Archive for Articles

Spreading the word: explaining what Museum Documentation is – and why it’s important

Co-authored with Rupert Shepherd, a talk delivered on 4 July 2016 at the 2016 CIDOC conference, held within ICOM Milano 2016.

Spreading the word title slide

Title slide from ‘Spreading the word’

Rupert: In December 2013 I visited a major museum in London. There, I saw a box for donations which gave a choice: did I want my money to be used for conservation, or education? But why couldn’t I choose documentation? As we all know, a museum cannot function without it.

But documentation, like other aspects of collections management, usually takes place behind the scenes, hidden from the public. So I came up with a simple idea: that people working in documentation should try and tweet, every day, what they were doing and, crucially, why it was important, using a specific hashtag: #MuseumDocumentation.

Since then, the hashtag has taken off: in one month recently, it saw more than 500 tweets from over 200 contributors, reaching more than 150,000 accounts in a single week. People have used it in many different ways. Some have been reminding us of the importance of good documentation as a whole.

Others have been doing that classic Twitter thing, and tweeting about what they’re doing.

The hashtag has been used to send out requests for help; or to announce events for documentalists – on Twitter or in the physical world.

We use it to share good practice or documentation skill, and to share things that might have been done better.

And of course, it’s been used to tell some of the stories that we find every day in museums’ documentation.

Sharing things that spark our interest, the #MuseumDocumentation hashtag has given me a feeling of community, shared effort, and mutual support. But has it influenced the museum sector more widely? Here I’m less certain. In March this year, a group of national organisations representing museums in the UK ran a survey. One question listed 16 different kinds of work that museum staff could be doing – and documentation didn’t feature at all; neither did collections management.

2016 UK musuem workforce survey screengrab

Screengrab of question 11 from 2016 UK museum workforce survey run in March 2016 by Arts Council England, Museums and Galleries Scotland, The Museums Association, and The Association of Independent Museums

Of course, conservation and education were there: nothing seemed to have changed since I saw that collecting box in December 2013.

Angela: When I saw this survey, I was stumped. Since we started Registrar Trek in 2013 a handful of authors and a whole bunch of translators from around the world have tried to make the work of registrars and collections managers more visible to the public. Seeing neither collections management nor documentation on that survey was sobering, and I worried that we’d been doing something wrong.

On reflection, I think that we didn’t do enough. Decision makers and the public have still not recognized that our work is important.

But couldn’t we just put our job title in the ‘other’ field and go back to the stores? Why don’t we forget about the social media stuff and mind our own business?

Because this would be a very dangerous thing to do. The internet and social media have changed the world. Today, if you don’t speak about what you do, no one believes it’s important! In the days before Twitter, when the train was late we complained to our fellow travellers. Today, you will tweet the train company to tell them that their service is rubbish, and hopefully they will tweet you back with apologies and information.

There is active communication going on, and even if the explanation for the delay sounds flimsy, you can see that work’s being done behind the scenes. If they don’t get back to you, well, you assume that there isn’t anybody working, apparently not even the train driver.

This is why it is so dangerous that our professions didn’t appear in the survey. As well as the public, they are hidden from museums’ most senior managers, governing bodies, and funders. At best, the people who decide on where the money goes don’t know about the documentation work that is being done in a museum; and at worst, they may think it is not important.

Rupert: So, what can we do to make our voices heard? One way is to keep using the #MuseumDocumentation hashtag, but try more often to follow my original intentions and say why our work is important. This isn’t always easy: it can be quite difficult finding a new way of saying for the tenth time why tidying a spreadsheet for import into a database is important.

So even I’ve not been managing a daily tweet about what I’ve been doing.

Angela: But it’s still worthwhile in more ways than one. Using this hashtag challenges you to think about what you did all day.

Nika Novak cataloguing at the TECHNOSEUM

Nika Novak cataloguing an item in the TECHNOSEUM’s newly-acquired broadcasting collection in 2015. TECHNOSEUM, Foto Hans Bleh

Documentation: cataloguing, maintaining database, writing a report template to generate display labels from the database, streamlining a procedure, tidying a spreadsheet for data import, updating an authority list, writing training materials…

Angela Kipp scanning a barcode at the TECHNOSEUM

Angela Kipp scanning a barcode whilst recording a radio’s change in location at the TECHNOSEUM. TECHNOSEUM, Foto Hans Bleh

Collections management: packing, tidying, preparing a loan, reporting an accident, checking moth traps, ordering archival material, updating location entries, correcting measurements in the database, defining the location name for a new shelf…

Most of the time, collections managers and documentalists are so caught up in multiple tasks that at the end of the day it’s really hard to say what you did, and you might even feel that you got nothing done. But when you think about it, you did a lot of things that were important, interesting, challenging or simply funny. Now your challenge is to say this in just 140 characters, 20 already taken by the hashtag. It might seem impossible at first, but with a little practice it’s quite fun. Take a look at the hashtag on Twitter to see how other colleagues have done it.

If this feels like too much, then, at least to begin with, anything tweeted using the hashtag will help.

But let’s think more broadly: as documentalists, registrars or collections managers we are working in a goldmine – of good content. Whenever I go through our database, I encounter things that ‘wow’ me: things I didn’t know, or interesting stories. For example: did you know that there exists an electrical household appliance for heating your beer to your preferred drinking temperature? Or that the TECHNOSEUM has 473 soldering irons which helped win a world record? And when it comes to cat content, rest assured that we’ve got that one covered…

A tin for gramophne needles, decorated with a picture of a cat playing with the needles

A tin for storing gramophone needles, advertising the Herold brand of needle, Nuremberg, Nürnberger-Schwabacher Nadelfabrik GmBH, 1920-1925, museum number EVZ:1989/0804-001. TECHNOSEUM, Mannheim, via the TECHNOSEUM online catalogue.

