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: 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…



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

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.




"Various" is not a category, and "object" is anything

Accession and Category: encoding or collections division

Each of these 3,000 objects of Mexican Folk Art need - and have - a category.Thanks to Aleida Garcia for the picture.

Each of these 3,000 objects of Mexican Folk Art needs -and has- a category. Thanks to Aleida García for the picture.

In the work of a museum collections registrar, finding accession encodings and a category for each object in your collection is indispensable. They are more than one number, for themselves carry a large amount of information, or open the door to more details.

These codes are a “QR” avant la lettre. Their use in software management and control of collections allows that they become starting points for numerous computerized search criteria; search fields of the software may include all numbering and terminology that contain these encodings.

The code or accession number is used universal and indispensable, the category seems to be less appropriate for some museums. However, I give more attention to this second part. While the code or accession number usually refers to the year in which an item entered the collection, sequentially for each calendar year [for example 2012.0034], the category defines object type, purpose and meaning. The category should be not an encoding that is used for aesthetic concerns or some supposed superiority or natural value, cultural or naturalcultural (artistic, scientific, technological, religious, etc.). A categorization can or should include as many subcategories as necessary. OBJECT TYPES, for example:

[PAINTings / ABStracts-0148];

[FURniture / CONsole-0025];

[VEHicles / AUTOmotives / TRUcks-0012];

[TOOLs / HAMmer-1135];



[PRINt / POSter-1128];

[CLOTHing / SHIrt / MALe / AFRican-0089];

[LITURgical / CHAlice / GREEk / ORTHOdox / CHURch-0051];

[MUSic / INSTRuments / WIND instruments / HEBrew-0129];

[MACHine TOOls / PERCussive / DRIll-0023]…

I refer here only to cultural and technological objects, due to my lack of knowledge about the natural areas, biological or mineral.

I typed in uppercase “OBJECT TYPES” because that little word, when used improperly, generates false information, vague and too generic, which is unacceptable for a museum collection. The same goes for the little word “VARIOUS” (Miscellaneous). Every object, of whatever type (natural, cultural, technological or naturalcultural) has a name and belongs to a genre, type, species, family, etc. This applies even when it comes to intangible cultural heritage or intangible natural heritage. This holds true for everything in the registrar’s universe, which means that he / she should be well aware of this fact and give indeep thought to the classification of every object he / she has in the collection. This means that the regsitrar should cooperate closely with curators and researchers, or even manufacturers, who know more of that object and possible categorizations than the registrar. In codings per category should always be an appropriate term for categorization or division. And if the existing categories in the collection don’t have a place for this type of object: create one! A good collection management software allows and encourages, as a good manager, a good healer and a good registrar.

In my work as a logger I never categorized an object as “Various”, but corrected and relocate some existing cases that were filed as such. Same goes with the truism category “objects”. Obviously, everything is an object! (at least until you create the “Museum of Thoughts and Feelings” … The recorder is in trouble there …).

I have seen cases, for example in a museum of Latin America, in which part of its collection (which appears on their website) is categorized as “Objects”. Even almost a year ago I made some comments and suggestions, but until now I got no response.

The correct title or generic name of an item are a must: I found a case in which an item was called “Armchair with two armrest” … A quick check in books reassured me that a chair that has two armrest is called Armchair … And a bit of reasoning helped me reconfirm that skateboards have rolls, because…

Registrars in museum collections can and should be able to open their schemes and reasoning in order to do their job properly, efficiently and creatively, adapting to the circumstances and type (Category) of the object that needs to be accessioned and documented in the collection. A good registrar must remain critical!


How I became a museum registrar I

The artist that became a registrar – and is now professor

Fernando Almarza Rísquez

Fernando today, in front of the ILAM in Costa Rica.

Fernando today, in front of the ILAM in San José, Costa Rica.

I studied fine arts for four years, and developed an activity as an artist in three exhibitions. Later I studied graphic design for two years, having worked briefly as an assistant designer. I was then 26 years old, and had some knowledge of art history and aesthetic sensibility.

