Discovering the wow factor

Petersfield Museum was highly commended in this year’s Collections Trust Award, which highlighted projects that embodied the principles of the Museum Association’s Empowering Collections report. Curator Sophie Yaniw explains how, thanks to a review of its social history collections carried out by volunteers, staff now know what objects they can work with and how those objects can be used.

Petersfield Museum in the town of Petersfield, Hampshire, is currently in the middle of an expansion and development project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. As a result of missing or inaccurate documentation. there has been a historic lack of transparency about the collections. The purpose of the review of our social history collections was to rectify this problem, putting the museum in a better position to make use of its collections as plans for engagement and display develop, but we also wanted to ensure that the collections remain relevant as the narrative of the museum changes.

Giving volunteers the opportunity to conduct the initial significance assessments was an attempt by the museum to rationalise the collections. As members of our target audience for the developed museum, their opinions as to whether an object had the ‘wow factor’ or would be of interest to researchers was of vital importance to us. As residents of the local area, we also felt they possessed expertise on the significance of objects, in some cases beyond that of the curatorial team.

Ideal pairings

The collections review began in 2017, after I attended a Collections Trust training day in reviewing and rationalising collections. Over 20 volunteers expressed interest in being involved and, after an initial meeting, we were able to make up nine pairs of collections review volunteers for weekly three-hour morning or afternoon sessions.

The volunteers received training in our collections management system (Modes), object handling, packing, temporary labelling and reviewing significance. As far as possible, each pair included one confident computer user. The pairs worked at a table in the store, with the items in front of them. The volunteers updated each object’s location, material and measurements, and photographed it. The latter created a project for two Duke of Edinburgh award students, who added the images to Modes, increasing our historically low levels of young people’s engagement with the collections.

The volunteers then conducted a significance review of the object. They were given four questions:

  • Does the item have a Petersfield connection?
  • Does the item have the wow factor?
  • Could you see this item getting lots of use?
  • Would you say that the item is in good condition?

Pairing volunteers to conduct this task was an attempt to reduce subjectivity, as they were encouraged to discuss their answers to the questions, before grading the items from one to five.

Rational approach

All volunteers’ significance assessments, along their notes, have been filed in folders according to the usability of the items. All those with high scores for significance to the area and wow factor, for example, are in a ‘star items’ folder, which has been used to draw up the object list for the new museum. This demonstrates the direct input these volunteers have had to the content of the new museum.

Items were reviewed one box at a time and items in boxes that had been overfilled were relocated. Volunteers had been trained to make tissue puffs from acid-free tissue paper to cushion items within the boxes.

Following the documentation, assessment and repacking of 1,762 objects by volunteers, I reviewed the significance assessments for every object. Using this combined assessment, I drew up a list of items for disposal. I then set out to undertake object history research into each of the objects, which included contacting the original donors. I had some success with this and found some items had interesting histories which we had been unaware of. This often turned an object which was a candidate for disposal into something very usable.

This stage of the review was completed in November 2018, at which point 25% of the collection had been recommended for disposal and a further 6% for transfer to the handling collection, for use in exhibition interactives, school workshops and reminiscence sessions. We are now in the process of offering the items for disposal out to other museums, where we see much greater potential for them to be used.

The volunteers still come into the museum just as regularly. They are currently replacing all non-acid free boxes and will soon move on to reviewing and scanning our paper collections.

Huge impact

The impact of this project on our organisation, and our audiences, has been huge. The museum has a far better awareness of what is contained within its stores and up-to-date records of where 97% of its social history items are located. Not only do we know what we have and where everything is, but we now know the ways in which our objects can best be used.

This information is not based on the ideas of a single curator, but on assessments made by volunteers, who are active members of our local community and represent some of our target audiences. We can therefore have far greater confidence in the relevance of what we retain, and what we choose to display in the museum, to future users.

We hope that the impact of the project will extend beyond our organisation and audiences to others who will benefit from the objects identified for disposal. We are very pleased to see a collection of woodworking items, which is outside our collecting area and which has been sat in our store, being transferred to a local heritage centre for immediate display.

Image: A pair of volunteers taking part in the collections review (courtesy of Petersfield Museum).