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There is such a thing as too much documentation!

via pixabay, openvectorgraphicsThis may come as a shock to Rupert Shepherd and all the other folks who support the #MuseumDocumentation campaign on twitter. In fact, it was a shock for me, too. I have to elaborate a little bit to explain this:

It’s really, really hot in Southern Germany with temperatures reaching up to 40 degrees Celsius / 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Until three weeks ago I would have stated with confidence that this doesn’t bother a dyed-in-the-wool museum professional. That my brain started humming “In the Summertime” by Mungo Cherry or some other summer hit of the last 40 years whenever I seriously tried to think something through should have given me a hint that the heat had an effect. But as I already wrote a while ago a registrar’s mind is a wicked thing, so I didn’t give it a second thought.

Then it happened. I sent a chapter of my upcoming book about managing unmanaged collections to a friend who offered to cram reading and commenting on my writing efforts into her already tight schedule. She’s always very polite with her comments, so this time she suggested that maybe I should think about replacing the word “documentation” or “document” in a few instances in the following paragraph:

“As you see by these examples, your documentation strategy will look different every time, because the foundation of a good documentation strategy is to consider all circumstances that play a role in this process. It is also important to recognize that ”documentation strategy“ doesn’t mean to define a certain set of fields you will fill in your data base and totally ignore that there is other useful information contained in the objects that is worth being documented. A ”documentation strategy“ is seldom one single step after which all the documentation is done but more likely a set of steps where you first document what needs to be documented immediately and define later circumstances under which you will add further documentation. Be careful to define these ”later circumstances“, as they have the tendency of translating into ”never“ if not properly defined. In Example X it is the moment the online data base is online and the proper documentation is done by the volunteers (and preferably checked by a museum professional), in Example Y it is the time directly after the move. Preferably the order in which the objects will be documented after the move is already laid out in the documentation strategy.”

Yes, I managed to write “documentation” or “to document” 12 times in a paragraph with just 200 words! Apparently, it doesn’t make things clearer which is what documentation normally should do. I really shouldn’t write this stuff when the temperature is above 30 degrees Celsius (86 °F)…

I hope you all keep cool at those temperatures and manage your job well! Enjoy the summer!


Postscript: Oh no! Here it comes again! Alalalalalong…

This post is also available in Russian translated by Helena Tomashevskaya.


Creative Crate Recycling

Some say museum people are natural hunter-gatherers. While this may be true, it’s also true that museums always lack storage space. That’s especially a tough one for the collections manager: while the thrifty side of his or her personality wants to keep everything in case it is needed someday in the future, the logistic side tells him or her that you just can’t keep everything because you will run out of moving space, soon.

A common issue are special built crates. Made for a special purpose, i.e. letting a certain object or set of objects travel to a distant location, they are clogging space after completion of this task. Too bulky or unsuitable for longterm storage and no matter how hard you try, it seems that there is never a travel request for an object with exactly those dimensions…

There are many possibilities what can be done with used crates. Offer them to other museums is a great one, for example. Here’s another that is quite comfy: A bench made from a crate originally built for a couple of model ships.






Off the Shelf: Pair o’ Docs

Communication about objects, no matter what they are, is made easier if all parties know exactly what is meant by the names of those objects. I offer to you the following scenario:

flowerThe Extremely Amateur Garden Club is having its annual meeting and plant swap. A group of members is gathered around a robust pot of something green and lacy and hairy covered with deep purple flowers. Mrs. Soapwort exclaims, “Why, I remember those from my grandmother’s garden. That’s a Hairy Purplecup!” Mr. Thymus rubs his jaw and grumbles, “No, no, my brother used to raise those commercially. They’re Lake Lucy Laceleafs, anybody knows that!” “Laceleaves,” mutters his wife, who used to teach English. “Actually, when I was a kid, my mother made tea out of the leaves and called it False Chamomile.” At that point, they all decide to consult Dr. Plantaverde, the University extension agent. “You’re all right,” he says. “Those are all common names for jargonius confusus, or Common Aliasleaf. It probably has other names in other parts of the world, and some of those names could easily refer to more than one plant. However, if you wanted to specify this particular plant anywhere in the world, its two part scientific name would identify it unmistakably.”