In 1986 I began studying art history in college (BA, MA History Art), and I saw a notice posted requesting an assistant to the registrar at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas (MACC, in spanish), Venezuela. Required studies art history, knowledge of art handling, conservation, English, organizational skills, responsibility, etc. I submitted my CV. I did the interview rigor, including the translation of a press report that made the museum on a grand exhibition of the English sculptor Henry Moore few months earlier.

This was in April 1986. I was excited but worried because there was another candidate who studied Arts in England and had excellent English. But on the 28th I was called to give me the good news that I had been selected for the position. Very happy, I started on 2 May.

I had some “advantage” because I knew quite well the largest museums of Caracas, and much of its permanent collections, including the Museum of Contemporary Art itself. The English translation was done very well, as I concentrated on the Spanish translate ideas and concepts rather than to translate word for word. Anyway, I began my career, and to date (December 2012). I have accumulated 26 years of continuous experience, always intense study. Common sense has led me to investigate how different objects are registered, whether cultural, or technological, natural or naturalculturales.

I was at the MACC until 1993, after which I began to provide advice to other museums of Caracas and Venezuela, where I developed a record structure and current computerized cataloging. In 2006 I started writing articles in newspapers and magazines specialized museological on that experience, and develop virtual catalogs for some museums of the Western world. Since 2007 I started as a professor at the Latin American Institute of Museums (ILAM, in spanish), sited in Costa Rica, where I teach courses online and face on the same subject, plus related topics.

I have always held to reflect on our profession, and I am actively linked with institutions and professionals from many countries.


High in the sky

This story reached me by email after I asked a little about the amazing photos that I saw. Sharon McCullar is the Curator of Collections at the Lakeshore Museum Center, Muskegon, USA. She recommend to imagine her hanging over the rail of the lift bucket trying to yell the story down to an interested passerby while reading the story. 🙂

Lakeshore Museum Center Curator of Collections Sharon McCullar, Archivist Beryl Gabel and city of Muskegon lift operator washing and waxing the top statue of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument(70 feet tall) in downtown Muskegon Michigan. See story for details.

Hackley Park is an important focal point for downtown Muskegon Michigan.  The park was dedicated on Memorial Day, May 30, 1892 .  Charles H. Hackley, a prominent local lumber mill owner, purchased the land and paid for a Soldiers and Sailors Monument to commemorate the service of Muskegon County citizens during the American Civil War (1861-1865).  The 76 foot tall granite monument includes five bronze statues and was designed by Italian-born architect Joseph Carabelli.  Around the base are a sailor, cavalryman, infantryman and artilleryman.  On the top of the pedestal stands a 14 foot goddess of Victory figure.  The monument bears the inscription: “Not conquest, but peace – To the soldiers and sailors who fought and to all patriotic men and women who helped to preserve our nation in the war of the rebellion.”Four more statues were commissioned by Charles H. Hackley and installed on the four corners of Hackley Park on Memorial Day, 1900.  They are sculptures of prominent Civil War persons.  President Abraham Lincoln, Admiral Farragut were made by sculptor Charles Niehaus.  General U.S. Grant and General William T. Sherman were made by J. Massey Rhind.

Lakeshore Museum Center Curator of Collections Sharon McCullar, Archivist Beryl Gabel and city of Muskegon lift operator washing the Cavalryman statue on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Muskegon Michigan. This statue is about 20 feet off the ground, but we still wear our safety harnesses and gear. The operator has to be pretty skilled to get us close without dinging the statue.

