Tag Archive for collection manager

The registrar: A strange, endangered breed of animal rarely spotted

Recently, I read an email by Alana Cole-Faber, Registrar at the Hawaiian Mission Houses in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. The context doesn’t matter here, but her words were:
„…us who are, literally, isolated. Like, on islands. In the middle of oceans. Where registrars are a strange, endangered breed of animal rarely spotted.“

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A registrar in his natural habitat: caring for collections. Thanks to Matt Leininger for the picture.

I was thinking again and again about these words. Alana works on an island, so her words hold especially true for her position, but I found it a brilliant description of our jobs as registrars, collection managers or curators of collections in general.

Sometimes, when I go through the aisles of our outside storage, searching for an artifact that has to go out for a loan and is marked in the database as “location unknown” I can nearly hear the voice of Sir David Attenborough: “The registrar sneaks through the jungle of objects in search of its prey. Some way down the aisle an artifact sits together with some fellows, suspecting nothing. The registrar comes closer. She looks, checks the record and with a short, purposeful snatch grabs the artifact.”

A look at the figures

But joke aside, isn’t it really so that the registrar is an animal rarely spotted? Most of our work is done behind the scenes. So much behind the scenes that we are even out of sight and sometimes even out of mind for most of our colleagues. I started a non-representative survey on certain field-related LinkedIn groups1 to see if my personal experience of the working setup is right. The question was: “As a registrar: What is your normal working setup (more than 50% of your average working time)?” See what I’ve got:

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Fortunately, the lone wolves that have to roam their territory all by themselves with no one within reach are not the majority. But, to stay in the picture, registrars don’t form packs. The registrar’s work has to be done alone by 71%.

The hermit in the storage area

Registrars often work concentrated behind the scenes.Thanks to Lisa Verwys for the picture.

Registrars often work concentrated behind the scenes.
Thanks to Lisa Verwys for the picture.

How is it like to work all alone? I like to quote a comment2 made by Antony Aristovoulou that throws a light on this: „I rarely received inspections or signs of interest from those who were managing me, and it it became a very lonely process. The artefacts became my friends.“
No-one will deny that it is great to be alone in the storage area from time to time. Working alone as a registrar has an amount of freedom few people can afford nowadays. Depending on the architecture and infrastructure of the storage it might even mean no internet and mobile connection. Separated from the rest of the world, on a lonesome island.

What are the consequences? Well, there are certain dangers. Firstly, the pure, physical ones. There has to be a security concept for the one that works all alone. Generally, the one who is forced to work alone should always have the possibility to call for help and assistance. It should be made sure that it is recognized when he or she gets in a situation where he or she is not able to call for help. Possible ways: A routine in calling him or her by phone to check if everything is alright. A mobile phone that he or she always carries with her / him (given there is mobile-phone reception). A checkup procedure that makes sure he or she doesn’t get locked in a storage area. Extra inspection tours of the security guard. All of this should be organized before someone starts working alone.

But there are other, less obvious dangers in working alone. Chances are high no one thinks about the one that works in the storage area when all go out for lunch. Important information in institutions is often passed on over a cup of coffee during a break. People who don’t get feedback or have the possibility to exchange with their colleagues tend to become solitary. It’s the task of the registrar him/herself to avoid total isolation by taking part in the community of the museum. But it’s also the task of his/her colleagues not to forget the one in the storage area. And last but not least it’s the job of the ones that are responsible for the working organization in the museum to create possibilities of exchange between the staff members. This might be the only way that the registrar becomes not the „strange animal from the storage“ but stays the colleague. Okay, make it „the colleague with the strange job“, but still: the colleague.

The one that spoils the fun

Giving clear directions of what to do and what not is part of the job.Thanks to Zinnia Willits for the picture.

Giving clear directions of what to do and what not is part of the job.
Thanks to Zinnia Willits for the picture.