It’s time to share that gold. If your institution has a social media manager, show them those interesting things: remember that they are not as close to the objects and the documentation as you are, so won’t find those facts on their own! You will enrich the content the museum shares with the public, and show your colleagues that if they need interesting facts, stories or pictures, it’s best to contact your documentalist or collections manager. You will have raised the profile of museum documentation.

Rupert: If there is no social media manager or press officer, well, it’s time for you to share those things yourself. The Horniman Museum’s Tumblr account was placed in the hands of documentation and collections assistants – and won a Museums and the Web ‘Best of the Web’ award in 2014.

The Social Media Best of the Web Award won by the Collections People Stories review team on the mantelpiece at the SCC

The Social Media Best of the Web Award won by the Collections People Stories review team for their In the Horniman Tumblr blog, on the mantelpiece at the Horniman’s Study Collections Centre. Horniman Museum, London.


  • Tweet under the hashtag #MuseumDocumentation what you did and why it is important
  • If you see a tweet that was made possible because of documentation, retweet it and comment with the hashtag

  • Write a story or an article about what you did or what you discovered for Registrar Trek or a similar blog
  • Use a blog, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Vine, Instagram or whatever you like best to make your work more visible

Who knows – you might be asked to put on a display about your work.

Norsk Folkemuseum collections management display

A collections management display at the Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo, in October 2018. Photo: Rupert Shepherd.

Norwich Castle Museum's documentation display

A documentation display at Norwich Castle Museum, photographed in January 2016. Photo: Rupert Shepherd.

Norwich Castle Museum's MODES display

A MODES display at Norwich Castle Museum, photographed in January 2016. Photo: Rupert Shepherd.

Certainly, the more documentalists and collections managers are visible on the internet, the harder it will become to forget about our professions!


A thing that can do things – Taking a look at the Arduino from the perspective of a collections specialist

An Arduino with a LAN shield - a thing that can do MANY things

An Arduino with a LAN shield – a thing that can do MANY things

Being the collections manager for a Science and Technology Museum has a whole range of downsides. For example, you never, ever get big industrial storage halls so tight that dust and pests aren’t an issue, people think you are crazy when you insist on various security systems and archival packaging for “old junk” and one of your duties is to explain that, no, you don’t sell spare parts for vintage cars or old radios. But sometimes it has its advantages, for example that you are much closer to all those techy, nerdy things that happen “out there” (Because, yes, there IS a world outside of the museum, I know people who have been there).
One day a colleague showed me a little blue thing that was blinking frantically.

“What’s that?” I asked.
“An Arduino”, he replied.
“What’s an Arduino?”
“It’s an amazing little thing! It’s a thing that can do things. It can do everything!”

Basically, when he showed it to me all it could do was blink a little red LED. But as I was digging deeper I discovered that there is a whole community of makers out there who do amazing projects with that little thing. You can really do everything, from reading sensor data to steering an electric motor and everything in between. When I saw that someone had realized a game of Tetris inside of a pumpkin ( I was sold. I needed such a thing.

Actually, if you look sharp at the picture on the post for our second Registrar Trek Birthday 2015 you get the idea when I first made contact with this thing...

Actually, if you look sharp at the picture on the post for our second Registrar Trek Birthday 2015 you get the idea when I first made contact with this thing…

Granted, the moments when a registrar or collections manager is in urgent need of a tetris in a pumpkin are rather rare. But for a whole range of tasks it would be useful and – compared to a computer game in a pumpkin – not too hard to put into action.

How about an alarm when it’s much too bright in a gallery and someone should close those curtains? Or a data logger that writes temperature and humidity in your off-site storage to a SD card? If there is LAN or even WiFi available, it’s starting to get really interesting as you can monitor the climate via the internet and even get alerts on twitter or in your mail when someone turns on the light or a climate value exceeds a certain level.

The big advantage of the arduino is that you can do those projects yourself and at a reasonable price. It requires that you familiarize with the topic, but, compared to former times, you don’t have to be an expert in electronics to do it. The few necessary components are available via the internet and thanks to a large, world-wide community that is committed to the spirit of Open Source you find a solution or even complete code to nearly every problem which you can adapt to your own situation with a little thinking and a few changes.

The first thing that can do things that actually DOES things for the TECHNOSEUM: A data logger that records the climate in a certain area of our museum.

The first thing that can do things that actually DOES things for the TECHNOSEUM: A data logger that records the climate in a certain area of our museum.

Recently I have experimented a lot with this “thing that can do things”, so I plan to use this blog to present some of my projects that have to do with museum work every now and then for you to have a look and maybe try yourself. Our readers who are not so much into technology will hopefully forgive me. One or the other might even feel inspired to have a closer look into the world of microcontrollers…

For a start I suggest the starter kits who contain not only an arduino but a whole bunch of useful accessories like resistors, sensors and LEDs so you can experiment right there and then. There’s nothing more frustrating than missing one little component when you start learning and who has a fully equipped electronics workshop at home? Usually those kits come with some instructions for simple experiments (if they don’t, you can find plenty of them on youtube) that I highly recommend to conduct. Along with a general understanding of the topic you explore what can be done, may it be a tetris in a pumpkin or a data logger.

And there is one thing I can promise: when you manage that a little red LED is blinking exactly how you planned it for the first time, you get a feeling like you just discovered new territory…

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


ARCS Conference 2015: On-campus Loans

By Greg Hunter

by pixelcreatures via This may seem a weird way to start an article written for registrars, but many years ago, I attended a day of clown school. It was a pretty unique experience, and (little did I know at the time) it was also an experience would turn out to have something in common with working as a registrar! Be you clown or registrar, the art of juggling is an important part of the job. For a registrar working with loans, for example, juggling is required to ensure that the demands of both the lender and their institution are satisfied to a standard that will enable the loan to proceed. When it comes to university museums, however, there is a whole extra level of complexity to these loan negotiations. University museums commonly undertake intra-institutional loans to all sorts of locations around their own university. Your items may still be ‘on-site’, but how much influence can you actually maintain over your loans in these circumstances? Juggling balls can all too quickly become chainsaws when you realise that there are many competing demands to manage in this environment, some of which are out of your control. The requirements of collections care and preservation, for example, can struggle to make themselves heard against the demands of institutional expectations, history and politics. Where do you draw the line on loan requirements in these circumstances? Is there, in fact, a line? Or is it a tightrope, perhaps? This was the very interesting subject which formed the basis for a fascinating session on the morning of Day 2 of the 2015 ARCS Conference in New Orleans.