In 1997 -1998 the statues were conserved by McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation of Oberlin, Ohio.  The Lakeshore Museum Center teamed with the City of Muskegon to develop a simple maintenance plan to help preserve the restored statues.  Part of that teamwork is that our curatorial staff (meaning me, the Curator of Collections, and other curatorial staff as they are available) works with the City to give the statues a wash and a light coat of wax each year.  We schedule this in early September of each year. It is usually mild weather with favorable relative humidity and temperature conditions.  If it is too hot the wax does not set up, but if it is too cold the washing step is very uncomfortable and the wax is difficult to apply evenly.The wash removes surface grime and gives us a chance to inspect the statues for damage or deterioration. We use a mild detergent recommended by the conservator and fairly soft scrub brushes.  The light coat of wax provides a thin layer of protection against the grime and makes it easier to remove it next year.  We don’t attempt any more aggressive measures, since we are not metal conservators.  It takes about 4 hours per statue depending on the conditions.  A warm day with a slight breeze helps the statues to dry quickly.  Wasp nests hidden in the folds of the sculpture is a very unpleasant surprise.  I have angered a number of very large spiders as well with a soapy bath.

To access the statues, the City of Muskegon provides a tall lift – we have to get 80 feet into the air to reach the tip-top of Victory.  This takes a skilled operator and nerves of steel.  It can get pretty windy that high in the air – especially if there is a storm coming in across Lake Michigan.  Maneuvering around the statues and the granite base also takes skill.  We need to get close enough to work effectively, but not bang into the statues with the lift bucket.  The bucket sways quite a bit – by the end of the week I resemble a tipsy sailor as the world sways no matter if I am on the lift or not.  But the views of Muskegon Lake, the city and Lake Michigan are spectacular!

Text and pictures: Sharon McCullar


A registrar needs a flexible mind

The professional practice requires to keep up to date. You have to “think outside the box”, without constraining into one thought pattern or routine, especially when there are situations that require reflection and need to be addressed with a flexible mind. The registrar of the permanent collection of a museum should be especially flexible. Continue reading


A misterious "pen"

A misterious pen

It can be part of a registrar’s work to find out, what an artifact actually is. It might sound strange but there are many objects in this world that might leave you clueless if you never saw them before. This pen is such an object that began as a “What-is-it”, an unidentified object with unknown use. This is a story about how the object got its name and meaning back.

As a registrar you start with looking at the object to find out about its use and if possible about its context. In this case it was among a donation of a radio ham which suggested that it might be something you use for fixing a ham radio equipment or something. Our closest guess was that it was a circuit tester, but somehow this explanation didn’t satisfy us.It was too far away from the circuit testers we knew and already had in our collection. If in doubt, it’s best to ask. So we send a request over the mailinglist of the RCAAM with the following picture and description:

disassembled pen

while working on a donation from a radio ham we came across this really weird item.

It is about 6,7 inches long, the diameter is 0,44 inches. It has a clip on the side like to attach it to one’s shirt pocket. You can turn the red plastic knob at the rear end in a 90 degrees angle until it gives a clicking sound. You can twist off the red thing with the metal bolt at front end, so you can insert two AA-batteries in the shaft. Inside of the red transparent plastics thing at the front you can see that the metal bolt is soldered to something inside the pen and also soldered with a little lamp (not betting on anything, but it seems to be a light bulb, not LED) inside.

As we all know, networking works. No one came up with a better guess than a electrical continuity tester, but one colleague pointed us to an electronics shop in Berkeley/California/USA saying: “These folks would be able to answer just about anything regarding electronic devices”.

The answer came within hours, straight and clear:


I think it’s a Buzz-it.
It’s a signal injector                

Bob Lasher

Now we knew it was a kind of small oscillator to analyze what part of a radio didn’t work. We even had pictures of a similar device including a short manual.

I think it’s a great example that working with collections is never boring. It includes a great deal of detective’s work and sometimes even international collaboration.



The critical registrar

More about the registrar in the museum’s collection1

Fernando Almarza Rísquez

On previous occasions I have written on the role and scope of the registrar of museum collections, his professional education and working style. My most recent publication (in Spanish) on this appeared last October.2 Following this, I’d like to add some additional thoughts:

The registrar should be a broad-minded and critically thinking individual. “Smart” registrars have to be up to date with the developments, reflections and concerns that arise and evolve in their professional field and in museums and museology in general. The critical registrar is a museum practitioner as well as a museologist (to the extent that reflects and contributes about theories, trends and analysis of museology).