The numbers show why many registrars feel isolated, even within a team. This has much to do with the job the registrar has to perform. He or she has to care for the well-being of the objects in the collection. That includes often saying „no“ when it comes to loans or events within the museum. If the head of the institution wants to have a big party in the galleries, the registrar has to stand his or her ground by saying that this can’t include food and drinks. If the marketing team wants to collect school groups with a historic school bus, the registrar most certainly has to say that this isn’t possible. If a befriended institution wants to borrow a flag and plans to hang it in the entrance of the exhibition without protection, he or she can only shake her head. He or she acts as an attorney for the artifacts, who can’t speak for themselves. Although on paper all staff members are responsible for preserving objects for the future, the buck often stops at the desk of the registrar. But the registrar is not the head of the institution. Usually, he or she is not even the head of the department. This means although the responsibility lies on his or her desk, his or her decision may not be the final one. This adds up to the feeling of being isolated.

For the team members, it is the other way round. Curators have great ideas for upcoming exhibitions. Designers have new ideas how to present the artifacts. Marketing people think intensely on how to attract visitors. And then the registrar comes and just says „no“ to their ideas. Of course, for them it looks like the registrars are strange animals! They are the ones that spoil all the fun! But the painful truth is: that’s the job. If the registrar is lucky, there are also conservators on the team that back up his or her opinion. Otherwise he or she can just point to policies and standards (which is rather boring for the rest of the team) or present cases where it went wrong because nobody listened to the registrar (which is more entertaining, but not necessarily more convincing). In the end, the registrar can’t do more than state his opinion and document the whole process of decision-making to be on safe ground.

An endangered species?

High-quality work is important - and needs enough time and money. Thanks to Sharon Steckline for the picture.

High-quality work is important – and needs enough time and money.
Thanks to Sharon Steckline for the picture.

So, is the registrar an endangered species? Well, the registrar might not be more endangered than any other museum professionals today. When money is tight, cultural institutions are the first that are looked upon with a frown by authorities. But as far as I can see, this is not limited to collection management. Politicians tend to ask if a certain museum can be run by fewer people or is necessary at all. In fact, many institutions in countries outside the US just recently realized what registrars are good for and create more jobs in this field. But that’s just one part of the story.

Another part is that quality of our work is really in danger. When money is tight, decisions on where the money should go are hard to make. And often, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Registrars, trained to act as inconspicuous as possible by trade, often are the ones that are not heard in their requests for archival materials and manpower. But again, that’s just one part of the story.

In many smaller museums money is so tight that it’s not the decision between archival boxes for collection management or advertising in the newspaper, it’s the decision between fixing the roof or having an exhibition. In this cases human resources are a big issue3. Here, the position might be called „registrar“ but it comprises much more. He or she might be also the visitor guide, complaint manager, shop assistant, cashier and curator all in one person. This often means that this person can’t invest as much time in collection management as is needed.
Other museums decide they can’t afford a registrar on permanent staff. They will hire freelance registrars when urgently needed. This is a good idea when it comes to planning new storage units, get consulting on how registration should be organized, have the artifacts of a temporary exhibition in safe hands4 or do an inventory on a certain collection. However, if an institution holds a collection that exceeds a certain amount of objects (not easy to draw a line here, this depends as well on the scope of the collection as on how it is „used“ by the institution), collection management is a full-time job. The idea to let a registrar do an inventory on the collection and then have „someone do it along his regular duties“ or „all the staff cares for the collection“ doesn’t work.

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Quality in museum work is always a combined effort. Teamwork is the key. Thanks to Matt Leininger for the picture.

A registrar is more than a human data base. If you have all collection items absolutely accurate in your data base (name a museum that has!), this doesn’t mean it stays that way. Keeping track of the objects is a permanent effort. Having everything correct in the data base, too. You can have all staff members swearing an oath to always document every movement of objects in the data base, you will still have St. Entropy messing around in your storage area! A good registrar will have an eye on that. But there’s more to it. Like in every library, some objects get „lost“ by being put in the wrong storage place. A registrar that is familiar with his / her collection will have an idea where to search for it – based on his experience and on the knowledge who handled the object recently. Don’t forget you usually not only contract a registrar – you contract an elephant’s brain! Lastly, a registrar who is in charge of a collection for a long time will somehow merge with his or her collection and storage area. He or she develops something like a sixth sense for things that are wrong: an unusual increase in humidity before someone checked the hygrometer, an object that just doesn’t look the way it always looked, a voice telling the registrar to take a walk around the outside storage hall once again before leaving… That’s something that develops over time. You can’t have it with short-term contracts for only a few months or a year.