ARCS 2015: Session on On-Campus Loans (picture by Greg Hunter)

ARCS 2015: Session on On-Campus Loans (picture by Greg Hunter)

The session included presentations from three different speakers. Nicole Linderman from Harvard Art Museums, Trevor Weight from Brigham Young University (BYU), and Sonja Reid from the University of Texas (UT) all spoke to us about the challenges of loans within their university. Nicole kicked things off by putting on her metaphorical Stetson to take us through the ‘Wild West’ of campus loans, outlining circumstances which were subsequently shown to be similarly evident at all three institutions. All of the speakers indicated that collection care had taken a back seat in many cases at their universities. At Harvard, tradition was seen as substantially more important than collection care, as evident in the fact that many of the institution’s works had been displayed in a particular location since time immemorial and consideration had never been given to potential display change or object preservation. In addition, many new loans were still occurring despite an object movement related moratorium being in place, underlining the disregard being given to collection care. At BYU, loan agreements were often disregarded to such an extent that people who had objects on display in their offices/halls would consider the objects to be ‘theirs’, and would often take them with them when they moved offices or even take them home! UT noted a problem common to all three institutions in that loan agreements for collection items were being made with people within the institution who were not museum trained, meaning that they did not understand the purpose of loan agreements and often did not see the necessity of following them.

In all three locations, then, something needed to be done to remedy the situation. As Trevor put it, the approach needed to be a three step process – Change It, Sell It and Enforce It. In each case, change meant the development of a robust new loans policy. The emphasis was on policy rather than comprehensive loan agreements because of the internal nature of the loans and the lack of expertise held by those borrowing the works. Good polices, therefore, needed to be developed and key university figures needed to be convinced of the usefulness such policies in order for them to succeed.

The universities in question all had similar ideas, but there were differences in their approaches to change due to their different circumstances. At Harvard, a yearly contract document was implemented for loans – previously, many loans had not been documented at all. At UT, loan agreements for such loans were actually decommissioned as they simply weren’t enforceable. University policy dictated that one campus entity could not sue another even if such an agreement was breached, meaning their usefulness was very limited.

A very important factor in instituting change at all three universities was education. This was what Trevor called ‘selling it’ – if people better understood the need for such policies, they would be more likely to follow them. What better place to learn than a university, after all? At Harvard, Nicole took the opportunities presented by a physical inventory of the collection to personally meet and talk to numerous stakeholders to discuss the new policy. It’s not always easy to get the ear of important people, but accessing their private office to look at artworks can provide you with great opportunities! Nicole used this chance to the utmost, educating stakeholders about the importance of shade, air conditioning and other associated factors to the preservation of the artwork while undertaking her inventory. Trevor also started his revolution by explaining the situation to borrowers. As part of this, Trevor offered anyone willing to do so the chance to replace their display items with prints, which could be of any object in the collection. This was what Trevor called a ‘game changer’, as it gave borrowers a great incentive to implement change by offering them much greater choice. At UT, the new loan policy is still in draft form, but Sonja has flagged the need for a personal review of the loan policy with each borrower in order to ensure they are fully aware of their responsibilities at all stages of the loan – before, during, and after.

Both Nicole and Trevor reported that results have been encouraging since the implementation of their new policy. Nicole’s comprehensive new policy, which covers loan approval processes, installation, annual contracts and reviews, facility reports, inventory, light sensitivity, security, glazing, hardware, and even the recall of works, has gained significant acceptance within Harvard. At BYU, the situation has greatly approved. The requirements of collections care are much more widely acknowledged, and BYU’s print program has meant that the number of original artworks in display has significantly reduced. The success of BYU’s new approach was illustrated by the example of no less than the university president, who declined the return of a painting to his office after it had been on loan elsewhere and kept a print on display instead. If the new policy at UT is approved, Sonja is hopeful that her university will be similar results.

All three speakers did a great job at showing us just what a good registrar can do. Confronted with very difficult situations in which to manage the care of their collections, Nicole, Trevor and Sonja have all made enormous strides in helping to ensure that their collections are well cared for and preserved for many years to come. It was inspiring stuff to hear, and I was so glad I was able to be there to hear it. Chainsaw juggling? That’s nothing – give me university juggling any day!

Greg Hunter is the Registrar of the National Sports Museum at the Melbourne Cricket Club in Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of both the Australasian Registrars Committee (ARC) and the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS), and received a travel stipend to attend the 2015 ARCS Conference. He loves learning about museums, and enjoys reading, writing, and playing guitar in his spare time, though ‘playing’ is perhaps a very generous description of his attempts in that particular field.


Collection Storage Tips and Tricks #reorgtips

By Simon Lambert

We collections professionals are a creative bunch. Because of our great passion, we do not let limited resources get in the way of our commitment to preserve our collections and make them accessible to our community. Tonnes of innovative ideas on how to store different types of objects are developed in museums, libraries and archives all the time. Sadly, these amazing ideas are rarely shared with the rest of the world. In your collection storage area, there are ideas that could benefit others who may be facing similar challenges as you.

If you work with collections, at some point, you have found solutions that you or your colleagues are particularly proud of, no matter how simple and modest it may be. You have found new ways to optimize space, to re-use existing materials and to make sensible use of resources. This is your opportunity to share your ideas with colleagues around the world and to learn from theirs.

