Studying items in storage at the SMG's collection centre

Disposal case study: Science Museum

Hannah Brignell , 01.01.2020
Hannah Brignell shares an ongoing collections review of 7.3 million items
In the summer of 2018, the Science Museum Group embarked on a review of its collection to provide us and our audiences with a greater understanding of 7.3 million items we care for.

The review is re-examining the significance of thousands of items in our care and will help inform priorities for future collecting; conservation; storage; digitisation; research; and programming. This will lead to a more sustainable approach to collections management for the group.

The review has identified a small number of objects that are no longer appropriate for the national collection. Because the word disposal has multiple meanings and is misleading for the public, we have altered the language we use when discussing these items.

“Transfer” is used when the ownership of an item changes to another museum or public collection, or “removal” in the rare cases when an item leaves the collection due to its hazardous nature or poor condition.

The review process begins with curators completing an evaluation of individual collections in terms of size, use, significance and potential for future collecting.

From this initial assessment we have identified a number of areas, either whole or defined parts of collections, which required more in-depth research. Where necessary, individuals with specialist knowledge will be invited to advise the group as part of the review.

A number of reviews are currently underway, including examinations of technology and engineering collections at the National Collections Centre in Wiltshire and our aeronautics collections at the Science Museum in London and the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester.

Almost 70 items from our aeronautics collections were studied for the first review. This pilot enabled us to test our methodology, processes and workflows.

The recommendations – which were produced following rigorous procedures guided by our collecting policy, the National Heritage Act 1983 and the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics – identified six objects for transfer and one item to be converted from a loan to a gift, which were then presented to the group’s board of trustees for approval.

One notable result was the gifting of the Sandringham Flying boat to the Solent Sky Museum in Southampton. Our review concluded this was the appropriate outcome for the item as it was acquired specifically for display at Solent Sky in 1981 and has been there ever since.

It is a key object that helps tell the story of Southampton’s rich flying boat heritage and the museum is delighted that this is now part of their collection.

The review has already given the group a better understanding of our collection, highlighting objects that have been in storage for long periods of time or whose story had been temporarily forgotten. These new insights, together with brief descriptions of specific areas of the collection, have already been published on our online collection.

Hannah Brignell is the collections review manager at the Science Museum Group

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