The Banish the Backlog programme

At Collections Trust we know that many museums struggle with a lack of basic inventory information, while others are confused about what they need to do to achieve Accreditation. Outreach Officer Sarah Brown explains Collections Trust’s programme to address this. 

Launching Spectrum 5.0 seemed like a good opportunity to work closely with museums to help demystify the dreaded backlog. I’ve been Collections Trust’s Outreach Officer since April 2016, doing just that by delivering around a hundred outreach events every year across England. 

During the first two years much of my time was spent on one-off training events, but in 2018 we decided to try a different approach. We developed the Banish the Backlog programme to give direct and ongoing support to small regional groups of museums. The aim of these groups is to help museums improve procedures and develop realistic plans to improve their documentation. 

Banish the Backlog has a double meaning. We’re working towards tackling the backlogs themselves, but also towards rethinking what we mean by the word ‘backlog’. By using it just in terms of very basic inventory information, rather than every possible detail, we can reframe the conversation in a more positive light. Cataloguing, for example,  can be seen as a series of use-led research projects, as something achievable that supports activities such as interpretation and research.  

We’ve established backlog-banishing support groups in each English region, which meet two to three times a year to provide focus and an environment for sharing ideas and discussing issues. Around 90 museums have been involved so far. Working closely with the Museum Development Network, we can provide links to their other programmes and funding strands. For example, if a museum relies on volunteers for documentation but is struggling with volunteer management, we can refer them to relevant training and support being delivered as part of Museum Development’s wider offer.  

The museums involved are at different stages, but what they have in common is that they’re keen to get to grips with their documentation. Common themes coming up in the programme are that people struggle both to make documentation a priority and to find the time to dedicate to their documentation plan. 

Whilst we can’t give people more time, we can help provide focus and share planning tips so they can develop realistic plans that don’t feel so overwhelming. We often tackle very practical issues, such as how to prevent unsolicited gifts. I’ve also done a few support site visits to delve into weird and wonderful numbering systems! 

So far, success looks different for each museum. Many have looked at their procedural manual for the first time in years and made updates so that it’s more usable and hopefully preventing any future problems building up. Others now have a more realistic plan with achievable goals, which they’re starting to put into action. Several are tying up the last few loose ends, like making decisions about un-accessioned objects found during an inventory and deciding on their next set of priorities.  

The Banish the Backlog programme will continue to run for the duration of Collections Trust’s current Arts Council England-funded Activity Plan, until 2022. If you want to find out more, get in touch via sarahb@collectionstrust.org.uk. You can also join in the conversation on Twitter with #BanishTheBacklog and #BanishThatBacklog, and feel free to tweet us at @CollectionTrust