European Registrars Conference 2014:
Moving Collections

Niin makaa, kuin petaa.
One sleeps like one makes his bed.
(Finnish proverb)

Moving, moving, moving... we sure do a lot at the TECHNOSEUM.

Moving, moving, moving… we sure move a lot of stuff at the TECHNOSEUM.

As a collection manager in a museum where over 3 % of the collection is permanently on the move due to exhibitions, loans and other purposes, I was extremely interested in this panel.

Moving Collections and Organizations

Per Hedström from the Nationalmuseum Sweden talked about “Moving Collections and Organizations”. As they had to close their main building down due to restoration, they had to move 700,000 artifacts out of the building and into permanent storage. They were successful, nothing was broken or lost and now they are waiting to come back in place. The reopening is scheduled for 2017.

Per pointed out what made the project a success and how to approach occurring issues:
One crucial point was that the relocation project has to be made top priority. One should take into consideration that change is always a source of uncertainty and one has to recognize that staff will be nervous. One needs to find extra money for the move, because you will need a few extra hands.

Then it came, the statement that I would love to write in capital letters and to put a golden frame around:

A RELOCATION PROJECT IS A RELOCATION PROJECT,
NOTHING ELSE.

It’s not a documentation or conservation project. It’s even not the time to experiment with new packing material. It’s simply the project to get all the artifacts safe into the new place and that’s enough.

One has to keep the audience in mind. They will be disappointed that they can’t see the artifacts, so you have to find ways to keep them engaged. One also has to consider staff: you have to keep them engaged so they won’t leave.

At the same time, a closure is an opportunity you won’t have again. You could focus on the future, ponder and discuss new ideas. You’ll end up with 100 new ideas and the difficulty is to choose from them and choose the ones that are strategically right. Per said during the closure they focused on three points:

  1. Vision and brand
  2. Strategically important exhibits
  3. New collection display

"Selfies – Now and Then" http://www.nationalmuseum.se/selfieseng

“Selfies – Now and Then” http://www.nationalmuseum.se/selfieseng

One of the things that were discussed was if lending should go on during the closure. They decided to limit it down to exhibitions they decided to be strategically important. Among these were for example the exhibition “Slow Art” featuring Swedish designers at the Swedish Institute in Paris https://paris.si.se/agenda/slow-art/ or the exhibition “crossing borders” http://www.nationalmuseum.se/sv/English-startpage/Exhibitions/Crossing-Borders-bra-collaboration-with-Swedavia/ which they decided had high experimental value.

Concerning the new collections display they decided to put emphasize on things that are significant in their collection and focused on what they are good at. But he also admitted: “It’s not easy, perhaps we do too much, maybe we have to focus on less and do this better.”

Storage Relocations at the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar and Management Challenges of a New Museum

Those two presentations held by Marie-Astrid Martin and Nancy Konstantinou dealing with the challenges of collections management and relocation issues in the Gulf region were breathtaking.

To sum it up: imagine doing what you are doing in your museum right now – only that what you do is more or less done for the first time at the place where you are. You have to implement all procedures and policies you are used to in the North American and European museum world in Qatar for the first time. This in an extreme climate where even short periods without climatization could do tremendous damage to the artifacts and with an infrastructure that is far from what you are used to. Needless to say that few insurers take the risk of insuring something there and Qatar hasn’t a state indemnity in place so far. Like they put it “Living in the desert is the main challenge”. But the museum folks there took up the challenge and managed the move the collection into a newly built warehouse with 9,940 square meters of high shelf units. Kudos to Marie-Astrid, Nancy and their colleagues!

Relocation of XXL Collections – You can’t make an Omlette without breaking eggs

I guess there was no presentation on ERC 2014 that saw me nod more often than the one done by Joachim Hüber. I guess I looked like one of these nodding dogs…

The "move" as the black box between the old and the new storage.

Joachim Hüber: The “move” as the black box between the actual situation and the future situation.

