Disposal case study: Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
Rosalyn Sklar, 01.01.2020
Rosalyn Sklar shares an ambitious collections review project
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s collections department cares for a museum, library and archive comprising around 7,000 objects, 500,000 books and more than a million documents.
Our collections management policy focuses on acquiring and maintaining a collection that reflects four broad areas: Shakespeare’s Stratford, William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Legacy and Shakespeare in the World.
In 2010, the trust embarked on an ambitious collections review project supported by a Museums Association Effective Collections programme through an Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund grant.
We applied for the grant in response to a need to review a specific sub-collection of mainly 19th- and 20th-century agricultural and horticultural items that no longer fitted into our long-term strategic objectives.
The collection, which was already closed to new additions, was the result of historic collecting practices and schemes of interpretation that had aimed to create a Museum of Rural Life at Mary Arden’s Farm, one of the five Shakespeare family homes.
However, Mary Arden’s Farm is now a living-history site that gives visitors an in-depth experience of life in the second half of the 1500s. By 2010, the collection of 19th- and early-20th century ploughs, seed drills, chaff cutters and threshing engines, and more, had long been out of place and underused.
It was not possible to provide adequate storage and care for the items, some of which were very large, and there were no plans to interpret them or give access to those that were in storage. The overall interpretation of the site was confusing for visitors.
The Effective Collections project initially allowed for the employment of a project officer for four months but most of the work was carried out in house between 2010 and 2012.
Factors for success
One of the main contributing factors to the success of the rationalisation and review project was the support and understanding of the senior management team, chief executive officer and board of trustees.
There was a clearly articulated need for review of certain areas of the collection. Time and budget were made available for staff to undertake the project and it was a priority for the collections department.
2. Clear criteria for disposal
Be clear about disposal criteria and assess each individual object against the same criteria. Our criteria included our collections development policy, public and community engagement potential, condition and storage space.
3. A great spreadsheet
Our Effective Collections spreadsheet is a big and beautiful thing. All the information captured about a single item is there. It is so important to keep this information in one place and maintain consistent and detailed records especially if the project is being undertaken over a long period of time and by different individuals.
It also makes it easier to retrieve the information for reports to governing bodies and to store the information for future reference.
4. Understanding historic collecting practices
Why does the museum own and maintain these objects? If the objects were offered to the museum today, would they be accepted into the collection?
These were questions we asked ourselves time and again. Understanding the reasons why the objects were acquired in the first place – by examining old minute books, correspondence and talking to former members of staff – helped us to achieve clarity when it came to the decision to dispose.
5. Seeing the whole picture
Making an informed decision depended on knowing about, and having access to, records that dated back decades. We were therefore as confident as we could be that if we couldn’t find any information about an object it was because that information no longer existed. The trust had a clear process for what to do with these “unidentified” items to allow us to dispose of them responsibly.
6. Internal and external scrutiny
Throughout the rationalisation and review process the collections department invited other departments within the trust as well as external consultants to comment on the project and give feedback.
The Effective Collections project has led to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust having a much clearer understanding of its aims for the museum collection, what is in the museum collection and how we want to grow the collection.
The project led to active disposal of hundreds of objects from the collection through transfer to other museums, return of loans, transfer for use by other departments, and sale via auction. Funds raised through sale at auction have been ring-fenced and used to acquire new items for the collection.
We continue to rationalise and review our collection, including disposal where appropriate. We also continue to maintain, care for, provide access to and develop an important collection of museum objects related to the trust’s vision.
Rosalyn Sklar is the acting head of collections at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. A full report on the project is available on request by emailing Rosalyn Sklar email@example.com