Tag Archive for #MuseumDocumentation

Mercury – A Tale of the Importance of Good Documentation

It’s a strange thing. The topic of hazardous materials in collections pops up every once in a while but as human beings we tend to forget about it because we consider that – of course – we know these hazards are there, but, then again, we are rather sure we know our own collection well and that if we act according to our safety precautions we are safe.
When mercury was found in the air in one of our storage areas during a pollutant analysis, I was shocked and surprised. Of course I knew we had mercury in our collection. We own a considerable number of thermometers and mercury switches. But until this day I considered our handling instructions and other precautions safe enough. This mercury was all contained, right? Yes, it was. But we never had thought of other sources, open sources that were hidden in our collection.

Discovering open sources of mercury & lessons learned

Automatic organ containing open mercury source (sorry for the poor quality of the pcture).

Automatic organ containing open mercury source (sorry for the poor quality of the pcture).

As we started to research our objects through the lens of “mercury” we discovered that, in fact, there were a couple of objects we never thought of. It turned out that there was an automatic organ which operated with contacts that dipped into mercury in some ceramic containers. In our medical history collection we had devices for counting thrombocytes in blood samples that operated with open mercury. However small, given that mercury evaporates at room temperature, even small outlets are an issue! There were barometers and even chronometers with open mercury sources. It was quite an effort to find out which sources we had. Even more to either remove or contain the mercury and seal and label the contaminated objects properly.
We learned quite a few lessons along the way:

  • Never assume you know everything about your collection
  • Never assume your policies and procedures cover every aspect
  • Never assume that you are safe, keep an eye on recent research

But maybe the most important lesson was about the importance of good documentation. And we learned it the hard way.

All expert knowledge at hand, but still…

Looking back, if someone had thoroughly researched the working principles of said objects, he or she would have discovered that they needed mercury to work. We don’t know if someone knew this when the objects were acquired. At least whoever did it, didn’t mention that they contained mercury in the documentation and the catalog entry.

Mercury switch inside of the automatic organ

Mercury switch inside of the automatic organ

It’s the disconnected working processes that are the real health hazard here! When we look at the classical museum setting there are different people with different knowledge involved in the documentation process. People whose skillsets are perfect matches but all their knowledge is useless if it isn’t interlinked in the workflow:
The curator might know best that mercury was necessary to make an object work, but might not be aware that mercury is a problem. The conservator has, due to his or her education, deep knowledge about dangerous substances but not about the object and might not see the object before it is stored if it is in good condition. Even if he or she checks its condition before it goes off to storage, the mercury might be hidden inside, so the conservator isn’t aware of the danger. The collections manager has some knowledge about dangerous substances but not about the object and might not be able to spot the danger if it isn’t widely known to his/her profession (like arsenic in taxidermied specimen is). The database manager has the knowledge about how to make dangerous substances retrievable in the database and maybe even know how to label them properly, but again, as he or she doesn’t have knowledge about the object, he or she doesn’t know there’s a problem.
Although all the experts work for the same institution, if they don’t assess the object together and bring their knowledge together, they are likely to overlook a danger and impose a health risk on colleagues, future researchers and visitors.

The importance of knowledge in cataloging

It is also obvious how dangerous it is when whoever is doing the catalog entry doesn’t have indeep knowledge about the objects. There is a tendency in museums to think that cataloging is a task that can be done by “whoever”. Knowledge isn’t important, every intern can key in a short description and some measurements, right? Of course we all know that’s nonsense, but arguing against it is tough. It’s hard to communicate what damage it does if dates, measurements and categorizations aren’t correct. With hazardous materials the danger should be obvious: someone doing the catalog entry who hasn’t enough knowledge to understand the working principles is likely to overlook the danger and therefore imposes a life threat to his or her colleagues and visitors.
If the curator can’t do the catalog entry him-/herself for a good reason (And: no, being too lazy/old/busy to learn how to do it isn’t a good reason, at least in my book!) he or she has to share his/her knowledge about the object with whoever does the catalog entry.

How to do it better

Objects containing mercury labeled according to international standards.

Objects containing mercury labeled according to international standards.

There are a few things that can be done to avoid unpleasant surprises:

  1. When an object is acquired, consult with everyone involved in the process. All the expert knowledge at one table will help to discover as many potential hazards as possible.
  2. If you are a one woman/man museum, make sure to reach out to experts in your area, your regional museum association or international experts via listservs and online groups to learn about the possible dangers your new acquisition contains.
  3. If the hazard is new, define safety precautions in handling and storage. If the hazard is long known, make sure your handling and storage precautions are still up to date with current research.
  4. In the database: make sure the hazardous material is named. In an ideal setting you do have a thesaurus of dangerous substances to pick from which are linked to safety precautions and correct labeling.
  5. In the database: make sure an object that contains dangerous substances is clearly distinguishable from other objects so everybody is aware that there might be special handling and storage precautions.
  6. In the storage: label dangerous substances according to international standards.
  7. In the storage: store hazardous materials according to the safety precautions. This might involve special containers or rooms with a ventilation system and handling instructions clearly visible on the container.

Live long and prosper!
Angela Kipp

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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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Registrar Trek goes Milano!

Dear Registrar Trekkers,

I’m all excited that I will present a short paper together with Rupert Shepherd from the National Gallery in London at the CIDOC Conference in Milano. It is called ”Spreading the word: Explaining what Museum Documentation is and why it’s important“. We are part of the ”Introduction to Documentation Standards“ session that is scheduled for the 4th of July, 4 to 6 p.m.

photo by hikersbay via pixabay

Duomo di Santa Maria Nascente (photo by hikersbay via pixabay)

At the moment we are finetuning our talk which will be about the importance of initiatives like the hashtag #MuseumDocumentation, this very blog and all other projects who aim to make documentation and collections management more visible for the public and decision makers.

As the CIDOC conference is part of the big ICOM conference it will also be a great opportunity to meet colleagues I haven’t seen in years as well as meeting people I know so far only from the internet. I’m especially excited that I will meet our Italian translator Marzia Loddo in person. 🙂

And of course, I will write a short report on how it’s been when I’m back. Don’t forget to follow the hashtag #CIDOC2016 if you want to know what is going on.

See you in Milano!
Angela

This post is also available in Italian translated by Silvia Telmon.

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