to approach it, allowing the committee to quickly give opinions on multiple proposals.

One unexpected hurdle was that many of the objects that do not fit into our collecting policy have our branding on, meaning that disposing of them externally is not an option.

Having struggled to find any advice on this, we first dealt with the non-branded items. Having gained confidence in the process, and following a lot of discussion, a decision was taken to offer the branded items to our development team for use in their events and activities, and otherwise to recycle them.

A number of items were also transferred to the archive.

Although there is still a long way to go, significant progress has been made. Twenty-nine disposals have been approved, 12 of which have found new homes including an accredited museum and a primary school that teaches with object-based learning.

Nine items have been formally accessioned into the collection, and nine more have been approved.

Perhaps most importantly, the confidence of the team in carrying out this sort of work has increased, which will allow the rest of the project to run more smoothly and efficiently.

Lowri Jones is the senior curator of the Royal College of Physicians Museum

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