In our latest blog post, Collections Manager Catriona Wilson of Guildford Heritage Services shares her experience of inventorying heritage collections.
Guildford Heritage Services cares for the collections of Guildford Borough Council and most of the Surrey Archaeological Society collections, which together include archaeology, local social history, needlework, topography and art.
When I joined the Guildford team in 2013, the museum (like many other museums) was in a collecting freeze due to over-full stores and had a documentation backlog to resolve.
One of the first projects I set up was a collections review, which was designed to help us:
- decide future collecting priorities and to shed light on possible disposals.
- assess the scale of the documentation backlog.
- locate (and eventually identify) every object in our stores.
- identify conservation priorities.
- assess the feasibility of repacking and reorganising the store to make space.
- draw out research themes and underused collections to highlight for researchers and for exhibitions.
So not much, then!
The first stage was to gather the information needed through a full inventory. By cannibalising models such as the UCL toolkit and What’s in Store?, I designed the inventory so that we could rate every location (box, shelf or drawer) according to object condition, storage condition and storage fullness.
We decided to begin with the archaeology collection because it is the largest and most complex, particularly in terms of ownership. We decided that some aspects of the review would need specialist input, and some were achievable in-house. I then managed to get a grant from the South East Museum Development Programme to fund specialist advice.
Having devised our inventory method, we then tested it against a random selection of boxes and paper site archives in the store to see whether it would work. We also assessed roughly how long it might take to complete, based on our best estimate of the number of locations. This meant we could concoct a plan matched against the available work spaces in the store and also work out how many days per week would be needed. Of course this turned out to be wildly optimistic, but such is the way of things!
We finished inventorying the archaeology collection in 2016 then moved onto social history, which we finished earlier this year. We are currently inventorying the needlework collection and will finish the project with art. We deliberately left art and needlework to last because they are smaller and more concisely stored collections, so are generally less complicated to locate or manage. To date we have inventoried around 6,000 locations, representing at least 100,000 objects or groups of objects.
By far the most satisfying result of the inventory has been finding objects believed lost for some time. For example, we located an object that was not only recorded as missing but was re-catalogued in the 1980s while misplaced, so that its object description read simply ‘missing since the 1950s.’
We are currently in the process of bringing in archaeological experts to assess our collections by period, and to advise us on interesting themes for display, the significance of the collections and collection gaps. We are using the MDO grant for this and have so far hosted two excellent specialists in all things Saxon (Rosie Weetch) and Roman (Kayt Hawkins), with plans for a prehistorian to spend time with us in the stores in early 2019.
We are planning a new offsite store along with Guildford Council’s new depot site. The new inventory information has enabled us to estimate the storage space required, and has provided an accurate record that we can use during the store decant.
The results of the inventory will allow us to produce a more informed collections development policy as they will have given us an excellent understanding of our current collections. When it is finished we will be able to determine the exact scale of our documentation backlog and conservation needs, which will in turn allow us to write accurate and realistic documentation and conservation plans.
All in all, it has been a most satisfying project and the data we have gathered is going to be useful in a great many ways for years to come.
Catriona’s top tips for inventorying collections:
- Decide what you want from the inventory before starting so that you don’t miss a chance to capture key information, but…
- Don’t be tempted to fix everything as you go. We only fixed urgent issues, such as discovering mouse droppings in a box, or removing old bubble wrap that had disintegrated.
- Keep it a priority and carve out time even when it seems less important than other work. (This is a good tenet for all things collections-focussed, as virtually everything we do is long term.)
- Volunteers come and go, and standards will vary. Accept that errors will creep in, and that this is fine in the overall scheme of things.
- Over-estimate how long it will take – training new volunteers takes time, as does correcting mistakes. Some locations can be really quick and simple, and others can take weeks.
- Reassess early on whether the procedure is working, and be prepared to change some aspects of the process as you go – some things can’t be planned for.
Find more resources to help you with updating your inventory here.