Send us one or two photos of your storage solution with a short descriptive sentence that tells us:

  • The type of object
  • The materials used or re-used to create your storage solution
  • Why this system is better than before

There are several options for sharing your photos:

  • On the RE-ORG International Facebook page:
  • On Twitter, Instagram or Facebook using the hashtag #reorgtips
  • By email : reorgstorage (at) gmail (dot) com

You have until 31 March 2016 to send us your submission. The results will be posted on a Tumblr blog and hosted on the ICCROM website.

Important notice: By sending your images, you acknowledge that they are yours and that you have the permission to send them, but that you’re willing share them under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

Here are some examples:
storing oars and spears
“We adapted a shelving unit to store our collection of oars and spears. We are able to use up less shelf space than before. We’ve gained more room for other objects.”
storing masks in used crate
“We re-used large wooden crates. We fixed secured chains on the crates to hang the masks. Now they are off the floor, so we will no longer risk stepping on them.”
pen storage
“We created compartments in a box with cardboard folded in zigzags. Now we can take each pen easily. Also, they don’t rub against each other.”

This is a RE-ORG International initiative launched by ICCROM in collaboration with the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI).

This post is also available in Italian, translated by Marzia Loddo and in Russian translated by Helena Tomashevskaya.


Failures in Figures – Sloppy Location Tracking Part 4

The reasons and what can be done about it II

wantedIn part 3 of our series we took a look at what part of our human nature causes the errors we’ve discovered in part 1. But they are not the only reason. Procedures and technology play a big part in this.

1. Number of steps towards location change

Whenever I compare notes with colleagues in all honesty, we come up with almost the same observation: however exact and detail-oriented we tend to be, about 10% of the time we just get it wrong. Most of the time we confuse numbers, but there is the whole range of errors we discovered in part 1. That almost none of those mistakes make it into our data bases is due to cross-checkig procedures we impose on ourselves. For example, after we have written down a number, we compare it again with the number on the object or we work together with a colleague.
If there is a high risk of confusing numbers whenever we write them down, it is totally logical that the more often we have to do this in the process, the more likely we get it wrong. It’s just as logical that the number of possible mistakes increases the more people are involved in the process and the more time passes between the original location change and having it secured in the data base.
The worst location change process I ever encountered looked the following:

  1. The collection manager noted the location change on a piece of paper at the offsite storage.
  2. The collection manager or one of his/her assistants composed an email with the location change and sent it to the documentation team when he/she got to a computer with web access.
  3. A team member of the documentation team made the location change in the data base.

Obviously, there are three times the accession number and location is noted which means where you can get it wrong. Along with the “normal” confusion of numbers, there is the possibility to read a handwritten number wrong. In addition to those writing or typing mistakes there is the additional possibility that the location is entered wrong, because the final change in the data base is done by someone who isn’t familiar with the location numbering system in the storage. While the collections manager would probably realize that he/she can’t have put a grammophone needle on a heavy duty rack, this detail escapes the documentalist in his/her office.

What can be done about it:

  • Limit the steps it takes to make the actual location change to a minimum. Ideally you have data base access in all storage areas that allows immediate location change.
  • Anyone who actually changes locations of objects has to have the possibility to do location changes in the data base.
  • If more than one staff member is involved, make sure there is a feedback loop when the location has been changed, so the original changer of object location has a chance to check for accuracy.
  • Technology like barcoding, if proper implemented and working, reduces confusion of numbers to zero (Read the examples of the National Galleries of Scotland and the TECHNOSEUM.

2. Complicated numbering systems

This is not really a surprise, but seldom someone thinks about it: if your location numbering system and your accession number is confusingly complicated, you increase the likeliness of mistakes to happen. Accession numbers that follow the logic “year of accession/number of object that year/parts number” are far more easy to remember and to write correctly than an accession number that tries to convey a multitude of information like “number of department/number for material/year of accessioning/number that indicates if loan, education collection or permanent collection/number of object/parts number” 1. Unlike computers, humans just aren’t good at remembering numbers and even if it’s just a brief moment between looking at the number and writing it down, there is a memory process involved. One Mr. Miller came to the conclusion that the human brain can hold 7 items at the same time in 1956 2. I don’t doubt that there are really brainy colleagues who can remember much more, but I found this rather accurate.
elephantsOne reason why the three-part numbering system is easier to remember than other numbering systems is that one part of it, the year of accession, is telling people something. As a human being you don’t read 1977 as 1-9-7-7, you read it as the year Elvis died or your daughter was born. That’s probably why I seldom discovered that someone got the year of an accession number wrong and when it happens, it’s mostly because there were numerous other accession numbers with that year to take down, so when one item comes from another year, your brain just copied and pasted what it had read several times before (remember what I said abut concentration in part 3!) or that the digits in the year are notorious to be confused when written on paper like 5 and 6 or, in some terrible handwriting 8, 9 and/or 0. So, one could say that the first part of the three parts system is just one bit to remember, not 4. The next part contains 3 or 4 digits, which is possible to remember, as well as parts numbers, as long as they are not too many. A 1988.1243.001 is easier to remember than a 1988.1243.193, simply because the first one meaas that you have to remember 6 bits (1 year + 4 digits + 1 digit) while in the second example it’s 8 bits (1 year + 4 digits + 3 digits).

What can be done about it:

  • Choose a numbering system the human brain can remember.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t expect the accession number to include ALL the information. It is totally sufficient if the accession number makes it possible to distinguish one object from another, similar one. All other infomation can be drawn from the data base or an accompanying inventory card.
  • Avoid whenever possible the necessity of memorizing numbers.
  • Mark your location codes clear and readable on every location unit. Just because the system seems obvious and logical to you it isn’t for the next colleague who has to deal with it. Yes, I’m looking at you, collections managers! If you choose not to label each shelf of a shelving unit, don’t expect anybody to know which is “shelf a” and which is “shelf e”.

