Tag Archive for collections manager

Mostly Underwhelming – A Registrar’s Month

I didn’t come to post on this blog for a whole month, mainly because I was teaching a course on Managing Previously Unmanaged Collections for Museum Study which was simply eating up all the spare time I am willing to give to museum topics while not on clock. So, I was looking back at the work I did last month.
At first, I found it disappointing. I didn’t save the world. I didn’t save the big opening. I didn’t negotiate that one important contract. Heck, I didn’t even have that one genius idea that freed up more space than expected.
Instead, it was business as usual. But then I thought, maybe that’s well worth a post. Because it is the business as usual that, in a way, is the stepping stone for others to do magnificent things. So, here we go:

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Radios and other home entertainment equipment selected for the move.


We are uniting our newly aquired collection of radio and broadcasting equipment with the collection we already have. This means we select what will go to a new storage space and what stays where it is.

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Packing cases folded, labeled and ready for packing.


The selection is packed, correctly labeled and the objects and boxes are tracked in the database. Note: the “real work” is done by two young emerging museum professionals. I’m just the database and logistics consultant, box provider and forklift truck driver.

Boxes packed, ready for transport.

Boxes packed, ready for transport.

I’m often smiled upon or even challenged because I insist on documenting every move of an object, even if it’s “just” from one offsite storage to another or the museum. But just this month it happened that I accidentally found an object which was missing for quite a while and suspected to be stolen. It didn’t leave its box ever. If the location of this box was correctly documented, no one would have wasted his/her precious time searching it. Seems no one ever has the 30 seconds for changing a location, but always the hours for searching.

Radios still to be processed.

Radios still to be processed.

It seems useless to bring all the radios together in one place. In the end, what is a database there for? But having them together has a lot of advantages: similar object groups have similar storage needs and are endangered by the same kind of pests. Some radios are duplicates, bringing them together at one place will help us to decide if we really need a second or third one or if we just keep the best. Finally, it’s much easier to prepare loans and exhibitions on this topic if we don’t have to go to different locations for it.

Several small bike related labels and pins.

Several small bike related labels and pins.


Our bicycle exhibition is open and doing fine, but there remained a lot of artifacts which were in the first selection but didn’t make it in the final selection. When putting them back to their original location I check the database entries and fill in what is missing. Measures, descriptions, conditions… some I sent off to our photographer to have their mugshots taken, so to speak. When preparing an exhibition there is never enough time to do this. You can only do it for the things that really go on display. By doing it now, future curators will have better data and more time for other duties.
Assmann psychrometer on a tripod.

Assmann psychrometer on a tripod.


I checked the calibration of our dataloggers with an Assmann psychrometer.
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I also checked the reliability of our sensors against two different salt solutions. That way we know our climate data is reliable for the moment. We will check them again every 6 months.

Roll of polyethylene tube for packing maps.

Roll of polyethylene tube for packing maps.


Together with the responsible curator I packed about 200 rolled maps. They always gave me headaches because I found no good way to store them. Then the curator took over a large collection of maps along with a wall rack designed to hang them. Because there are more hanging spaces than maps we can now store all our maps hanging.
A pallet of bagged maps.

A pallet of bagged maps.


This means that we have to bag them all and apply a hanging system for those who have no hook.
Because we will hang them high above the ground this will create free space where they were stored previously, which is great. But I can’t claim this success, as it was the idea of the curator.
Empty shelves, ready to be filled again.

Empty shelves, ready to be filled again.


So, this month passed by. Of course there were many more things to do, each underwhelming in itself, but important in the big picture.
So, as you are all struggeling with your daily underwhelming tasks, never forget that you might not save the world, but doing major improvements in the way you eat an elephant: one piece at a time.

Keep up the good work!

Angela

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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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