The documenters - Museums Association

The documenters

John Holt talks to those who document collections about their crucial role in museums and galleries
If, as Microsoft founder Bill Gates suggested many moons ago, content truly is king, then today’s multi-disciplined documentation teams have the power to exert considerable influence over many aspects of modern museum life.

Practitioners can pinpoint a Poussin at 200 feet, translate ancient texts or convoluted computer jargon into something understandable or even rough it out in the (database) fields and (archaeological) trenches.

More excitingly, some are quite promiscuous, at least with their data, they are in charge of exciting-sounding projects such as Bioblitz and one even received formal firearms training in order to find out how to handle a gun properly. Not bad for a workforce that’s often stereotyped as desk-bound data monkeys.

In fact, what all these fact-finding missionaries share is pure heritage sector gold – the vital knowledge of what is exactly in a collection, where it physically resides and what condition it is in.

On top of that, they have the expertise to help bring objects to life through facts, figures and new storytelling potential, rendering collections more valuable and relevant to audiences on-site and online.

But it’s ironic that a profession that spends its time describing things in near-perfect detail has to operate under some rather misleading and uninspiring job titles – and is often misunderstood and under-appreciated as a result.

John Holt is a freelance journalist

Rupert Shepherd, documentation manager, Horniman Museum and Gardens, London

“The common themes of this work are enough of an academic background to know about objects and to speak to curators in more or less their own language coupled with database and digitisation knowledge picked up along the way.

Documentation needs specific skills that aren’t always present as strongly in a generalist as might be ideal. It’s about having a mind for processes and a slightly obsessive need for accuracy. You are dealing with digital collections management systems, and computers are dumb, in that if you mistype something you might not be able to find it again.

Our Bioblitz project is a review of the natural history collections, which contain some 250,000 objects. Huge numbers of them are not on the database due to bulk accessions never being itemised so we’ve brought in six subject specialists to identify star objects or candidates for disposal.

We had a difficult patch in the 1940s and 1950s when accession registers were nowhere near as clear and comprehensive as one would like. More recently, the switch to digital means that if you don’t take the trouble to enter 115 years of documentation thoroughly, you’ll end up with problems for the future.

Finding something in a database relies on the quality of information originally entered. Google has done us something of a disservice in this respect; if you type a topic into it and find something relevant in the top 10 results you think ‘job done’.

A search of a well-configured database should provide you with all the matches and nothing else. Our expectations have been lowered somewhat.”

Brittany Harbidge, cataloguer, word and image department, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“Our current project is nicknamed ‘the Factory’ and aims to audit, photograph and catalogue the entirety of the Word and Image Collection. As there are more than two million objects, this is a big task.

I am also working on a large collection of 18th-century engravings by Giovanni Piranesi of views of ancient Rome. Each of the 27 volumes has approximately 50 prints, which have to be individually described and catalogued.

Many of the engravings are of monuments and places for which Piranesi provided a brief explanation. With the help of an Ancient Roman guidebook and my intermediate knowledge of Italian, I am providing a clear description of each image and location.

Documentation and cataloguing is incredibly important. In order to do all the ‘glamorous’ things with the collection, it’s vital to know what objects we have, where they are and what condition they are in and that the information on the collections management system is well-maintained and correct.”

Gareth Salway, documentation manager, Bristol’s Museums, Galleries and Archives

“When I first started in documentation, records were kept so that curators knew roughly what objects were and where they were kept.

Twenty years on, a whole range of people, from learning and communities to marketing and, most importantly, our audiences, want direct access to our records in as high a quality and as quickly as possible.

That has driven a huge change in the way we are now recognised as a profession and are directly involved in decision-making about how all this knowledge should be available.

Accreditation has made a big difference and digital has transformed the way we curate, manage and share knowledge as opposed to simply presenting people with information.

As museums become more pro-active and efficient, there’s increased recognition that the management of data about objects – how they came about, how they’re used and cared for – is an asset in itself.