Conclusion

As we saw, the registrar is in fact an animal rarely spotted. It is a combined effort not to let it become an endangered animal:

  • As an individual: all who work in the museum have to take care that the registrar is safe during his time working alone and doesn’t become isolated from the rest of the museum community.
  • As a professional: all the colleagues need to understand what is the job of the registrar. It’s not that he or she wants to spoil the fun, it’s his or her job to protect the objects so others can enjoy them in the future, too.
  • As a museum: authorities should think in-deep about the value of professional collection management. It is an old hat that preventive conservation and professional storage saves costs in the long run. Cutting budgets here might result in higher costs later.
  • As a society: politics, communities and tax-payers in general should think about the value of museums and their collections. We all know that a person that loses his memory will lose himself. It’s the same with a society that loses its history. Preserving our heritage is not only a cost factor, it has high value for a society.

Just my two cents on this issue. Now, I got to go, I need to roam my territory, I think I spotted some undocumented objects further down that aisle…

Angela Kipp

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  1. Association of Registrars and Collection Specialists, Collections Management and Collection Preservation and Care, dates collected from 01/27 until 02/23/2013
  2. Comment made concerning the survey posted in the Association of Registrars and Collection Specialists Group on www.LinkedIn.com
  3. When I asked „Calling all museum staff responsible for collection management and registration! What are the main issues in your job?“ on LinkedIn „Collections Management“ Group, an overwhelming 50% answered „Staff issues“, before „Funding for climatization, security, etc“ (16%), „Funding for packing material, racks, etc“ (12%), „Donations“ (10%) and „Borrowing and loaning“ (9%). The discussion thread there is rather interesting and highlights the issues collection management has to deal with: http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=3280471&type=member&item=175582165&qid=4a59729e-7bf2-4bb6-8b6b-e2883014a660&trk=group_search_item_list-0-b-ttl
  4. I strongly recommend to have a registrar in the exhibition team when doing an exhibition that contains a certain amount of artifacts. See my article „5 tips for dealing with registrars“ http://world.museumsprojekte.de/?p=24
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Size does matter!

This paper machine was measured a few times before being transported.

This paper machine was measured a few times before being transported.

If you want to hear museum people moan, just say “measuring”. Everybody has a story about it. Murphy of Murphy’s Law seems to linger around our tape measures, folding rules and distance meters. Not all stories are as extreme as the story shown in the pictures. The paper machine was measured again and again because it was obvious it was the most difficult thing to move in the great storage relocation. We had a technical documentation. We had specialists in heavy loads for this, experienced in much more problematic cases than our “little” paper machine. We had confidence in our abilities as professionals when we supervised this part of the machine being craned on the low-bed trailer. It was not until then we realized the machine didn’t fit through the gate when standing on the low-bed trailer. It wasn’t much, maybe a few inches. It seemed that the inaccurancies in measurements (height of the machine part, height of the trailer, height of the gate) just added up to the worst case. There was no denying – we had a problem.

On the flat-bed trailer the machine didn't fit through our gate. The riggers had to be creative...

On the flat-bed trailer the machine didn’t fit through our gate. The riggers had to be creative…

Fortunately, we had experienced heavy load riggers. After a few discussions we decided to crane the machine on wheel boards and push it carefully through the gate. It worked. After passing the gate the paper machine was craned back on the low-bed trailer and moved to its new home.

Don't let your eyes fool you: Now it seems obvious that it doesn't fit through the gate, but that's only due to perspective. In reality it were only about 4 cm missing.

Don’t let your eyes fool you: Now it seems obvious that it doesn’t fit through the gate, but that’s only due to perspective. In reality it were only about 4 cm missing.

Other cases in wrong measurements are less spectacular, but the problems caused are sometimes bigger. I don’t know why, but some people tend to round down when it comes to measuring. Not particulary helpful, especially if you have a crate builder or a showcase designer who has the same tendency…

A special problem appears when you work with international partners. In the European Union, measuring in the metric system is common practice, whereas the UK and the USA use their own system (Imperial units and United States customary units, which vary in some cases). You normally keep this in mind as a registrar but misunderstandings are bound to happen anyway. I remember one case when a hardly readable fax with object data reached us. Looking back it sounds weird but for a long time we planned that something will arrive in a small box of approximately 50 x 20 x 21 centimetres (20 x 8 x 8 inches). When the estimated shipping costs were faxed we were shocked by the amount given. It was then that we re-read the fax, realizing that we misinterpreted it. Yeah, the sign behind the measures was NOT a double prime (“) it was just a normal prime (‘). The small sign that seperates the inch (1” = 2.54 cm) from the foot (1′ = 30.48 cm). We were not going to receive a neat little crate, we were going to receive a veritable 20’ container…