3. Responsibilities

With every person responsible for location changes the likeliness of mistakes to happen increases. And the more involved, the harder to track where something went wrong. Also, with each person on the team that is involved with object handling, the variety of mistakes increases. That might be a little hard to comprehend, so let’s make an example: Our valiant collections manager X is very detail-oriented but has a serious quirk: she tends to confuse left and right. As locations on the shelf boards are separated by “left”, “center” and “right” she sometimes confuses those, too. The curator Y is often taken away by the sheer beauty of his objects and tends to forget from which shelf he has taken an artifact. As he is at the same time convinced that he exactly knows what he is doing, he often puts the object back on some other shelf. Conservator Z is marvelous with treating artifacts but terrible with numbers. When writing three accession numbers on a box she sure gets at least one number wrong. Each of those quirks looked upon seperately are easy to mend: depending on who has handled the object last, you just know that you have either to search on the opposite side of the shelf (handled by X), the shelfs in the vicinity of the original location (handled by Y) or play around with certain possibilities of number confusions (handled by Z). As soon as you don’t know who handled the object last, you have to take all possible mistakes into consideration, leading to more invested working time in discovering the object.

What can be done about it:

  • Limit the number of people responsible (and allowed) to handle objects and make location changes.
  • Track every location change not only with date and reason, but also with who actually did it.
  • In larger institutions: Make sure you assign and communicate responsibilities clearly. For example: who is making the location change, the giving or the receiving party? If the collections manager sends an object to the conservation lab, the curator or to the photographer, the collections manager is responsible for the location change. If a conservator sends an object to the photographer, the conservator is responsible for the location change. If the photographer sends an object back to storage, the photographer is resposible for the location change.

This was the last part on location tracking in our series “Failures in Figures”. I’m sure that there are other points to consider which I forgot to mention. I’m looking forward to your comments, additions and ideas! I’m also looking for new suggestions on what we should examine in “Failures in Figures”.

Best wishes

  1. Don’t laugh at that, I actually worked for one institution that had a very similar accession numbering system, including a “.1.” right in the middle that none of the people currently on staff could explain, it just had always been there and they never encountered any other digit there.
  2. Miller, George A., The Magical Number 7, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, Psychological Review, 1956, p. 81-97

Failures in Figures – Sloppy Location Tracking Part 3

The reasons and what can be done about it

wantedIn part 2 I left you with the question why so many mistakes happen, why we discovered an error rate of 21,91 % in our example. Well, you may have guessed it, while sometimes sloppyness CAN be the reason, it seldom is. Let’s take a look at common reasons and what can be done:

1. Working in a haste

We all know the last minute requests, when an object is needed NOW. This happens often before great openings or other time-critical events when the collections manager is swamped with a number of tasks anyway and this increases the likeliness of something going wrong with location changes. If the collections manager retrieves the object him- or herself the most likely thing to happen are confused numbers in the accession number that lead to a wrong location change. The reason is that despite his or her usual accuracy the number is scribbled on a piece of paper in a haste and without noting other things like title or name. When he or she does the location change in the data base he or she might not check the data base entry as accurately as he or she would normally do, because of the time pressure.
If some other staff member retrieves the object he or she might forget to note the location change at all, because, other than the collections manager, location changes are not among his or her daily duties and he or she doesn’t carry the weight of searching for lost objects, so it is rather easy to forget to do it. It is also very likely that the location change of other objects are not noted, i.e. when objects need to be removed to retrieve the wanted object and are not put back to their original location.

What can be done about it:

  • Establish clear deadlines for object retrieval for in-house projects. While it takes some effort to enforce it and will take constant reminders, it saves a lot of search time and reduces stress. Insider tip: working with positive reinforcement like giving kudos to curators who deliver their object lists early and stick to them can help a lot.
  • Establish clear deadlines for external requests like loans.
  • Limit the number of staff that is allowed to retrieve objects.

2. Multitasking

While it is quite normal that collections managers wear many hats in their museums multitasking doesn’t mix well with tasks that need a high amount of focus like making location changes. It’s nearly inevitable that mistakes happen if you do location changes, make data base changes, check emails, answer the phone and give instructions to staff members all at the same time.

What can be done about it:

  • Make it a custom that you are not available if you do location changes. Turn email off and give your phone to a colleague. If it’s necessary that you are available for emergencies, have a special phone for emergencies that people can call only if it is a REAL emergency. Insider tip: If you think you are too important to be not available make this simple experiment: take random two hours or a working day and note who tried to reach you and why. Then take a look at the requests and try to spot those which really were so urgent that you had to react within this time frame and which would have been unproblematic if you just noticed them two hours later and reacted then. I bet that most if not all requests fall into the second category and there are even some requests that were solved another way within these two hours.

3. Concentration

A human being is not able to be fully focused 8 hours a day. While this is somehow logical, it is often forgotten. Especially collections people often think that they are the exception from the rule and they remember everything and are concentrated all the time. Well, this isn’t true. Location changes need extrem attention to detail and if you get tired you will inevitably make mistakes. And because you are not fully concentrated, chances are you don’t even realize them.

What can be done about it:

  • Don’t schedule a whole working day for location changes. Cut it down to a reasonable time frame like an hour or two. Even within this short time frame, take some breaks and stop if you realize that you are not fully focused and your mind goes astray.
  • Whenever possible, do location changes with a second person, especially if you have to do a lot of them. This generally reduces the amount of mistakes and you can watch each other. Often, you won’t realize that you are not concentrated. That’s the very nature of distraction. But normally, a second person working with you will realize it and can say “I guess we need a break.”

And there’s more to it…
These are just the reasons for the mistakes that have to do with our very own human nature. There are more reasons that have to do with procedures and technology. We’ll take a look at them in our next part.


