Talking Museum Documentation Right Meow

For all of us working on the task to improve documentation in our museums it is often hard to get the point across to the colleagues who are not so deeply involved in the discussions about standards and long-term preservation. Maybe we are too deeply involved to make the concept clear. Maybe we have to take a different approach. Maybe we have to tell the story from a different angle. Let’s try it this way:

Who wouldn’t like to care for such a fluffy old lady?

This summer I was taking care of an elderly lady. She’s 17 years old. Well, that’s quite an age for a cat, it’s well over 80 in human years! Her owner went on vacation for two weeks, so our local catsitter association was taking over, making sure the cat could stay in her own home. Mau was a very distinguished, lovely, elderly lady, but as it inevitably comes with age, she had some medical issues. She had to take some drugs every day. Which can be a challenge already if you care for a human being. If your nursing case is a cat it can be a daunting task. And, due to some liver and kidney issues, it was very important to monitor if she was eating properly. When she refused to eat for 24 hours, it was a warning signal. Something had to be done to convince her, like opening a box of tuna. If she refused to eat for more than 48 hours, it was an emergency which needed special medication and maybe the vet.
As the owner loved his cat, he wrote down a few pages of “instruction manual” including all of the cat’s needs. It stated what drugs, how many, when and how needed to find their way inside the cat. It also stated some tricks that went well in the past, like hiding pills inside a special kind of sausage. He also held a training session before he left so we could practice the application under his supervision.

The “instruction manual” for the cat

When another catsitter and I took over, we realized from the start that we would need some way to monitor cat issues, like: has the cat taken her drugs and has she eaten properly? As one would look for the cat in the morning and one in the evening we wouldn’t see each other. As we both were working and had busy schedules, phoning was not an option. Mailing or texting seemed cumbersome and not completely reliable. So, we placed a sheet of paper in the kitchen where we could monitor the “state of cat” every day. We wrote down things like “application of kidney medication went well, but she refused to take red pill” or: “food bowl was still full”. We also used this “diary” to share some observations like “loves being brushed” and tricks like “If you hide the pill in a treat she won’t take the treat. But if you throw to her a few treats without pills and she starts eating them you can smuggle a pill into the next treat.”

The diary

As you can imagine, all went well, and we could hand over a happy, well medicated cat when the owner returned.

What does this story have to do with documentation?

Well, the underlying concept here is care. All people involved did what they did because they cared. Now, the objects in our collections are not living, purring creatures. But as we care for them, we do something very similar with documentation:

  • We make sure that everything that is important to know about our collection is stored in a central document or documents, quite like the “instruction manual” for the cat. They state what, why, when and how things have to be done. These are mainly our handling instructions and some of it might be found in our collections policy.
  • We also make sure that these documents are accessible to everybody who is involved in caring for our collections.
    In our story the “instruction manual” was stored on the kitchen table so everybody could turn to it as a reference in case of doubt. It would not have been a good solution if the owner just had handed it to both catsitters: in case one catsitter fell ill, a replacement would not have had access to the document.
  • We create possibilities to document what happened to our objects. We make sure that everybody can learn what happened when to an object, no matter if she or he works with the object in one hour or in 20 years. That’s why we take down object related information like damages, location changes, loans or conservation treatment in our object’s records, just like we did with the “diary” for the cat.
  • We use clear language and avoid slang so no matter who is reading our documentation in the future is able to understand what we mean.
  • Finally, we don’t rely on documents alone. We also hold training sessions about how to update an object record correctly and how to handle our objects.

So, next time a colleague fails to report a location change or damage, maybe don’t bore her or him with a lecture on the importance of documentation. Instead you might like to tell a story of a lovely, elderly, purring little cat.

Angela

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This post is also available in: German

6 comments

  1. Wow Angela, you certainly haven’t lost your touch! The cat analogy works very well, and I love the way you point out the connections to collections work, just in case any of us missed them. I also enjoyed the creativity in finding ways to entice the cat to take her meds, and the clarity explaining the methods. You are a consummate communicator and a born teacher!

  2. Janice Klein says:

    Just sent this to my family so they can understand some of what I do! Happy holidays, Angela!

  3. Sue Taylor says:

    I also love cats (have 4) and this analogy is spot on! It’s a good teaching tool for those at your museum who have no clue about what collections management is all about. But they do understand taking care of animals. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  4. A very sympathetic way to explain how complex documentations should and could be and that every single step has its own importance and consequences for future works.

  5. M. Susan Barger says:

    Brovo, Angela – Very good story and lesson! Blotto approves!

  6. Evelyn Fidler says:

    as a cat lover I love this analogy!

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