Angela

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Serious business

Which way is up? No way to get it right with these signs…

Yes, a registrar’s work is serious business. All those valuable objects in our collection, all those tasks in documenting, we registrars are very serious and no-nonsense, right? Right! Why is it then that sometimes at a meeting you see the registrar’s team caught in helpless giggling? Because our job is crammed with unintended humor!

I remember that one day a crate for an exhibition arrived that said “This side up” on two totally different sides. Unfortunately, I haven’t taken a picture. You can imagine how happy I was to receive the picture on the left hand side taken by Noel Valentin of El Museo del Barrio, New York.

Not to mention the humor you can take out of data base entries. How about “Knife with missing blade and missing haft”? I guess it’s a smart way to tell us that this object was a total loss. Or a note I found in the “condition” field of our data base saying “needs vacuuming”. We have the vacuum cleaner always at hand so I guess it took more time making the entry than actually vacuuming the object… And then there are condition reports. I remember a colleague mailed she actually found “ugly, but durable” in one report.

"Close door! Because of climate" Registrar's do something against climate change!

“Close door! Because of climate” Registrar’s do something against climate change!

I love stupid inscriptions best. I try to make photos every time I see something stupid written on something. I lost a personal favorite, a box which was marked with “Vorsicht Inhalt” (“Caution content!”). It turned out that it contained a fire extinguisher for a car and the inscription was a warning not to throw away the box (which was a box for a bottle of wine) because there was a valuable still undocumented artifact inside! Well, from the inscription I expected something with at least asbestos or quicksilver…

What I found is the one you can see on the right hand side which reads “Close door! Because of climate”. Of course we all know what was meant by this sign: the door should be kept shut because of the temperature and the relative humidity that has to be kept stable in the room behind. But somehow, with all the discussions about climate change… well, it looks like a quite simple solution.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who is fond of unintended humor concerning registrar’s work. Take a look at this wonderful film “Stuff Museum People Say” that the Atlanta History Center made: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhAJiz2ixuY In 1:23 you can see a scene quite typical for a registrar: a staff member hurts herself and the registrar shouts “Bleed away from the artifacts!”

Oh yeah, and then there are the failures when it comes to storing objects. Liz Walton made a blog out of this: Art Storage Fail. Enjoy, and if you have something that fits: submit it to her.

Let me close this post with two unintentionally humorous postcards I received from our chimney sweeper. Our outside storage collection deposits are not staffed 24/7. He learned this from the many, many times he came to do the yearly check-up and nobody was there. So now he sends a postcard first to make an appointment. The first one I received read: “I’m coming February 25 at 10:15 a.m. or on the following days”. After he didn’t show up on the 25 I called him up to make the appointment for February 26, 11 o’ clock and everything went fine. The following year I received a postcard “We are coming in February. Please do not wait, we will call you to make an appointment.” Again, all went fine after we phoned but until today I can’t get the picture out of my head of someone waiting the whole February for a chimney sweeper to arrive…

Angela

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How I became a museum registrar II

A vagabond in the museum field

Angela Kipp

picture by Bernd Kiessling

View of my recent working place.
HDR photo by Bernd Kießling

This should better read: How I realized that I was a registrar, but let’s start at the beginning…

I always loved old stuff and I climbed castles and went to museums as long as I can remember. So it was somehow logical that I chose museum studies when school was finished. By the way, my job center agent considered it a very dumb idea… Anyway, I decided to study in Berlin, at the „Fachhochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft“ (FHTW, University of Applied Sciences). This meant that I had to do 6 months of internship at a museum or archive to fulfill the entry requirements.

I did this in the Landesmuseum für Technik und Arbeit (museum for technology and work) in Mannheim. This was the first time I came into contact with the work in museum collections because one of my tasks was to document a collection of about 500 tin cans, reaching from very tiny medication containers to large coffee containers.

