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The Mountains And The Shrubbery – A Reflection on ICOM Milano 2016

shrubbery2When I was traveling back from the ICOM conference in Milan to Germany through the majestic landscape of the Alps I made an observation: While I was able to admire the calm beauty of the mountains with mansions and small farm houses I was unable to capture this silent beauty on camera. My camera, doing what it is specialized to do, captured everything that was there, including the shrubbery close to the train tracks that at times blocked the view of the landscape. I must admit that I wasn’t really aware of this shrubbery before I tried to capture the mountain view on camera.

It occurred to me that this observation in many ways reflected some of my thoughts and concerns with the large ICOM conference in Milano. There were over 40 specialized working groups, including my own, CIDOC. There were the specialists for textile collections, the specialists for glass museums, the specialists for money museums,… I know this specialization is really helpful to discuss the special issues that arise with special collections and special tasks in the museum and I love those conferences where I meet fellow specialists to swap ideas and horror stories. However, in the context of this meeting, it felt odd. Here, where all the specialists were together, there would have been room to discuss across professions about the big picture, about issues and challenges that might need a broader approach across professions. Instead, each specialized group clogged together to do their own thing. Each kept focusing on the shrubbery before their eyes instead of seeing the mountains.

Maybe it bothered me because the CIDOC group is the one that was initialized in the 1950’s to care for everything concerning information in museums. So, a rather broad approach was intended, which resounds well with the fact that documentalists and registrars are often the information hub in their institutions. Improving work-flow and gathering, structuring and providing all kinds of knowledge is natural to us. However, there we are, sitting and discussing specialized documentation frameworks and definitions while next door specialists in collections management, education or small museum administration struggle with issues we don’t know of – and where we might have ideas on how to help. On the other hand, the fresh pairs of eyes from colleagues outside our own profession could help us see if we still have the right focus on what we do or if we are missing important developments. As specialists we, like the camera, are probably focusing automatically on the shrubbery right before our eyes. However, unlike the camera, as human beings we are able to refocus on things that are farther away – but we might need someone who points us to the mountains and all the other details that are in the distance.

shrubbery1

I wish we could have more discussions at these conferences about the most pressing issues of each profession. I know that some working groups with closely related topics are already doing this, but I’m thinking of a broader collaboration. I was glad to have the chance to talk with quite a few colleagues outside my own profession (I was especially glad to meet Linda Norris from the Uncataloged Museum in person!) and so many issues needing a common approach arose that I will touch just a few to provoke your own thoughts:

When educators are thinking about how to tell difficult stories let us think about how we can retrieve information to help them in our databases. If museums are places that focused for too long on just a small well-off part of society, chances are that our documentation is equally biased – we need help to develop methodologies to improve it. If part of our history is vanishing because we only have it on magnetic tape let us think about how we can save it – not as a task for specialized conservators but as a common task for all to think about which information should be saved first and how we can make sure that we focus on long-term stability in saving our data in the future. If Social Media has become an important branch of interaction with our communities – how can we document and use this input and how can we provide information in a way that our community can find and use it?

Let us think about how we can foster more exchange across professions – at the large conferences as well as in our own institutions.

Angela

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Collections Put to The Test – New German Resource on Audits

Audits in collections – the opportunity to make a clean sweep, to correct old sins in documentation and look for the condition of our treasures. But where to begin and how to keep the project going? Lina Lassak did her bachelor thesis on this topic. And because there is no recent German resource about it, she made a handbook out of it, which she made available for free on Zenodo, a platform for publishing scientific texts https://zenodo.org/record/157342#.V-u2gslo2tc. I asked her about the development of this project:

handbuchThe origins where my field-related internship in the fifth semester, which I did in the winter 2014/15 at the Ägyptische Museum Berlin (Egyptian Museum of Berlin). This internship is integral part of the Museumskunde (museum studies) course plan to graduate as a bachelor at the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin (university of applied sciences in technology and economy). During this time I learned how audits are done by the staff at the Egyptian Museum. During my studies I already realized how much fun I had working with a database and in a museum storage area and that’s probably why the audit suited me especially fine. I helped taking photos and measurements as well as cross-checking data with the old paperwork. While I did some research for my internship report I realized that there was no recent literature on this topic. So the topic of my bachelor thesis was set.

While I researched for my thesis I continued helping with the audit at the Ägyptische Museum and found two guidelines for the process: There was Hans-H. Clemens: “Inventur im Museum. Rekonstruktion und Modernisierung traditioneller Sammlungsverwaltung – ein Praxisleitfaden” (Inventory in the museum. Reconstruction and modernisation of traditional collections management – a guideline for the practice) and then there was “Spectrum 3.1 Sonderheft 5″ (Spectrum 3.1 Special Issue 5” by the Institut für Museumsforschung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Institute for Museum Research of the Berlin State Museums – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation). But the first one is a bit outdated because it barely mentions digitization and the second just describes the process. What I also discovered was that there was a whole bunch of different terms for the same process and that nearly every state in Germany had some kind of directive for audits in place, but staffers didn’t know exactly how to put it into practice.

