Perspectives on disposal: Museum of London Review and Rationalisation Project

Naomi Russell, Project Assistant at the Museum of London, has written this guest blog post looking at the rationalisation of the Social and Working History collections at the museum. With over 100,000 objects involved in the project, it was a huge undertaking that aimed to improve the collection, benefit other institutions through disposal of objects and ensure the Museum was applying its collections development policy correctly.

The Museum of London’s Social and Working History collection was thoroughly reviewed as part of a rationalisation project.

The Museum of London’s aim when starting a large scale rationalisation project was to create a collection for the future. We sought to embark upon a disposal project which fulfilled all the ethical standards of the sector, and which approached the often perplexing matter of museum disposals with a creative and innovative methodology. The project focused solely on one part of our collection- the Social and Working History collections- which has seen much large-scale collecting in the past. The aim was to refine this collection by deciding which objects could provide more public benefit at another institution, due to them being duplicated within our own collection, under-used or not fitting with our Collections Development Policy. We also wanted to unearth the hidden treasures within our store, which had been obscured from us, possibly for decades, due to the sheer volume of material which had been collected. The intention of the project was not only to improve our own collection, but also to explore what benefit our disposed objects could have to the wider heritage sector, and also to projects and institutions in the wider community.

The start of the project saw our Curator of Social and Working History physically review over 100,000 items in our Social and Working History collection. This required a huge amount of time (and patience) and a rigorous decision making process when deciding which items to retain and which could potentially be disposed of. Objects were uncovered which we knew little about, and further research was undertaken- sometimes this unearthed an interesting provenance or story, and sometimes it showed that an object was not related to the history of London and our collection, or that we had many examples of the same types of object. The decisions about what objects should be retained and what could be disposed was a crucial foundation for the project, and meticulous investigation was undertaken at this point to ensure that thorough decisions were made. We did not select items for rationalisation based solely on concerns about condition or aesthetics- we wanted the decision making about disposals to be based on a thorough evaluation of an object’s provenance and relevance to the collection, and not solely on its physical appearance. We also ensured that we found out as much as possible about an object’s entry into the museum through a long process of due diligence, and if there were any concerns about a lack of information or clarity regarding acquisition, then an item would be retained in the collection. In addition, our aim with duplicate material was to refine our collection rather than severely reduce it. For example, of the 500 items within a collection related to watch making tools, 100 were identified for disposal, meaning that we retained the majority of examples, whilst also allowing us to transfer some examples to other museum collections and learning institutions. On the completion of this review stage all of the objects selected for disposal were reviewed again, and a final selection of objects which could be disposed of was formed.

The first stage of any Museum transfer process following internal approval is to advertise objects to Accredited Museums; we did this via the Museum Association’s “Find An Object” website. As we had close to 6,000 objects available for transfer, rather than listing them individually we decided to place an advert with a summary of the objects available, and provided further information when museums got in contact. At this stage we also started proactively contacting Accredited Museums, to find out if any of our items were of interest to them. We sent tailored lists of objects which related to their collections and made every attempt to transfer as many items to museums as possible. The feedback we received from Accredited Museums was excellent- we were able to transfer objects to 29 Accredited Museums, and ensure that these items continue to be in the public domain.

Some of our objects were duplicated within our collection, but could be put to good use as familiar objects for memory boxes.

Once the required two months’ period for prioritising Accredited Museums had expired, Archives, Libraries and non-Accredited Museums were the next recipients of our objects. Some of the objects selected for disposal were items which related to a certain London borough, for example archive information from local businesses. Our current policy is not to acquire archival items of this type, and we wanted to transfer this material to where it could be more readily accessed and used for research. We contacted many London borough archives and libraries and it was so rewarding to be able to match these under-used items within our collection with such an appropriate new home. With the transition to offering items to non-Accredited Museums we were able to start to pursue our more creative aims for this project: many of the museums involved wanted to use our objects for directly engaging their visitors. For example, we transferred some objects to museum handling collections, to be used in a wide range of learning activities. Another museum was searching for small, tactile and familiar objects to be used in their “memory boxes”, for visitors suffering from dementia, and their families. Our objects being used in this way was hugely positive for us, as it meant that duplicate material which had been under-used could now be of direct benefit to the public.

Some of our objects related to specific trades, for example this sole stitching machine.

After approaching heritage institutions and carrying out over 60 successful transfers, we began to consider what other types of institution we could approach for transferring our disposal items to. The aim was to provide improved public benefit by carrying out these disposals. Many of the objects which we had duplicate material of were used in manufacturing: we had items relating to carpentry, shoe making and metal working, to name a few. We were keen to contact learning institutions that taught these skills, to see if any of our items could be of use to them. We therefore approached universities which run courses related to the objects we had, and were pleased to find that they were very keen to receive these items. Often craftspeople today prefer to use traditional tools but these are becoming rarer to source. It was fantastic to know that the tools we had had in our store for a long time could go into classrooms and be used for teaching and manufacturing once again. Transferring objects to universities such as these was an incredibly positive outcome of the project, and in this way we were able to inspire students in their creativity through using traditional tools and methods. We helped students learning about industries such as printing, shoe making and weaving, in addition to helping students in other areas- for example those learning about the science of cosmetics by transferring duplicate samples of make up! Many of these working history objects had been part of huge collections within our store. By keeping the majority of items, but choosing to rationalise some, we were able to improve our own collections through refinement, whilst providing benefit to those who could use the surplus items for learning and creating.

Many of the items we had identified for disposal related to a particular craft, but others were more generic, such as screwdrivers, spanners and files. This material was not selected by museums or universities, but we wanted to find a suitable place for it. We aimed to be innovative with this project and challenge thinking around what former museum objects could be used for. We began to research charities which could possibly use our items, and found a charity called Workaid who distribute items such as tools, sewing machines and books to communities who need to them, for example to enable them to learn new skills and become self-supporting. Workaid were able to re-use over 100 objects of which we had many duplicate examples within our collection. It was interesting to see beyond our understanding of these objects within a museum collection, to how they could be used as tools to aid a community.

Looking at an item beyond its past as a museum object, and considering its use as a working object, was one of the challenges of the project.

Museum disposal rightly involves much painstaking research, due-diligence and decision making in order to carry out the process ethically and with the right level of care for museum collections, as well as respect to donors. We saw through our experience in this project that it is possible to maintain these high standards, whilst also starting to think more creatively about where objects can be transferred to once they have been offered to other museums. This project was hugely rewarding in that it enabled us to refine our collection and improve our knowledge of it, whilst also allowing us to explore benefiting the wider museum sector and other organisations and communities by re-thinking how former museum objects can be used.


All images credited to Museum of London.