Documentation is central to the work of museums - Museums Association

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Documentation is central to the work of museums

Untangling collections histories is vital, challenging and rewarding work, writes Kathleen Lawther
Collections Documentation
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Kathleen Lawther
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Museum documentation made a surprise entry into the public consciousness in 2023 thanks to the spotlight which the British Museum scandal shone on collections records. For some of us within the museum sector, documentation has taken centre stage for much longer. While I never expected cataloguing to play such a big role in my own career, it is something that has concerned me for as long as I have had the privilege to work with collections. 

I have worked on museum moves and inventories, documented new acquisitions, and initiated an award-winning cataloguing project. I am now working on a PhD at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies and Institute for Digital Culture, researching the history and practice of documentation in our museums. My experiences in the sector have shaped my research, which focuses on understanding the realities of documentation practice and what this means for other areas of practice, especially digital collections.

We know that there is a problem with documentation backlogs; I want to understand how we got to where we are. "Backlog" itself is not a dirty word to me, but one that suggests the need for museums to reconsider their past accumulations of objects, data and tasks in order to move forward. A backlog indicates that there is work to be done, as well as unfinished business. Yet untangling collections histories is vital, challenging and rewarding work. 

There remains a misconception that documentation is strictly "back of house" work, not directly related to people’s experiences of visiting museums and engaging with collections. If you have ever attempted to answer a public enquiry, to facilitate physical access to collections for a visiting group or to curate a display on a topic that has been under-represented in your museum, you will know that this is not the case. Completing these tasks is virtually impossible if the collections in question are not properly documented. It is truly impossible if they are not properly located.

Documentation being seen as back of house has resulted in the invisibility of the people who do the work. While roles vary between museums and across time, documentation work has been done by volunteers, trainees, and lower paid members of staff, or added to the increasingly full workload of curators (often at the bottom of their to do lists).

Collections data was outsourced for processing in the early years of computerised collections management, and today cataloguing has been suggested as an area with potential for being outsourced to AI. These histories and more recent developments obscure and undervalue the labour of creating and maintaining proper records of a museum’s collections and their significance. 

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While my own working experience has sparked this research, I now want to know more about the experiences of others who are responsible for this "invisible" work. I am conducting a survey to record the perspectives of these individuals on their work, on the proportions of collections that are documented and/or digitized, and the nature of documentation backlogs in our museums. I am grateful for your responses: anyone who works with collections information can complete the survey, and you do not need to share the name of the museum you work in.

The survey closes on the 31 January and can be accessed here.

If you want to find out more about the PhD project or my other work, visit my website or email me at kel11@leicester.ac.uk

Kathleen Lawther is a freelance curator who specialises in documenting museum collections

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