Joachim stated that most of the time “the move” is regarded as black box between the situation that caused relocation and the new location that is of course built with best practices in mind. While much thought is given on the new building by the architect, museum director, head of collection department, conservators, head of relocation project and head of logistics the move is only given much thought from the latter two. Therefore the move is often underestimated and understaffed.

Joachim recommended keeping in mind that the collection move and storage equipment are closely interlinked so it pays to use synergies. Part of the underestimation is often the workload. The move will inevitably need extra resources. It is also crucial to understand that it is necessary to reduce loans and use of objects in-house during the time of the move.

Joachim also warned that the idea of shifting resources from other departments and using them in the move is not a good one. Collections moves have special needs that can’t be met by just bringing in people who are used to do something completely different. Instead, there are three possible options: Hire more staff, contract staff or contract whole packages like transport or cleaning. Whatever the decision may be, keep in mind that you need extra staff, trusted staff, reliable staff. Joachim stated that the cost of relocation ads up to 20% of the whole storage building project and that this is often underestimated. Also keep in mind that the more risk you impose on a contractor, the more costly it will be.

On the practical side you will need several independent working groups, both on the “old” site and in the new building. A thorough recommendation: have a stand-by-hand on each side who is just there to run around to fetch material and so on. You will also need a decision maker on both sites so processes aren’t slowed down because nobody is there who is eligible to decide. This decision maker has to be someone who knows all the tasks and has to be an allrounder and troubleshooter by personality – he/she is the most important person on site.

Crucial to managing XXL relocations is that you stop thinking in objects and start thinking in bulks. If you go for 100% object security in every case you won’t be moving at all, because every move is a risk. To manage a move in a cost-effective way, we have to take some risks. We have to shift from minimal risk to acceptable risk. This includes that we should look to have 95% of the objects requiring standard handling, only 5% special handling. We have to give a close look which tasks are really mandatory and which are optional.

move runningIt is very important that the correct sequence of steps in the move/packaging/transport is planned beforehand. But also: do not over-plan.
What proved to be helpful is using visual packaging so one could see what is transported and therefore immediately see where the problems in handling are. Also, things should go on rolls as early as possible. Using standard packaging makes things easier and cost-efficient. Standard pallets, standard boxes that fit in standard shelves… And always keep in mind that space, space, space is everything!

Even if it is always part of our considerations we should keep in mind that in the case of a move security is a minor problem. Joachim put it that way: Secure the process, don’t secure the single object. If you keep your staff in a good mood and pay them well you have a minimal security risk.
Also Joachim warned us to think early on materials, be aware of considerable costs, use standard products and order tools and materials on time. Using easy solutions instead of complicated ones makes it unlikely that something goes wrong. Sometimes special solutions are needed, then you should pay attention because most of the time the answers are around you.

Some words on hiring: hire the experienced staff early; this is especially important for the decision makers. Do not hire too much over-qualified staff. Again: keep your staff in a good mood and pay them well.

To sum up:

  • Don’t underestimate costs
  • Design suitable processes
  • Use adequate staff, tools and materials
  • Don’t be afraid of taking acceptable risks

Feeling a bit dizzy from all the nodding, I went for lunch break.

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This post is also available in: German

2 comments

  1. Janice Klein says:

    Thanks so much for summarizing these presentations for your colleagues who were unable to attend the conference. I loved the analogy of the move to a black box! It reminded me of the wonderful cartoon by Sidney Harris where one scientist suggests to another that step two of his proof (“then a miracle occurs”) should be more explicit. (http://www.condenaststore.com/-sp/I-think-you-should-be-more-explicit-here-in-step-two-Cartoon-Prints_i8562937_.htm)

    • Angela says:

      OMG the German version of this cartoon hung in my father’s office for ages! Thanks for the memory, Janice!

      It was an amazing experience taking part in this conference which was so well organized. I especially loved this particular panel, but the others were a blast, too. Still working on the final session panel which is especialy difficult because I was so nervous because mine was the last part…

      Best wishes
      Angela

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