The expert was using a type of controlled vocabulary; in this case, the system of binomial nomenclature we all learned about in high school science classes. It allows scientists all over the world, no matter what language they speak, to know exactly what type of plant of animal is meant by jargonius confusus. Let’s go now to our museum. A donor has given us a collection of furniture, bottles and instruments from a doctor’s office. I have no idea what a lot of these things are called. Fortunately, our family doctor is also a long time friend. I call him in to provide proper medical terminology instead of the “chrome-plated thingy with a long wire sticking out of it with a little ball on the end” that is all I know to call it. He brings with him a retired doctor friend who practiced with just the types of instruments that came with this donation. The two have a great time examining the collection. I notice that, sometimes, one of them calls an item by one name and the other calls it something different. Usually they come to some sort of agreement, so I’m reasonably sure that the term I am writing down in the inventory is the equivalent of the scientific name for our potted purplecup.

That’s not the end of it, though. Most museums, in order to facilitate communication about artifacts, make use of their own controlled vocabularies. In the case of museums that collect man made objects, many use a book called Nomenclature1, in which the author has classified artifacts according to the way they are used. There are ten categories, such as Furnishings or Tools and Equipment for Communication, under which are numerous sub-categories such as Bedding and Floor Coverings, or Written Communication Tools & Equipment. If you look under each of these sub-categories, you will find a list of words. These are the names that you are allowed to use for artifacts in this sub-category. In this way, if I call up a museum and ask to borrow a dining chair, they will know not to send me a hall chair. If I ask for a sofa, they will know not to send me something that only has an arm at one end. However, problems arise when the only name you know to call something isn’t in the book. Sometimes you have to find the closest approximation and then put the name you want to use in the description. Now, in the best of all possible worlds, Nomenclature would come with definitions. Since it doesn’t, I often have to resort to a dictionary, or to the Getty’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus2, a wonderful on-line vocabulary that includes definitions. Or, in a pinch, I can rely on my pair o’ docs.

Anne T. Lane

  1. Nomenclature is a controlled vocabulary for the classification of cultural objects invented and first published by Robert G. Chenhall in 1978. Refined ever since it is a standard work for classifying cultural artifacts in U.S. museums. Version 4.0 was published recently:
    Paul Bourcier, Heather Dunn and The Nomenclature Task Force (ed.): Nomenclature 4.0 for Museum Cataloging, Robert G. Chenhall’s System for Classifying Cultural Objects, 4th Edition, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers /AASLH 2015
  2. The Getty Vocabularies including the Art & Architecture Thesaurus can be found and used free of charge here:

Unmanaged Collections: Grandmother’s Fixes

Picture by Mimirebelle via pixabayWhen working with an unmanaged collection you are usually confronted with a number of issues that harm your collection: climate conditions, pests, leaking roofs, dripping water pipes, cracks in the wall… While those issues should be top priority on your list of things that need to be fixed professionally it will take some time to get the funding. In the meanwhile your collection suffers every day. That’s the time and the place for something I call ”Grandmother’s Fixes“.

We all know that grandmothers are great at fixing problems, may it be a broken vase, finger or heart. Grandmothers have gained a lot of experience in carrying a family through rough times of scarce resources. The “Grandmother’s Fixes” are about improving things right there and then with your own hands and with stuff that is available and costs little to no money. Of course, you shouldn’t try to fix a broken vase with superglue like your real grandmother would. The grandmother I have in mind is an ideal grandmother, an easy to imagine superhero with the superpowers of common sense and creativity. Very old, very wise and very caring. ”Grandmother“ with a capital ”G“ on her apron, that’s her.

My favorite “Grandmother’s Fix” was done for a collection stored in a huge industrial hall. About 50% of the roof consisted of windows which made it a bright place to work but also very unsuitable for collection storage. A note made with pen on paper faded so much that it was unreadable after only 6 months in this hall! The “Grandmother’s Fix” to that was incredibly simple: the windows were painted over. This was done in just a few days, cost only a few buckets of paint and reduced light levels significantly. The long-term solution was moving the collection to a more suitable storage area a few years later, but the fix reduced stress imposed on the collection immediately.

What was your favorite “Grandmother’s Fix” in collections care?

This post is also available in Russian translated by Helena Tomashevskaya.


What took you so long?

A week in the life of a collections manager

One of the delicate glass slides

One of the delicate glass slides

I love my job, really. To be responsible that every artifact is at the right place, at the right time when it is needed is a wonderful duty, so is the challenge to keep them safe for future generations. However, there’s one thing that bothers me and I know bothers many colleagues in the field of collections care, may they be collections managers, registrars, curators, conservators, documentalists or data base managers. It’s the question “Why does this take so long?” or “Why isn’t that task finished, yet?” It bothers me so much that I swore to myself if I run into a good example, I’ll write a blog post about it. Well, last week was a very good example.

