Banish the backlog, improve the inventory or continuously catalogue?

Dave Russell, Collections Volunteer at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port, writes about what his museum has learnt from participating in the ‘banish the backlog’ programme, and shares his thoughts on achieving a balance between improving inventories and detailed cataloguing.

Docks scene

The National Waterways Museum (NWM) are very pleased to be part of the ‘banish the backlog’ programme this year. We participated in this networking and support programme with a number of other North West museums, and are very appreciative of the opportunity provided by Museum Development North West and Collections Trust. At our two museums, in Gloucester and Ellesmere Port, we are making good progress in updating our inventory and other aspects of collections documentation.

During 2018, as well as tackling our documentation backlog, we have been updating our internal procedures to comply with Spectrum 5.0. At the most recent ‘banish the backlog’ workshop in November 2018, we presented an overview of how we have set out our new inventory procedure. This now includes, for the first time, a clear set of steps for matching up the inevitable unidentified objects in the collection with earlier records of objects that are currently missing. We also consider scenarios where objects are found to have been wrongly identified, wrongly marked or even accessioned more than once! Thus, we now have a road map which we can apply for any object and which brings us to clear decision points. For example, we may conclude that an object is definitively not part of the collection, and it can then be handled by other procedures as if it had just come in through the door. Another scenario is that we might conclude that an object is definitely no longer at the museum, even though any historic record of it leaving has been lost. In this scenario we record the process we have been through, any relevant information we have discovered, and move the object record to the “Exit” location in our database.

One of the interesting features of this work has been that, in contrast to earlier versions, Spectrum 5.0 moves away from talking about backlogs and instead promotes the approach of continuous improvement in museum inventory and other documentation. It is ostensibly a semantic change, but it is an important one.  There can’t be many museums who can claim that their documentation is perfect and that every single object they care for is fully catalogued. But in framing the discussion in terms of improvement rather than recovering an undesirable situation, are we just trying to make ourselves feel better? I don’t believe it’s that simple.

It has become clear to us at NWM that there is real benefit in the new Spectrum 5.0 Inventory and Cataloguing procedure split. Yes, we regard gaps in basic inventory information as a backlog that should be tackled. But in terms of in-depth cataloguing, this is a continuing process for which we may never be fully able (or indeed may not wish) to say “job complete”. Many of our objects have a depth of story behind them, whether high profile or mundane, told over years or decades, through cycles of repair or redeployment, and so on. Indeed, for some objects, the story continues, for example adding conservation information to the records. In our own archives for example, information about many of our larger objects (such as boats) is well indexed in itself but remains to be fully investigated and permanently cross-referenced to our master collection records. This type of work will continue for years to come. We also have independent researchers using our resources who often shed new light on the history of our site and collection.

I conclude from all this that yes, there is some merit in declaring bluntly that we have a backlog in our basic inventory information and improvements to make in the way it is stored. Plugging the gaps should be (and in NWM is) set up as a project with a defined end point. However, in terms of our longer-term aim to have comprehensive catalogue information, with a clear view of relevance, use, and long-term care of objects, although we will always need to set key milestones and plan resources, “continuous improvement” is a much more accurate statement of our task.


The ‘banish the backlog’ programme is delivered by Collections Trust, in partnership with the Museum Development Network, and funded by Arts Council England. Find upcoming events here.

Read the Inventory Spectrum procedure in full here