The advantage of this internship was not only that I was accepted as a student of museum studies in Berlin in the fall of 1998, but also that I had a museum job in my first semester break. The Landesmuseum für Technik und Arbeit had an exhibition on „coffee, how to make it and how it tastes“. I was a combination of a visitor guide and a bartender, explaining how to roast coffee at a roasting machine and afterward selling cups of coffee to the visitors. When there was nothing to do I documented coffee machines and coffee mills and I can still give you a five minute lecture on the principle of the „recirculating percolator“ and why it’s a dumb idea to brew your coffee with it.

In my next semester break I did an internship in the Museum für Kommunikation (museum of communication, the former postal museum) in Berlin. They were building up their new permanent exhibition, and so, „unfortunately“, I had to take a break from my studies for one semester because they signed me as project assistant. It was a thrilling time and I learned many, many things about exhibitions, research, textual work, copyright questions, object handling and troubleshooting.

I went back to my studies in May 2000 but from this project on there was never a time I haven’t worked for a museum or similar institution. I was working as a freelancer as a side job during my studies. It were different jobs but most of them were linked with special exhibitions. So I learned much about the encoding machine Enigma, Prussian military, clay bricks, paper manufacturing, the agricultural development in the state of Brandenburg, paraments and church history, the human brain and screw manufacturing.

I finished my studies in the spring of 2002 and kept working as a freelance museum professional, mainly for the Deutsche Museum in Munich and for the cathedral museum in Brandenburg/Havel. Alongside I was looking for a time contract or permanent job in a museum. One day when I was searching job announces on the internet a very known name popped up: The Landesmuseum für Technik und Arbeit was searching a curator for their permanent exhibition on synthetic materials and their collection of chemistry objects. Feeling I had nothing to lose, I sent an application, considering my chances very dim, because they searched for a specialist in chemistry. Very much to my surprise they invited me for a job interview and in February 2003 I was back in my „old“ museum which felt like coming home.

Developing Banana Key Rings (from left to right): Polypropylene let the key ring break too easy, blue was the wrong color, polyethylene with yellow color was just perfect.

Developing Banana Key Rings (from left to right): Polypropylene let the key ring break too easily, blue was obviously the wrong color, polyethylene with yellow color was just perfect.

The permanent exhibition on synthetic materials included some injection molding machines that were still working. So when the museum showed a special exhibition on bananas we managed to find a local manufacturer of molding forms who designed, manufactured and donated us a molding form for a banana key ring. It was great fun for the demonstration technicians and me to find the right synthetic material and the right color to have a perfect banana. We had white, pink and blue bananas and even one that looked like a rotten banana because the temperature was too high and it burnt a little. After a while we were able to produce perfect yellow polyethylene banana key rings. Visitors loved it. (Sorry for the side note, but for it’s not a registrar’s story, I won’t have the possibility to tell it elsewhere.)

As a side note: The little blue banana is travelling the world as a geocaching travelbug, see http://www.geocaching.com/track/details.aspx?guid=0bbfcf4f-c2e6-4f21-8539-ab73e54b9dfa

As a side note: The little blue banana is travelling the world as a geocaching travelbug and is recently in Sweden…

Being the curator for synthetic materials meant not only curatorial work, but also a lot of registrar’s work. There was a large collection of magnetic tapes dating back to the very first developments from 1934 until the present time and it needed to be sighted and documented. Most difficult was the research on how to store them and how to save the information on them – a problem that is still not solved to a satisfying extend.

As you can imagine time past quickly and it was only a two year contract. In my second year there the Landesmuseum announced the position of the „Depotverwalter“ (administrator of outside storage facilities). Having again nothing to lose, I applied and was chosen. This marks the point where I switched completely from exhibition work to collection work.

It was much later, after we had managed the closing of one of our storage facilities and the relocation of the collection in the remaining two storage halls in 2006, when I tried to explain to an American colleague what my occupation was. I searched the internet and digged out two job descriptions: one of a collection manager and one of a registrar. Deciding my occupation had more to do with the practical issues like physically moving the collection I chose collection manager. Later on I realized that the using of the terms differ from institution to institution, and I’m doing a lot of data base and loan work as well, so I’m a registrar, too.

That’s it, folks! That’s how I became – or realized I was – a registrar.

 

 

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