The information which is recorded on the museum’s collection can be regarded as a mine of knowledge and as a place where meaning and significance is growing. The registrar in the first instance generates, commands and controls that information. He / she is the “gateway” to the museum’s collections, both for the informational dimensions and for the objects themselves.

The critical registrar has to have substantial knowledge of the object or artifact itself. He has to take care that all the important „technical“ data goes into the documentation files in the right form, may it be paper or computer files. Today, this means also that the registrar needs profound computer knowledge so he / she can bring this information in the computer / data base in a way that makes it accessible to other staff members, scientists and the public. Therefore the registrar has to be up to date with current developments in computers and information technology. The critical registrar thinks broadly, innovates and creates and has high standards regarding quality, transparency and honesty.

In addition to the data the registrar collects himself he is responsible for bringing object data from other experts like curators or scientists into the records. The critical registrar has to find the correct form of documenting and making the data accessible. The way he does this depends on the nature of the object and data: this includes (but is not limited to) natural or cultural heritage, tangible and intangible, cultural and ethnological contexts.

The profile of a critical registrar can be summed up by the following points:

In control, but not limited to the bureaucratic aspects concerning the office: files, phones, plans, storage places, locations and security monitoring, insurance paperwork, loan agreements, transportation, packaging, emergency and preventive conservation, legislation, tax concerns, organization, custody;

Working in a team: Working as a gateway to different professions inside and outside of his / her own department. Cultivates an interdisciplinary relationship, in consensus and not in conflict with other museum professionals, especially curators, conservators, exhibition designers3 and educators. He/She knows what identifies and unites, and what differentiates and binds to other museum professionals, in a practical exercise integrator: that of the similarity (to work in the museum and perform its functions) and the difference (of roles, scopes, sights and situations and cooperative organizational structure of the museum and its collections);

More than a boss, a leader, a manager, especially if he/she is leading a team of registrar assistants or aides. He / she does not command, but advises and guides, stimulates, delegates and supervises the work. He / she acknowledges and shares the successes achieved by the team or individual staff members. He / she thinks pluralistic and always in favor of his or her institution and team. He / She cares about his/her staff, promoting their potential and abilities, creating an atmosphere of honesty and devotion to the work. He/she is proactive, resilient, and rejects the procrastination. His or her way of leading is an emotional intelligent one: he / she thinks logical without suppressing his/her feelings and allows feelings without blurring the logical sight;

A co-educator, aware that the information in his/her records provides additional data that helps to enable and facilitate constructive knowledge and to stimulate others (museum professionals, the public and consultants from the collection) to re-learn and re-teach. He/She knows that “teaching is not to transfer knowledge, is to create the possibility of producing it” (Paulo Freire). The critical registrar re-learns permanently and joyfully;

A thinker with extensive concepts and relationships, which integrates into his/her daily practice visualizing, representing and transmitting as living processes of a creative-conceptual mental map of the collection. Together with museum colleagues, the critical registrar develops and shares ideas and strategies for an intelligent, inspiring and interactive access to information. He / she thinks in all possible ways, connects internationally and keeps information about meaning and significance of objects as well as and ideas flowing – using all possibilities including virtual catalogs of the collection and powers of Web 2.0 resources.4

According to the profile of the museum or heritage collection in which he / she holds the responsibility as a registrar and/or team leader he / she must have as far as possible an appropriate education and training. This holds true for the knowledge about the technical aspects of his / her work as well as for the knowledge about history, meaning and significance of the natural and/or cultural heritage of which the collection consists. This means also – like stated before – that the critical registrar never stops learning but keeps up to date with the debates in the scientific community that is linked to the topics of his / her museum and collection.