After graduating as a bachelor both supervisors of my thesis, Prof. Dr. Kähler and Dr. Zorn, suggested to develop a handbook out of it. That is what I did in the past year, supported by Dr. Zorn, and now I was able to publish it on Zenodo.

This handbook is no directive on how to do a proper audit, but a basic guide that helps to develop a handbook for the own audition project, tailored to the needs of each individual collection, as well as for the actual audit. That’s why it doesn’t focus only on archaeological objects but also includes examples of other artifacts. MuseumPlus is used as the example for the Collections Management System, but the data fields should be easy to transfer to every other system. The Ägyptische Museum is used as a detailed example because that’s where my experience comes from and because the colleagues there have developed and modified their own handbook for years. The steps can be transferred to all kinds of collections. I am trying to provide some assistance and help feeling confident when using a software.

Lina Lassak

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CIDOC 2016 – Documentation is About People

As I was sorting my notes from the CIDOC conference in Milano1 I discovered that, unlike my notes from other conferences, it was hard to separate the sessions from one another and to separate my personal conversations with colleagues from the presentations and discussions at the conference. So, I gave up on summarizing the different sessions I attended and took a look at the big picture. Was there a leading theme, something that played a part in all sessions and discussions? Well, yes, there was, and, a little bit to my surprise it wasn’t something like “we need to contextualize our data more” or “we need better standards” or “we need to do more marketing for our profession”. The leading theme – at least for me – was: “Good documentation starts with people doing it and is only good if it is useful for people.”

Colleagues enjoying the opening ceremony of ICOM 2016 Milano at Castello Sforzesco.

Colleagues enjoying the opening ceremony of ICOM 2016 Milano at Castello Sforzesco.

Take the presentation of Alexandre Matos about implementing standards in some museums in São Paulo: the translation of the SPECTRUM standard into Portuguese, the localization of it for the local needs and the implementation of some of the standards in three museums was made possible by people doing it – included, and maybe the most important of all, by people in the State Secretary who were convinced that having standards in museum documentation is a good and necessary thing. How many good projects towards professionalization in our sector are blocked because officials don’t deem them necessary?

It’s the same with other projects like developing a combined and enhanced textile thesaurus out of the diverse ones that already exist at the HTW in Berlin, or the “International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF)” (http://iiif.io/) developed in Yale to support the work of researchers, or the experiences from automating processes in a museum library in Zambia. It all comes down to people who take the initiative to improve existing processes or to develop new ones – and not simply for the joy of doing it, but with their audiences and colleagues in mind.

Presentation ”Spreading the word: explaining what Museum Documentation is - and why it is important“ (photo via @CIDOCevents)

Presentation ”Spreading the word: explaining what Museum Documentation is – and why it is important“ (photo via @CIDOCevents)

As a collections manager among documentalists I halfway expected that I would feel strange. After all, while I use our database often, my job is more about taking an object out of the location it tells me than about thinking about thesauri and definitions. But I discovered that the topics discussed where highly relevant to my own work. Maybe it struck me most in the presentation “Mind the gaps: missing connections in museum documentation” given by Michael Jones. He described the issue that in research there are often missing links because you either search for something in the archives or in the object database or in the picture archive, but you don’t find the relations between the items found. So, while you might find the diary of an expedition in the archives, you might miss that there are specimen found during this expedition in the storage area and pictures of the crew in the picture archive. It struck me, because it’s one thing we do often in our own database in the TECHNOSEUM. Whenever I find a connection between two artifacts I will document this connection in our database. When we have archival material about an object or it is mentioned in a book it is often already referenced in the object catalog entry. If an object was shown in a special exhibition, you will find the label text in our database. I always took this high amount of interlinking done for granted, nothing I gave a second thought. It was only here, at the CIDOC conference, that I learned that this isn’t something that goes without saying. And again, the reason that it is available are people. People working in documentation at the TECHNOSEUM who chose a database software that was able to provide such linking between different categories of material and who created field sets and implemented processes that make it easy for everybody to make such connections.

A project that immediately grabbed my attention and fascinated me was the “Encyclopaedia of Museum Practice” (http://cidoc-dswg.org/ ) that was initialized by Jonathan Whitson-Cloud. It is a project aimed at developing a multilingual wiki on museum terminology so everybody working in the field all over the world can look up terms and understand what they mean. We had a fruitful discussion about the project and some hands-on tries on the software. I shared some of the experiences we had at Registrar Trek with working multilingual. Again, this project is highly dependent on people just taking a heart and start adding terms and providing translations, so here I want to encourage you, the reader, to create a user account and start filling the “Encyclopaedia” with content!

Marzia Loddo and I at the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia "Leonardo da Vinci"

Marzia Loddo and I at the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci”

Maybe what I will remember most about the trip to Milan is the people I met and the conversations I had. And again, the topics of documentation played a role. When you are meeting with an art historian like Rupert Shepherd at the “Porta Nuova” in Milan you might learn that for a renaissance researcher this place is somewhere else than for the common tourist collections manager. Yes, terminology is important but we managed to find each other and fellow documentalist Susanne Nickel to enjoy a good Italian dinner together! Of course, there’s nothing better than swapping documentation horror stories with fellow documentalists and I did so with many colleagues I had never met so far or knew only via the internet – and with people I haven’t seen for quite a while. It’s funny that you might work next town for years but you need to go to Italy to see each other and have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine together. And I learned that nothing stops a Registrar Trekker! Marzia Loddo, one of our Italian translators, and I managed to meet each other although a couple of incidents including a broken washing machine tried to hinder us!