Glass slides wrapped in acid-free tissue

Glass slides wrapped in acid-free tissue

One of the very first things I discovered on this early Monday morning was a very heavy box, roughly the size of a shoebox. Inside were dozens of glass slides like they were used for a ”Laterna Magica“ or magic lantern back in the 19th century. Some were in their original boxes, some piled on one another without any support. Some of the slides already suffered damage because of the poor storage conditions. Repacking them was inevitable. I spent the rest of my Monday doing some research and inventing a better storage for them.

Fitting ethafoam block with cut in supports

Fitting ethafoam block with cut in supports

I figured out that wrapping them in acid-free tissue paper was a good start. However, to store them they should have a home where they couldn’t move and get damaged. It should be easy to find the slide one is looking for and take it out without having to touch other slides. I took an ethafoam block, cut it the size of an archival box and cut into it supports for the slides. That way the slides can be carried around safely, can’t slip inside the box and everyone can find a needed slide fast.

Every support has written what slide you'll find inside

Every support has written what slide you’ll find inside

I assigned the task of building boxes for the remaining slides to my student assistant on Tuesday. First of all because I had other things to do and secondly because I’m not a good box builder while she does awesome artifact homes (see ”Storage Solutions: A Home for the Barcode Scanner“). I focused on finding a place for the slides. They should find a home where our collection of photography and camera equipment is stored. But, like many other museums, we have space issues. With the new packaging the slides would need the place of six archival boxes which I didn’t have in this row of shelves. Finally I figured out if I repacked the collection of narrow film cameras into archival boxes so I could stack them I could gain about 3 free shelf boards.

Shelves with repacked narrow film cameras and the six boxes with glass slides (marked red). You can also catch a glimpse of the now empty shelf boards.

Shelves with repacked narrow film cameras and the six boxes with glass slides (marked red). You can also catch a glimpse of the now empty shelf boards.

Well, it’s not as easy as it sounds. We are changing our location tracking system from pure manual to barcoding. To push the project forward we established the policy that every item we have in hand gets its new object label with barcode. This is especially a good policy because many of our old objects labels have polyvinyl chloride sleeves we want to get rid of.
I got 118 narrow film cameras to repack, so I printed out 118 new object labels, cut them, folded them and assigned them to their respective camera. Of course, every new archival box needed a label so we know what’s inside. They had to be printed, cut and attached as well. Sitting on another shelf means getting a new location entry in the data base – and of course the archival boxes got new distinct identifiers that needed to be in the data base, too.

So, you can easily imagine what I did Tuesday to Friday. Of course I performed some other tasks, too (read Anne T. Lane’s ”Off the Shelf – A Day in the Life of a Collections Manager“ for more) and after the six boxes with glass slides were located I still had two and a half shelf boards of newly created space for the next camera equipment that comes in. But if you don’t look at the bigger picture you could sum my working week up to: I relocated a box of glass slides.

Angela Kipp


Unmanaged Collections: Worst First Impressions

alttext As I announced recently I’m looking for real world examples for my book about managing unmanaged collections. The first chapters will have much to do with the process of getting an overview of what items the collection consists of, defining priorities and developing a strategy to tackle them.

I think maybe the worst moment is the first time you see the collection. It’s the moment you get the first idea of how much work it will be and how many issues you will have to face. What was your worst first impression? I think mine was a collection of vintage cars and agricultural machinery crammed into a shed in a way you could barely walk and sometimes had to crawl over a few things to get deeper into the collection. All the objects were rusty, a considerable amount of windshields were smashed and the fact that this place was inhabited by mice, martens and pigeons was sadly all too obvious. To make matters worse, there were some more delicate objects carelessly crammed in between the bigger objects and I found something that turned out to be a lady’s dress under a plow.

What was your worst first impression when you worked with an unmanaged collection?


Off the shelf – Put a lid on it

lotus_closedLet’s say you buy a widget that comes in a box. This protective container might have on it colorful pictures of what is inside, instructions for setup and use, and barcodes by which the manufacturer, the shipper and the store keep track of inventory and price. Once the box’s usefulness is over, you flatten it and send it to the recyclers.