Failures in Figures – Sloppy Location Tracking Part 2

The damage sloppy location tracking does

wantedI promised to take a look at the damage done by the errors recognized in the first part.
Note: All the working time given in minutes are estimations based on real-world experiments and consider closely related working steps like, for example, that to check a rack in compact storage you need time to pull the rack out and move it back in after checking or that you have to take a sign out of a box and place it on a table when checking signs stored in a box – and that you have to put back all of them safely after checking. It does not take into account the time invested into collections improvement like cleaning, packing badly packed objects better or correcting false data base entries when you discover them while searching for that sign.

Those who believe wrong location entries don’t do a considerable damage normally have misconceptions about the museum work behind the scenes. Their reasoning goes as follows: if an object is missing, you mark it missing in the data base and carry on with your work. Their calculation is:

Going to the location stated in the data base to look for object, search for it, don’t find it there:
3 Minutes (assuming that “Every object is retrievable within three minutes”, one of the core principles of RE-ORG methodology for museum storages, see for more)

Marking the object as “missing” in the data base:
1 minute

4 minutes working time wasted.

But that’s not the reality. Objects that are searched for are needed for something, may it be an exhibit or research. This means that when you can’t find it there is a whole procedure of searching taking place. How much time is wasted depends on your setting and object handling procedures. Let’s say the normal setting is that the curator searches for most of the objects he or she needs for an exhibition him- or herself. Only when he or she has trouble finding something he or she contacts the collections manager. What will happen in this setup?

The curator searches for the object at the location stated in the data base:
3 minutes

The curator searches in the direct vicinity of the location to make sure it really isn’t there and he or she hasn’t just overlooked it.
10 minutes

The curator checks the data base again to see if he or she really looked at the right location
1 minute

The curator contacts the collections manager to inform him or her about the trouble in finding the object
5 minutes

The collections manager searches the location given in the data base and its direct vicinity again to make sure the curator hasn’t overlooked something
13 minutes

The collections manager takes a look at the object entry in the data base to see if he or she can figure out what went wrong. This means trying different combinations of confused numbers to see if it produces results that show the location of the sign. For example: if 1988.1243 and 1989.1243 are both enamel signs and 1988.1243 can’t be found at the location entered in the data base it might be found on the location that is given for 1989.1243. This might also encompass searching for previous uses of the sign to figure out if it was taken out for a loan or a conservation treatment which wasn’t noted in the data base by mistake.
30 minutes

The collections manager searches all objects of the same type to make sure the object really isn’t there. How long this takes is mainly due to the object type, storage situation and the quality of the overall museum documentation. If enamel signs are all stored in one place without exemption this is easier and quicker to check than if they can be found at various storage locations. If all enamel signs hang open and visible in compact storage they are easier to search than if they are all wrapped in bubble wrap. If they hang wrapped they are easier to search than if they are crammed into open shelving or boxes. If the bubble wrap has a printed out picture of the sign on it it is easier to search than if the wrap only carries the number.
Well, we have about 750 enamel signs. Let’s say we can narrow this sample down to 200 if we take the size as quick criteria what signs we have to check and which we don’t have to check. Here is the time it takes to check in all already discussed scenarios:

Compact storage (assuming that one rack holds 20 signs that are hung open or are wrapped but have a big printed picture in front and that you have a picture of the sign you search for):
4 minutes per rack = 40 minutes

Compact storage (assuming that one rack holds 20 signs that are wrapped and clearly signed with the accession number):
7 minutes per rack = 70 minutes

Open shelving or boxes (assuming that one shelf or box holds 10 signs):
15 minutes per shelf = 300 minutes

It’s astounding to see the increase of working time that comes with not ideal storage conditions. The time given for storage in boxes or open shelving in this scenario is still kind of ideal: the working time invested increases even more if boxes have to be moved with a pallet truck or a forklift, if the signs are not all stored in one place and if location entries are vague. Of course, sometimes you won’t have to search through all the 200 signs to find the right one. On the other hand, Murphy’s Law is still in place, so it might well be that the sign you search for is the last sign that you check. And: signs are rather easy to search for, compared to a missing coffee maker in a collection of 200 coffee makers in 18 shelving units, presumably all wrapped in nice bubble wrap and just labeled with accession numbers. Still a doable task, assuming that all coffee makers are stored together. It becomes “mission impossible” if every single nicely wrapped package in 400 storage units could hold the missing item.
Well, back to our figures…

The collections manager is changing the location entry if he or she has found the object or marks it as “missing” in the data base:
1 minute

The collections manager informs the curator if the object was found or if it is missing
5 minutes

In the worst case the object can’t be retrieved despite all efforts and this leads to even more invested working time by the curator who has to search for a replacement. Along with the increased research time this might even result in additional costs like shipping fees if he or she needs to borrow the replacement from another institution or traveling costs if he or she has to travel to another institution for research. But let’s just take stock here:

Invested working time curator (the information exchange between curator and collections manager is counted for both):
24 minutes
Invested working time collections manger in a perfectly organized collections setup:
94 minutes
Invested working time in a standard collections setup:
124 minutes
Invested working time in a sub-standard collections setup:
354 minutes

This means that even in a well-managed setup a wrong location entry leads to about 2 hours of invested staff time.
invested time
Which brings us to the question how often this happens. Upper management will normally assume that this is the exception, not the rule. They reason that their collections managers are detail-oriented and dedicated staffers who will have their collection well organized so these failures are certainly not very common. On the other hand, many collections managers will probably tell you “it happens EVERY time!” So, which assumption is right? Well, they are both right and both wrong. If we take a look at the figures from our first part we got an error rate of 21,91 %. As we only look for objects that were not found on their location we can neglect the “wrong picture” case (although this could make the retrieval process more complicated) so our error rate becomes 20,54 %. If we assume for a moment that this percentage is common in other collections, too, this means that there is something wrong with the location entry of every fifth object. In other words: if you get a list of 15 objects to retrieve you will have difficulties with finding 3 of them. Of course, this isn’t inevitably so, but it explains why many collections managers think of it as something that happens EVERY time as it possibly happens with at least one object in every task they get on their desk.