It was great fun, thank you Milan and maybe we meet each other while working on the “Encyclopaedia”?

Best wishes
Angela

This post is also available in Polish, translated by Marcin Mondzelewski, the translation originally appeared on the blog of the Polish Museum Registrar Association http://inwentaryzatorzy.blogspot.de/.

  1. You might like to take a look at the hashtag #CIDOC2016 on twitter to find what people found noteworthy while attending the conference.
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Increasing Accessibility for Visitors Who Are Visually Impaired: Simple Solutions for Small Museums

by Janice Klein and Chuck Dean on April 05, 2016, originally published on the AASLH Blog

The 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has provided museums and museum associations the opportunity to review and reflect on the ways in which visitors with disabilities can be provided with improved access to museums. Recent professional development workshops, webinars and magazine articles have shown how a number of museums have created programs that provide imaginative new ways for their visitors with disabilities to experience museums. Unfortunately, many of these ideas provide access to only one exhibit or require extensive time or money to implement.

 Chuck Dean demonstrates the use of the KNFB Reader app on his iPhone at the Scottsdale Historical Society Museum.


Chuck Dean demonstrates the use of the KNFB Reader app on his iPhone at the Scottsdale Historical Society Museum.

This article focuses on visitors with visual disabilities for two main reasons. First, there are more than 800 diseases of the eye and they present themselves differently in different people. Some people who are visually impaired can read large text or Braille; some can’t read either. Some see better in bright light, and for some bright light totally obscures or fractures what they see. Basically there is no “one thing” that works for everyone.

Secondly, the development of smart phone apps has revolutionized the way that people who are visually impaired go about their daily lives, from travel using individualized GPS directions to access to a wide range of published materials via screen-reader and OCR apps. 1 Museums are just beginning to explore how they can use these relatively inexpensive technological advances to make themselves more accessible.

The very best way for people who are visually impaired to experience a museum is a docent tour. Of course that can be difficult for most museums to provide for every exhibit space throughout the entire building. There are, however, three very simple things that all museums can do to make their exhibits more accessible to visitors who are visually impaired:

  1. Put your label text (and any other written materials you have, like gallery guides) on your website in a format that can be downloaded. You’ve written it all out anyhow. People who are visually impaired can access that information in the way they find most useful. They can print it out at home as large text or Braille and take that with them on their visit to your museum. At the museum they can read it directly off the website with their smart phone using a screen-reader app.
  2. Use QR codes as part of your exhibit label to provide links to the information on your website. While QR codes haven’t been as successful for marketing as people hoped (to put it mildly), they are perfect for this purpose. In fact, in our opinion if museums were to do one thing to be more accessible, it would be to add QR codes to labels. A visitor with a smart phone can scan the code and hear the text (again using a screen-reader app). There are also smart phone apps that will scan the label itself and read it to the user. Some will even tell the user when the phone is “square” to the label and translate into one of over 200 languages. (BTW make sure your security guards know to allow visitors to “take pictures” of the label for this purpose).
  3. To make your labels and QR codes really useful, be consistent about where you place them (e.g., lower right corner of the case; 3 feet high and one foot to the right of the painting) so that they are easy to find. Using a separate standard sized frame for the QR codes would also be helpful. Ideally, all museums would agree on the same location for QR codes, but at least you can tell your visitors where to find yours.

None of these solutions is difficult or expensive, but would make all the difference in your museum being accessible.

About the Authors

Janice Klein is the Executive Director of the Museum Association of Arizona. She has worked in the museum field for more than 30 years and has served as Chair of AAM’s Small Museum Administrators Committee and on the AASLH Small Museum Committee.

Chuck Dean worked as a tool and die maker until he was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease (juvenile macular degeneration) in his early 30’s. Since becoming legally blind he has managed his own business as a licensed massage therapist. He is an avid technology-user and has been using smart phone apps to assist in his travels (and museum going) for more than 10 years. He is a regular contributor to the Apple Vis Website and ViPhone Discussion list.

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

  1. *Standard screen-reader apps are TalkBack on Android phones and VoiceOver on all Apple products. OCR apps include ABBYYTextGrabber and KNFB Reader.
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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.

https://twitter.com/KatieAliceHobbs/status/736643500947693568

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.

So:

  • 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!

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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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PCp5xk-9Qo) 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.

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ARCS Conference 2015: On-campus Loans

By Greg Hunter

by pixelcreatures via https://pixabay.com/de/jonglieren-zirkus-geist-ball-b%C3%A4lle-796171/ 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.

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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: http://www.facebook.com/reorgstorage
  • 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.

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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
Angela

  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
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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.

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