The critical registrar is aware of these concepts. He / she keeps updated and considers to apply new concepts regarding definitions and categories of assets. This means today there is not only the basic division between the natural and cultural heritage, and the subdivision of the latter into cultural-material and cultural intangible heritage. Today, there is also the division between the natural-material tangible and natural intangible heritage. The current understanding of the dimensions of meaning and significance of the objects of collections have been expanded. New approaches have been developed beyond the dichotomy “natural” versus “cultural”. The concept of“Natureculture” 5

To keep an open and critical look and be willing to integrate new criteria in the everyday working process doesn’t stop here. The critical registrar has to stay informed in all dimensions of his / her profession and in the sciences his / her museum deals with. Fields of knowledge evolve, including the museum and museology. The benefit in staying critical and informed is not only for the registrar himself, it’s also for his / her team, other museum professionals, the museum and not at last for the public.

This post is also available in Italian, translated by Davide Bordenca

  1. I am deeply grateful to my colleague Angela Kipp for all her kind suggestions on translating this article into English. Article originally published in “Let’s talk about…” in the website of the Instituto Latinoamericano de Museos ILAM, in December 2012.
  2. “El Registrador de colecciones del museo”. MUSEA Magazine N° 71 p 4-5. Oct 2012. Spain.
  3. I make reference here to the museologist Angela Kipp, Registrar at TECHNOSEUM, Manheim, Germany, and her recent article “5 tips for dealing with registrars Why curators and collection managers often talk at cross-purposes instead of complementing each other to a perfect team”.
  4. “Cibermuseos o limitado aprovechamiento de la web 2.0” (available in pdf). Revista Digital Nueva Museología/Artículos. Rosario, Argentina. 2011. www.nuevamuseologia,
  5. “Unlike other museological institutions, objects of the natural domain contained in their collections are developed, produced anthropogenically, are collected. (Haraway, 1989). Within this perspective, the objects of natural history institutions allow some thought as elements that seek to represent the nature / culture. At first it was thought that these museums represent objects that were not produced by human agents, why native elements of nature that make their collections can be interpreted as artifacts produced (Haraway, 1992), that is, admitting only those elements turned-mostly as models produced from human activity. Nature and culture are co-constitutive and inseparable. From this view, the objects of these museums would be what Haraway (2003) conceptualized by a neologism in English, as ‘naturecultures’ natural and cultural simultaneously or instead of being dichotomous. (Loureiro, 2007, p. 164)”. Sabrina Damasceno Silva. “O pedaço de outro mundo que caiu na Terra”: As formações discursivas acerca do meteorito de Bendegó do Museu Nacional. Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro. Dissertação de Mestrado apresentada ao Programa de Pós-Graduação em Museologia e Patrimônio. Orientador: Professor Doutor José Mauro Matheus Loureiro. P. 46. Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. 2010. Translation from portuguese to spanish and english: Fernando Almarza Rísquez. 2012.

5 tips for dealing with registrars

Why curators and collection managers often talk at cross-purposes instead of complementing each other to a perfect team

The days when museum storage managers were the strong guys with hands like duct covers are long gone. Today, collection management is the field where well-trained specialists in the handling of arts and artefacts are called registrars or collection(s) managers. They are responsible for the safe storage and transportation of collection objects and for any documentation about those objects. The jobs of the curator and the collection manager are very different.
The one who makes an exhibition has to:

  • be creative
  • surprise the visitor with something new
  • have not only a plan B, but also a plan C, D and E for everything that goes
  • wrong
  • react in a short period of time to unexpected and unforeseeable events
  • present museum objects from their best side

The one that cares for collections has to:

  • think in long-term periods
  • use only materials that have been tested again and again for meeting archival standards
  • document everything that happens to an item of their collection – really everything
  • plan every detail so nothing goes wrong
  • divert attention from storage areas, and the transportation of museum objects

© Claudia Wagner, The Super-Registrar, the inscription reads “No Loan”

This is the reason why there are often issues between these two people or teams when it comes to developing and building an exhibition. Needless to say, most issues can be avoided if both parts know how the other one thinks and what his requirements are. Even more, if they fully understand what the other one’s responsibilities are the curator and registrar can form a very effective team. From a collection manager’s point of view who worked long enough for the “opposite side” there are five crucial points exhibition managers should know to have effective collaborations with registrars:

