Q&A with Beverley Cook

Simon Stephens, 23.09.2015
The benefits of a major collections rationalisation initiative at the Museum of London
The Museum of London has begun a collections rationalisation project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. It is being led by Beverley Cook, a curator of social and working history.

The Museum of London is planning to move to the former General Market building at Smithfield and hopes to be in its new home by 2021.

Tell us about the main collections management challenges the museum faces.

With such vast and varied collections, compounded by being the amalgamation of two merged museums, the Museum of London has an incredibly complex catalogue system.

The evolving guidelines of transferring titles have proved to be one of the greatest project challenges. Reviews of the system have exposed inconsistencies, such as some objects being allocated multiple accession numbers. While it has been rewarding to finally resolve some of these great historic problems, the process can inevitably stall the projects.

We are also challenged by the disposal procedure relatng to several thousand objects. Not only was the disposals activity programme and reporting system on Mimsy altered to cope with the volume of disposals, it also had to be adapted to facilitate recording research proving the museum’s ownership and rights over items, as well as any impediments to disposal.
What will a rationalised collection allow you to do better?

In the 1970s and 1980s the Museum of London adopted the practice of “rescue collecting” entire workshops of fast-disappearing  skilled crafts and trades, resulting in vast collections of often-duplicated material.

The original hope was to recreate entire workshops in the museum but since opening in 1976, there has been a shift in display methodology and collecting policy. This shift has resulted in items remaining in storage for many years.
In order to retain its status as a leading social history museum it is vital that the Museum of London’s collections adapt and evolve to reflect these changes. Rationalisation will produce a “refined collection”; a better managed and documented system, enabling us to display collections as an internationally significant social and working history resource.

It will also free up valuable store space for the acquisition of items key to London’s history. The project contributes to us achieving the 2011 Museum Accreditation Standard of “improving public benefit by refining collections in line with the Museum’s statement of purpose”.
What impact will the project have on your plans to create a new museum?

This is one of many streams of work currently underway to help us understand what a new museum might entail. This specific project will create a social and working history collection fit for the needs and demands of the new museum that fully relates to and supports our collecting policies and strategic aims.

The project has enabled the Museum of London to rediscover hidden treasures in the stored collection. For example, a seemingly insignificant table previously thought to be un-accessioned has been discovered to be the Registrar’s table used for marriages at Caxton Hall, London’s most famous registry office.

Not only will a refined collection be better placed to inform a new Museum of London and facilitate richer displays, it will also provide greater access to the stored collections and release the academic research potential of the collections, something the new museum is keen to develop.  
What will be your approach to disposing of objects?

Decisions to rationalise collections are never taken lightly and without due consideration. We will be following Museums Association (MA) ethical guidance to the letter. Objects will be offered to other museums in the first instance and disposal will be the last resort.

With support from the MA, once registered museums have been offered first refusal we will broaden the disposal to other institutions, ensuring the benefits of the project will enter the wider community. If we do decide to dispose of objects we will aim to do so creatively, for example, offering useable industry tools to students to learn about historic crafts.
An exciting potential outcome of this process is the opportunity to forge new, long-term relationships with a range of organisations. For example, it is intended the project will strengthen our relationship with the City of London by developing closer links with London’s livery companies and new academic partnerships.

We also hope to assist international charities in Africa and Asia that require tools and equipment to help communities become self-sufficient. The range of institutions and organisations anticipated to receive items from our collection will set a benchmark for other museums, showcasing creative thinking about how to dispose items.