From mammoth task to mammoth tusk

Ipswich Museum was a highly-commended runner-up for the 2018 Collections Trust Award. Here, Collections and Learning Curator Dr Kate Riddington explains how the museum streamlined what can often be the most time-consuming part of any inventory project: reconciling objects listed in stores against a range of existing documentation.

A major inventory project is currently underway across all of the Ipswich Museum collections. The first part of the process – a detailed inventory – involves getting all the data from objects in each room, as well as images and measurements of objects. The second part of the process involves reconciling the inventory list with the accession register and other sources.

To streamline reconciling of the natural science collection – which contains well over 150,000 objects – we wanted to have all of the information in one place, instead of across: accession registers; extension files, which list part number details; card indexes, some of which pre-date the accession registers; and history files, which have extra information, letters, etc. Each of these sources has different information recorded on them and adds detail to our knowledge of the specimen.

Spectrum 5’s Inventory procedure says: ‘Some museums have found it most efficient to transfer information from such documentary sources into searchable digital form, which takes time and effort up front but which can speed up the matching process once done.’ This was definitely the case at Ipswich Museum, and we were able to cite Spectrum when suggesting this approach to senior colleagues.

To speed up the reconciliation process we entered all the natural science information onto a database. The accession register was entered first, followed by the extension files, then card indexes, and finally history files. Abbreviations were used to make sure the source of the information could be traced. This dramatically reduced the amount of time spent searching for specimens in each of these sources. Now it is possible to search for ‘mammoth’ and instantly know how many there are and if any of them match the specimen being searched for. Previously it would have been necessary to manually search each source of information and list each record before working out any potential matches.

The process has also highlighted how much of our collection has never been formally accessioned, as well as accession numbers that may never be reconciled. For example, some record descriptions are given as ‘Collection of rocks, minerals, and fossils’, with no further information. It has also highlighted accession numbers which have numerous part numbers written on objects, but no list of these is present anywhere.

The time spent doing this project is well worth it; we are now able to work more effectively as we can understand and use the collections better.

Image: Ipswich Borough Councillor Carole Jones (Museums Service portfolio-holder) and Elisha Mason, Assistant Collections and Learning Curator, receiving the ‘highly commended’ plaque from CT Chief Executive, Kevin Gosling. Photo courtesy of Ipswich Borough Council.