Think ahead, say, fifty years. You give the widget that was in the box to a museum. What does the museum do? Put it in a box. This box serves purposes very similar to the original one, and sometimes even has the ubiquitous barcode on it. There are important differences, however, between the original packaging and the new housing. The old box might have served as short-term physical protection to save the widget from damage during shipping and storage, but it was almost certainly made of materials that would have done long-term damage to the poor widget. Acidic paper and cardboard, foam that offgasses harmful chemicals, perhaps plastics that deteriorate and form sticky films that mar the finish. Adhesives that break down and migrate from tapes and seams onto the contents.

lotus_adviceThe new box is made of specially manufactured acid-free cardboard, buffered against acid migration. It is made without adhesives. Internal trays or supports may be made of inert foams, undyed and unprocessed cotton or polyester fabrics or fibers, or crumpled acid-free tissue paper. The box is labeled with the widget’s number and description, sometimes even a digital photograph of the it so you don’t have to open the box to see what’s inside. If necessary, instructions for opening up the box and taking the widget out safely are included.

lotus_open1Many objects in the museum’s collection are able simply to sit on shelves or in drawers, and a great many others are put into commercially available acid-free boxes with minimal padding or support. Some items, though, are too fragile, or odd-shaped, to fit in ready-made housing. That’s where the box-maker comes in. I use simple tools – a knife and cutting mat and a glue gun. My arsenal of materials includes acid-free cardboard and card stock, foam in sheets and blocks and rods, archival double-sided tape, muslin and cotton tying tape, as well as the acid-free tissue.

lotus_open2Laying out a box involves measuring the object and figuring out the best way for it to sit, working out how much extra space to include for padding and supports, and figuring out how to get it into and out of the box with the least amount of handling. Sometimes the item is nestled into a cushion of polyester fiberfill, sometimes it is tied to its supports, sometimes it is blocked in with removable foam blocks, complete with numbers and instructions. How do you figure out what to use? Experience, and for me, an ability to imagine myself as the object, able to detect any stresses or weak points that need to be taken care of.

The box illustrated here is of the type known as a lotus box. It has four drop-down sides, allowing the Native American jar to be seen without lifting it out. The lid holds the sides together when the box is closed up. I am currently involved in designing a similar type of box for an artifact belonging to the Levine Museum. It will have a tray and only one drop-down side, with internal foam blocks that will allow two objects to travel safely one inside the other. I have also been asked to teach a box-making workshop this summer for the North Carolina Preservation Consortium.

lotus_open3Containers have fascinated me since I was a kid. I always have saved boxes and tins and bottles. I used to sit in geometry class and design tiny fold-up boxes on my graph paper. Graduating to designing housing for museum objects was a very natural progression, and this is still my favorite part of the job of Collections Manager.


There’s a bomb in my collection!

Most assume that working in collections management is relatively harmless. I’d say that’s true most of the time. But then again, there are those days… read the story of Julie Blood, Collections and Exhibit Manager at the San Joaquin County Historical Society & Museum in Lodi, California:

Hand Grenade

Hand Grenade

It was back in August 2009. I had been working at the San Joaquin County Historical Society & Museum for about 8 months when a volunteer and I came across a box marked “ammunition”. It was a late Friday afternoon. We opened it up to find World War II era hand grenade (with pin and not secured!), a Japanese mortar round, and a canister that we assume based on the markings on it to be picric acid.

When this collection was first received by the museum in 2000, many of the potential objects were inspected by the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department and removed and detonated because they were deemed unsafe. For reasons unknown the current artifacts were either not inspected or deemed to be safe by the Sheriff’s Department. To this day I have no idea how or why these objects made it into the collection.

Japanese Mortar Round

Japanese Mortar Round

So Monday morning, I contacted the Sheriff’s Department and a deputy came to have a look at them immediately, but apparently, military equipment was not his area of expertise either and I was waiting for him to pull the pin or something, it was kind of scary… Finally he talked to his supervisor and they contacted the local Air Force base. They sent their ordnance team to the museum to pick up the objects, which we immediately deaccessioned.


I can tell you that sometimes ignorance is bliss because that was the longest weekend ever for me. I have since used these items as a teaching moment to point out to our docents, volunteers, and student tour groups about the hazards you sometimes find working in a museum. I hope to God that I never find anything like this again, that’s for sure. It gave us a really good scare!

Julie Blood


The „Old Guard“ or why registrars are so picky about words

guard-206487_640Recently I took part in an interesting discussion on Linkedin that followed an article by Paul Orselli called „How Can Museums Shift, If The “Old Guard” Doesn’t Budge?“

It was a heated debate and suddenly it occurred to me that at least some of the disagreements sprung from different interpretations of the term „Old Guard“.