An eye for the future

Registrars think in generations. If visitors will enjoy seeing a certain artefact in an exhibition is not part of their considerations – at least not in the first place. For them, it’s most important the artefact goes to the exhibition place without damage, is presented in a safe way that doesn’t lead to damage and, finally, comes back safe and sound.
This might sound simple. In reality, a good registrar will only give his or her nod of approval if he or she sees each and every step in this lane is safe for the artefact. For the exhibition coordinator, this means he or she should provide as much detailed information about the planned exhibition as possible. Being able to provide good answers to questions about temperature, relative humidity, illumination, sunlight exposure, interim storage and safety installations increases the likelihood of getting a loan approved.
If the planning process is far enough along to tell how the artefact will actually be presented, this information should be given to the registrar. If there are issues with this kind of presentation it’s better to discuss it in the earliest possible state. This is far better than having the courier stop the positioning of the artefact just before the opening. Or, even worse, having a loan called back by the lending institution while the exhibition is still running – letting visitors stare at an empty showcase.

Don’t confuse museum storage with an online shop

There is a tendency to present the museum’s collection in an online data base. This is great, because it raises public awareness for the collections and the work behind the scenes. On the other hand it sometimes raises false expectations. Neither one can borrow all things shown in the data base, nor does it in most cases represent the whole collection.
While planning an exhibition one is tempted to “fill the shopping cart” and place an “order”. Additionally, one is inclined to lend more items than one actually needs in the exhibition. Accustomed to online shopping, one tends to think “I’ll send it back if I don’t use it”.

Despite the new ways to present museum collections the classical collection work hasn’t changed at all. Every object has to be taken out of its storage place and examined to determine if it can go out for the loan or not. The registrar not only does a check on the object’s condition but also to see if it is scheduled for another project, if the loaning institution meets the specific requirements and if the data in the data base is correct and up to date. Every object needs exactly the same amount of care, no matter if it is finally shown in the exhibition or not. If the registrar in charge gets the impression that the borrowing institution is ordering objects without thought and planning he or she will be equally willing to collaborate like a curator who is told his job only consists of hanging pictures on walls.
The other way round the curator can take advantage of the profound knowledge of the collection manager if he or she communicates the intention for asking for a certain artefact. Often, interesting objects are recent acquisitions that can’t be found in the online data base. The collection manager might immediately recognize that some of them fit into the exhibition context and can give a hint.

A matter of time

No one has time to spare, least the exhibition coordinator. But haste makes waste and if there is one thing every registrar tries to avoid it is waste.
A loan requested without enough advance notice is not likely to be successful. If the time for checking requested artefacts and requesting institution is too short, it is very likely that the registrar will object to the loan request. The earlier the request the more likely the object is not scheduled for another exhibition project. It is more likely that there is time slot for necessary cleaning or conservation measures. Furthermore, one can unhurriedly think about packing and transportation matters and talk about crucial points to find good solutions.
But what time is the right time? This depends on many factors. If the curator is still not sure if an artefact should be shown it is too early, at least in most cases. No institution is excited to get a loan request that is changed several times afterwards. On the other hand, like mentioned before, there are many steps involved for the loaning institution and there should still be time enough to look for an alternative if the request is turned down. It gets especially tricky if there is a board of trustees or similar institution involved in granting a loan. In this case the request must be early enough for the next scheduled conference.
The best answer to the time question is to have one exhibition team member who is responsible for all the loans involved. He or she should have enough experience, contacts and intuition to make the right requests in the right way at the right time.