So, are most collections managers not as detail-oriented and dedicated as upper management thinks? Is our self-perception that we are of course detail-oriented, sometimes in an obsessive-compulsive way, so completely wrong? Are we really that sloppy? Or are there reasons other than carelessness responsible for the figures we just saw? We’ll take a look at that in the next part of our series.


Failures in Figures – A Series with Real-World Examples and Real Data

Nowadays everybody seems to be obsessed with numbers. Big Data, KPIs, ROI, people like to count and somehow they believe that only if they have counted enough numbers they can make sense of what’s going on. Recently someone asked how many artifacts are needed to justify a curator’s position. People ask ”How many artifacts does your collection hold?” as if this information says anything about how significant or valuable the collection is or how good it is cared for. Data base entries done to achieve unrealistic “objects per day/month/year” goals instead of focusing on the quality of the entries let me bang my head against the wall pretty often.

I could argue for hours about what is wrong with those approaches but I guess you, our readers, could do it just as well. Instead, I tried to look at it from a different angle: We, the collections people, deal a lot with data every day. One could say that data is nearly our native tongue. But so far we let other people, less fluent in this language, dictate which figures are important and what they tell us. So today, I start a series based on common collection issues that I can make visible using real data. I will present the figures and then analyze what they tell us.

Part 1: How bad is being a little sloppy with location tracking, really?

Recently we were improving the storage situation for some of our tin plate and enamel signs. This is just one of these situations where you stumble upon a set of very different common storage mistakes: confused numbers, wrong data base entries, missing locations… In fact, those relocation projects, following a stringent procedure of taking everything out and checking it against its data base entry are sometimes the only occasions where you have a real chance to discover objects that were marked “missing”.

Those are also projects where you sometimes encounter “time saving” ideas like “but they are all in the data base, can’t we just take them to their new location and change the location entry in the data base without cross-checking?” It’s sometimes not easy to argue against such ideas – until you have figures that tell you why it isn’t exactly a good idea. So, let’s take a look at the figures:

We moved 73 signs in one day. During the check we encountered the following issues:
9 signs had a wrong location in the data base. Sometimes it was an “old” location, where the sign had been before, because someone had forgotten to mark the location change in the data base or because he or she confused the accession number and made the location change for a totally different object. Sometimes the location was plain wrong because someone choose the wrong entry from the location thesaurus or, again, confused the accession number with another object.
2 signs where marked “missing” in the data base, which means that somebody already tried to find them. They were discovered when unwrapping a sign and discovering that there was a second sign packed within. One of the two had no accession number attached but could be identified later.
4 signs had a wrong accession number attached, although most of our object labels (and, in fact, all 4 labels in question here) bear pictures.
1 data base entry showed the wrong picture.

This translates into an error rate of 21,91 % which means that there was something wrong with every 5th data base entry.
Wrong location entries top the pile with 12%, followed by confused accession numbers with 5,48%, “missing” objects with 2,74% and wrong picture with 1,37%.


In the next parts of this series we will take a look at what led to these errors, how they could have been avoided and how this translates into invested working time.

Part 2: The damage done by sloppy location tracking


Where’d It Go?

TECHNOSEUM utilizes barcodes to track collections

Simple and effective inventory control: Most of the radio collection has already been barcoded. TECHNOSEUM, photo Hans Bleh

Simple and effective inventory control: Most of the radio collection has already been barcoded. TECHNOSEUM, photo: Hans Bleh

When things disappear in museums, everyone’s first thought is of break-ins or theft. Museum objects do disappear on a daily basis, but the reason they do is usually more mundane: the object was removed for exhibition, loan, or conservation. Changes in location are usually tracked in a database, but the system has one weakness: a human being enters the object number into the database and notes its new location. One transposed numeral and suddenly it’s the coffeepot instead of the typewriter that’s gone to the conservation lab, though the pot never really left its location in storage. The mistake usually goes unnoticed until an object is urgently needed but can’t be found where the database says it should be. When thousands of objects are moved each year, as they are at the TECHNOSEUM, errors in location management are a serious problem. The obvious solution is to make the object numbers and locations machine-readable, eliminating the potential for input errors.

Barcode or RFID?

As with every practical issue, there is an abundance of technical know-how on the one hand, versus concrete local limitations on the other. Something that makes sense in one museum might not in another. At the TECHNOSEUM, we first considered several possibilities in an open and unbiased manner, starting with barcodes. Most of us know these as the striped codes on packaging in stores, or as blotchy squares of code in ads or magazines commonly known as QR codes. Next we considered RFID chips, which are usually associated with anti-theft devices or animal tracking. We also got in touch with colleagues around the world, who are already using these systems in their museums and were able to give us a great deal of insight into their problems and potential. We weighed this information against our own local conditions and decided to go with the striped barcode.

By the People, For the People

Inventory card on a “Einstein Beer Tankard,” one of about 100 examples in the collections. A special exhibit on the topic “Beer” will appear at the TECHNOSEUM in 2016. TECHNOSEUM; photo Hans Bleh

Inventory card on a “Einstein Beer Tankard,” one of about 100 examples in the collections. A special exhibit on the topic “Beer” will appear at the TECHNOSEUM in 2016. TECHNOSEUM, photo Hans Bleh

We knew from the start that we would not be affixing the barcodes directly on the objects. Only the object number goes directly on an object. The barcode is part of the a laser-printed polyethylene film inventory card associated with each object at the TECHNOSEUM. The barcode on each card is merely a conversion of the object number into a machine-readable form. The same is true of the barcodes that designate storage locations: they are not arbitrary numbers, but rather a simplified version of our alphanumeric location designations.