In regards to museums it can mean:

  • Decision-makers at the top of museums that have held this position for years.
  • Museum professionals who have been doing their job for many years.
  • People who hold tight to norms, procedures and practices that were established a long time ago.
  • People who are skeptical towards trying new things and believe it’s best to do things the way it’s always been done.

I bet your first reaction if you read that four points is: oh, yeah, I know those guys! And I guess this was exactly what Paul had in mind when he gave the title to his article. On a second look this isn’t half the homogenous description it seems to be. And this is where the issues start:

There are „old“ museums professionals who continuously try new things. There are decision-makers who would like to change their museum completely, from roof to cellar and don’t let anything be like it was before. There are young museum professionals who are skeptical towards new things and want to preserve their museum the way it is. There are museum professionals of all ages that believe that some norms, procedures and practices are in place for a good reason and should remain untouched – and are open at the same time for new ways in visitor engagement and outreach projects.

Against this background it is easy to see that a discussion about the „Old Guard“ is likely to go off track. As someone who cares for collections and is very critical towards everything that might put an artifact at risk, I would almost immediately categorize myself as member of the „Old Guard“. On the other hand I believe that „We’ve always done it that way!“ is one of the most dangerous sentences in every language. We should always try new things, if we don’t try, we can’t improve. So, someone who thinks of the „Old Guard“ as an aggregation of all the four points mentioned above will put me in a drawer I don’t belong.

How does all this relate to registrar’s work? I think it’s a good example why we who deal with museum documentation are putting such a great emphasize on using the right terminology and categories. It’s also the reason why we try to use standardized terms and avoid slang and metaphors. If we who live in the same era and work in the same field understand each other wrong because we use a term that can be interpreted in different ways, imagine what that means for future generations with a totally different background.

So, next time you overhear a conversation between your curator and your database manager whether it’s a „Jeep“ or a „vehicle, off-road“, keep smiling but bear in mind that this might be a conversation that will be indeed relevant for the future.


As a side note on the article:

It’s always startling that discussions concerning „new ways in museums“ nearly inevitably are pushed towards technology discussions. Surprisingly enough by both the believers that technology will solve every problem as well as the believers that technology is the downfall of humanity. In my opinion this leads to nothing more than driving participants to take sides with no middle ground to lead fruitful discussions.

If you ask me, we should always place the question „What do we want to achieve?“ first, before we look for tools to achieve it. And we shouldn’t allow anything to narrow our view – neither a gadget that we “have to” implement in our museum no matter what nor the assumption that all technology is distracting attention from the artifacts.


Inside the mind of a registrar

I often hear that people envy collections people for their interesting jobs. Being surrounded by art every day, being allowed to touch the originals, isn’t it wonderful? Granted, it is. But there are downsides, too. And I’m not talking about low payment, too much work and too few jobs or taking on responsibilities no one can really take (Preserving stuff in a way it’s still accessible in over 100 years? Find someone who accepts this bet!). I talk about what happens in your brain when you go to an art exhibition.

How bad can it be? Well, I made a snapshot of my mind when I visited the Midsummer Party at the Kiasma at the European Registrars Conference in Helsinki. They had their 13th collection exhibition and I was standing before „Laajentuja“ („Expander“) by Kimmo Schroderus from 2004.

„Laajentuja“ („Expander“) by Kimmo Schroderus, 2004

„Laajentuja“ („Expander“) by Kimmo Schroderus, 2004
[Helsinki, Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art]

„Oh, look at this, it’s gorgeous! Do you see the telescopic expanders? This thing will fit in literally every room. You understand? Every room. You can set it up in a castle, an aisle, a large exhibition hall, no matter what. And this should be easy to ship, too. I guess for the center sphere you will need a special crate, but the expanders should fit into a standard one. Well, only if they are really telescopic. Maybe they just look telescopic. If they are separate pieces, do you think they are hollow, so they fit into each other? Well, no, I guess this is too risky, think of the attrition. We will need several crates in this case. Or could we use pallets? What do you think, would they be good on pallets?“

And then my right brain snapped:

„Oh, shut up, left brain, I’m trying to enjoy the art!“

That’s it. That’s why you can’t really enjoy exhibitions if you are a collection manager.


BTW: Several weeks later I discovered a „making of“ from Kiasma that solved a few of the questions I had:

This post is also available in Russian translated by Helena Tomashevskaya.