From A to B and back again

Security and transportation issues are part of a registrar’s day-to-day routine. It is part of that routine to only give way for a transport if the responsible registrar is fully convinced that everything is alright. Actually, it can happen to an exhibition coordinator that his or her van has to leave without the loan, because security didn’t seem to be sufficient. There is one simple way to avoid this: communication – talk early, talk often.
Once it is clear which artefacts will go out on loan one can talk about transportation. Is an art handler with a special air-conditioned truck needed? Is a normal van sufficient? Is there enough space on the loading platform with all the artefacts if they are securely tied down? Are climate-controlled crates necessary and do they have to be customized or built completely new? Are the packing materials stored at the borrowing institution during the exhibition or do they come back and need to be shipped again when the exhibition is over? Is a courier needed? A thousand odds and ends need to be considered, planned and scheduled so that everything runs like clockwork when it comes to setting up the exhibition.
A good collection manager will talk with the curator about issues and ask the right questions. A common issue is for example the limited floor load in historical buildings, or elevators that are not big enough for the borrowed artefacts. But even a registrar doesn’t always take everything into account. The better the communication beforehand the less likely there will be unexpected surprises when the exhibition project comes into the crucial phase.

The case of dotting the i

Registrars are notorious for being accurate when it comes to documentation. “Dot every i and cross every t” has become something like the slogan of registrars worldwide. True, registrars can be tedious when it comes to rules, policies and formalities. When in doubt they tend to better document more rather than letting information escape. This sometimes drives exhibition coordinators crazy, who need to worry about a great deal of different issues at the same time but normally are not particularly fond of paperwork.

For example: Every object that goes on loan gets a condition report that mentions every characteristic, scratch and crack. A copy of this report goes out with the loan and is asked to be continued as the object makes its way to the exhibition and back again. The condition should be checked and documented (preferably by a registrar) before it is exhibited, during the exhibition and before it goes on the transport back to the loaning institution. Filling out condition reports is time consuming and needs to be done in the critical phases before opening and after finishing an exhibition where time is especially short.
With exhibitions based on the presentation of many artefacts and/or consisting of many loans from different institutions and maybe even from abroad, paperwork becomes a sometimes overwhelming factor. It is tempting to be a little sloppy with it and give more attention to other issues. This is the reason why curators sometimes tend to react irritably when being asked to initial that everything is fine for a felt 387th time.
This changes immediately if there is an insurance claim or if customs authorities ask awkward questions. Then every exhibition coordinator can be thankful if he or she had someone in the team who was working painstakingly accurate and dotted all i’s and crossed all t’s.

Conclusion: a perfect team

The domain and job requirements of curator and registrar are very different – and so are in most cases the personalities. That’s the reason why they can complement each other perfectly in an interdisciplinary team. Much is written and talked about what makes a good curator, exhibition designer, exhibition coordinator or project manager. What makes a good registrar is less common. This is somewhat logical, because it is part of the job to keep a low profile. But the often hidden strengths of a collection manager are priceless when it comes to setting a good exhibition:

There is the accuracy when it comes to formalities and the detail orientation when it comes to planning processes. This is combined often by a treasure trove of experience in dealing with tax and customs authorities, fine art shippers and museum colleagues and a profound knowledge about regional and institutional distinctions. In most cases, managing collections means coping with a low budget and still trying to make the best of it. So registrars often have good ideas where to get certain materials, tools or services for a reasonable price and how to solve problems with inhouse means.

To be well-connected in the field is inevitable in a registrar’s job. A curator can benefit from this network if he or she has the right kind of sensibility when it comes to handling and exhibiting artefacts. A recommendation among colleagues can achieve more than a well-written letter to a head of an institution. Of course, in the case of negative experiences this applies vice versa. In addition collection managers not only have a well-kept data base but in most cases the memory of an elephant. Very useful if you are planning an exhibition: you can get hints on artefacts in the collections of other museums and long forgotten past exhibitions, facts, figures and objects you won’t find in any data base or on the

Briefly: Those who have to deal with registrars might sometimes feel reminded of the
stereotyped Prussian administrative officer or even Tolkien’s Gollum. But
understanding how they work and what requirements and ideas guide their actions
will be the key to great collaboration and team play. Whoever wants to set up a major
exhibition project will be well advised to have such a nitpicking professional in his or
her own ranks, anyway.

This post is also available in Italian, translated by Davide Bordenca


A project to break down language barriers and connect registrars worldwide