Our documentation team at Bristol is now responsible for activities that it wouldn’t have carried out just 10 years ago – managing objects’ mobilisation, conservation and installation work for a new museum development (M Shed), for example.

We also carried out the rescue work for the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum collection when it was brought into our care last year.

And, of course, we’re the first port of call when people want to publish content or provide a new resource online.

We’re involved in everything now, such a difference from being those people diligently creating records in a little office somewhere with no direct link to the exhibition galleries or wider museum work.”

Jude Dicken, documentation officer, Manx National Heritage, Isle of Man

“Like many museum staff working in this area, I dislike the title ‘documentation’. As soon as you say it, people glaze over and start thinking of index cards and admin.

I feel very much part of a collections knowledge management strategy that sits across four areas – access, care and conservation, collections development including disposal and, finally, information.

And we have a wide remit here on the island; in addition to the collections, library and archive, we are also the equivalent of both the National Trust and English Nature so we look after monuments – we recently commissioned an historic graveyard survey, for example – and also keep biological records.

I spend a lot of time on improving online access to our collections and information. I’m in favour of the ‘create once, publish everywhere’ philosophy so we’re being quite promiscuous with our data, sharing with the likes of Your Paintings, Historypin, Culture Grid and Europeana.

That means encouraging everyone here to think in terms of online delivery when they’re describing and cataloguing.

Our iMuseum project enables Manx people all around the world to access the national records, parish registers and newspapers. We’re currently uploading dual-language versions of a newspaper produced by the 25,000 people who were kept in the German internment camp on the island during the first world war.

Overall, documentation has become part of the ‘life cycle’ of the institution rather than just being concerned with discrete functions – it’s a huge change.”

Shona Elliott, curator (documentation and fine art), University of Aberdeen Museums

“Job restructuring across the collection means I have a foot in the documentation and collection camps so people certainly know where to address their inquiries.

A report on researchers’ needs highlighted how they wanted brief descriptions online for thousands of objects rather than detailed entries for just a few.

So our focus is towards having lots of skeletal records, which we can plump up with more details in the future. The summaries are not hierarchical so an item can fit into many categories rather than being pigeon-holed in one.

We have a collection of exquisite glass models of invertebrates and plants made by the father-and-son Blaschka workshop in Dresden in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They first made glass eyes for blind people and taxidermists before specialising in these models, which are not just educational but beautiful art in their own right.

While human cultures have always been well catalogued, other areas suffered as a result of not having had museum professionals look after them for many years.

In zoology someone catalogued all the items from the 1970s including field records for captured hoverflies, which confused us for quite a while. It turned out they were released back into the environment but that fact wasn’t recorded at the time.”

Nico Tyack, documentation officer, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries

“If what we did was called information or records management, people would have a clearer idea – and, perhaps, a better appreciation – of how important it is.

There’s obviously a lot of data entry, forms and bureaucracy, but loans paperwork becomes part of the life history of an object. It’s not just something for museum staff to be upset about when they think the documentation department is nagging them about keeping things up-to-date.

That side of the work is a good way of getting to know more about your collection. We’re currently typing up our accession registers, which go back to 1899, and it’s a much more practical learning exercise than going through the stores.

Essentially, entering an object on a system that people can use effectively makes it “exist” and that information can then be useful across the entire institution and beyond.

Outreach, learning and access staff and visitor assistants can all use it to gather objects and stories rather than going to the curators. Externally, too, the technology is a powerful tool.

There’s great interest in Robert Louis Stevenson at our Writers’ Museum and we have digitised photo albums of his travels in the South Pacific at the end of the 19th century for viewing online. The albums are very fragile and are not for handling.

The better the information, the better collections can work for museums. Without a history connected with it, a bunch of stuffed blackbirds is just a bunch of stuffed blackbirds.

The knowledge you pick up is varied, but this can be a solitary job and you can feel a little forgotten or a low priority. But I recently received some firearms training; it was concerned more with the legal and safety aspects of a weapons collection rather than learning how to shoot – but useful, nonetheless.”

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