This kind of conversion has many advantages:
• Collections staff can continue working even when the scanner system is not working. People can still read all numbers and find the locations.
• Barcodes can be implemented gradually, parallel to older inventory methods, with no workflow delays when objects or locations have not been barcoded yet.
• With the low number of characters, the capacity of the classic barcode is sufficient and cheaper readers can be used.
Work on Site and in the Database
The barcode scanner works just like a keypad or mouse. When a barcode is scanned, our database (Faust 7) displays the associated record, which can then be edited. If the object’s location is to change, we scan the location barcode directly from the storage unit itself or from a list at the workstation. The barcode readers we use at the TECHNOSEUM work over a wireless network. They also have a memory function, so barcodes outside the range of the receiver can be scanned and then uploaded back at our work stations.

Implementation: From Zero to 170,000?

At first, implementing a system like this might seem like a mammoth undertaking. After all, eventually all of the TECHNOSEUM’s approximately 170,000 objects are to sport “their” barcodes. The simple directive “Everything you touch gets a barcode” makes the reality of implementing the system much less daunting. Since February 2015, every new acquisition has received its barcode as soon as it enters the collection. And every object loaned, photographed, audited, or restored gets a barcoded tag—that’s between 4,000 and 6,000 objects annually. Every object in the database already has a barcode, which automatically appears on every newly printed inventory card, packing list, and box label. Any hours our part-time student assistants have to spare are spent providing entire storage units with new inventory cards. The barcodes have withstood their first baptism by fire: the deinstallation of the “Herzblut” (Lifeblood) exhibition. About 600 of the 700 objects on display came from our own collections and were packed up and sent back to storage in June. For the first time ever, thanks to the barcodes, there were no “blind spots” in the logistics chain: every object could be found at any point in time, whether in the exhibit vitrine, the numbered packing case, or back in storage. And another first: Never in the museum’s 25-year history had an exhibition been deinstalled without a single transposed numeral—until now!

Angela Kipp

This article was originally published in KulturBetrieb, (Cultural Enterprise) a magazine for innovative and economic solutions in museums, libraries, and archives; issue 3 (August 2015).

Abbreviations and technical terms employed:

RFID (English abbreviation for “radio-frequency identification): identification using radio waves.

Translated from German into English by Cindy Opitz


New Digital Publication Now Available!
Rights & Reproductions: The Handbook for Cultural Institutions

by Anne M. Young
Manager of Rights and Reproductions
Indianapolis Museum of Art

Last week Rights & Reproductions: The Handbook for Cultural Institutions was published by the Indianapolis Museum of Art and American Alliance of Museums. Read the official press release here: After two years of in-depth work on the Handbook, it is my great pleasure to see the efforts of so many people come to fruition and be released to the public. As I have taken to calling the Handbook, my third “child” has now been born—a bouncing baby ePub.

Cover design for the publication. Artwork depicted: Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967), Hotel Lobby (detail), 1943, oil on canvas, 32-1/4 x 40-3/4 in. Indianapolis Museum of Art, William Ray Adams Memorial Collection, 47.4 © Edward Hopper.

Cover design for the publication. Artwork depicted: Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967), Hotel Lobby (detail), 1943, oil on canvas, 32-1/4 x 40-3/4 in. Indianapolis Museum of Art, William Ray Adams Memorial Collection, 47.4 © Edward Hopper.

The Handbook is the first publication available to rights and reproductions specialists that focuses solely on the guidelines, established standards and emerging best practices in this field. As defined in the Handbook, a rights and reproductions specialist refers to anyone working at a cultural institution who handles this type of work, including but not limited to registrars, rights and reproductions managers, archivists, librarians and lawyers.

Writing, editing and designing Rights & Reproductions: The Handbook for Cultural Institutions has been, relatively speaking, the easy part. The true “work” has been the coordination of all the moving parts associated with its production. Getting the IMA and AAM in line as the publishers, bringing together over 20 contributing authors and legal review panelists, the IMA’s receipt of the National Leadership Grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the Getty Foundation’s support of its production as a digital publication utilizing the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI) Toolkit are the only reasons it is now available for purchase. As one of the contributing authors recently quipped, “Anne, you are now awarded the title ‘Champion Cat Herder,’” which I humbly accept.

Highlights or stats, if you will, of the Handbook include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Over 400 “pages” of text and almost 800 footnotes (just four shy, which is simply annoying).
  • An overview of Intellectual Property (IP) law, ethics and risk (in the United States) and other personal, moral, and third party rights compared with the broad differences found in international IP rights.
  • Discussion of the importance of maintaining an IP policy, considering open access policies and conducting regular IP audits.
  • 50 references each to Creative Commons and open access and over 170 references to fair use and/or fair dealing.
  • Rights issues in permanent collections: determining the rights status of collection objects, identifying rights holders and preparing non-exclusive licenses.
  • Use of materials with IP considerations, including, but not limited to, publications and exhibitions, educational materials, websites and social media, marketing and promotion, and retail and commercial products.
  • Varying processes employed for clearing permissions and sourcing materials, as well as when a utilization of fair use is appropriate and the types of attribution required.
  • Over 20 case studies that outline real-world examples from the contributing authors’ experiences and practices at their respective institutions.
  • The process of expanding audiences and potential revenue generation by leveraging collection content with external distribution partners.
  • Analysis of communicating IP to the public, including licensing materials to external users and the evolution of photography policies.
  • Direct hyperlinks to external sources and related articles within the footnotes, appendices and bibliography as well as embedded video files.
  • Four appendices: international treaties, federal legal materials and court decisions; document and contract templates (over 100 pages!); terms and definitions; and references and resources.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to skip the morning stop at the coffee shop and purchase your copy of Rights & Reproductions: The Handbook for Cultural Institutions. Available now for purchase through AAM’s website at for $4.99 USD (non-members and Tier 1 members) and $1.99 USD (Tier 2 and 3 members).


Rights & Reproductions: The Handbook for Cultural Institutions is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. The project utilizes the OSCI Toolkit, which is supported by the Getty Foundation as a part of its Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative.