Sometimes the best approach is to just ask, as Kat Broomfield and Camilla King, Collections Assistants at Dorset Museum, found when they were faced with a huge backlog and set out to banish it.
At Dorset Museum we are currently undergoing a huge HLF-funded redevelopment project. We closed our doors in October 2018 to relocate objects from the old museum site in preparation for the construction work. Many documentation anomalies reared their heads during this process and we used the new year to start addressing these issues. This led us to Collection Trust’s Banish the Backlog programme.
We faced a huge backlog of objects without sufficient – or any – documentation. Locations of objects were out of date, some objects had no identifiable accession number, some collections had different numbering systems entirely and there had been no centralised collections management system for some time. As a result, many objects were listed as part of separate collections across various different data management programs, including as Microsoft Access and Excel, as well as on paper, and there was little evidence that enabled us to marry up disparate pieces of information.
Faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of understanding the history of a vast number of objects that had only been recorded sporadically and inconsistently, at this point, like the good collections assistants we are, we turned to primary research and an old-fashioned survey.
We are fortunate at Dorset Museum in that we have a group of incredible volunteers who work with our collections. They have a wealth of knowledge about the documentation, some of which spans over two decades. The museum’s collection covers Dorset’s history from 200 million-year-old fossils to the present day and each collection, from archaeology to textiles, does things a little differently. Our volunteers’ knowledge was therefore invaluable in terms of understanding not only the objects, but the way each collection has developed and its individual documentation needs.
Once we started the Banish the Backlog programme we realised that before we could make any real headway in eliminating the documentation backlog we needed a deeper understanding of the documentation issues. To address this we created a survey, which we circulated to each of our volunteer teams at the quarterly collection team leaders meeting.
The survey was designed to get a basic understanding of all areas of documentation within the collections. It made reference to the Spectrum primary procedures and contained key questions to help us to identify where problems were arising. Some of the questions seemed simplistic, even bordering on redundant, but that was the point. It’s often the most obvious information and the systems we use every day on autopilot which are key to unlocking the secrets of a collection: if left unrecorded, then this information is lost forever.
Some of the questions included in our were:
- What are the systems that you currently use to document and catalogue objects (for example Access database, paper lists (typed/handwritten), Excel spreadsheets)? How and where are these kept? How many members of the team you work with are involved in this?
- Do you use any other historic documentation systems to assess or find out more about items held in the collection you work with that are not kept in the collection store? If so, what are they?
- Do you have duplicate copies of your collections information, such as back-ups on a hard drive, photocopies of the accession register or a card index alongside an online spreadsheet?
We received a remarkable response. Each of the collections teams returned thoughtful, detailed replies (see below).
A clear overview of collections documentation
Once the responses came in we summarised the answers to each question and compiled all the teams’ answers in a master spreadsheet. Here we could see patterns emerge across the board. For some questions the answers were incredibly consistent, for example, describing the accession number used and when it was first introduced. Others were wildly divergent and some downright surprising. One of the key points we’ve learnt from Banish the Backlog is that if the core, inventory level information exists somewhere on paper, even it’s not digital, then you don’t have a backlog, so this survey reminded us that some of our collections are actually in better shape than we realised!
Ultimately, having a clear, concise overview of collections documentation has been crucial. By pulling up one spreadsheet we can quickly assess documentation priorities. Having now completed this survey we have used the results to amend our history of documentation document, incorporate documentation holes and priorities into our documentation plan, and feed into our volunteer training programme, which we will hopefully be able to get underway in 2021.
The Banish the Backlog programme has also provided us with a space to explore ways to tackle challenges in documentation and to be comfortable discussing what we didn’t know. The session topics were very much peer led and, under the guidance of Sarah Brown, Collection Trust’s outreach officer, we were able to exchange experiences through group activity and discussion with colleagues at other museums who were having similar documentation dilemmas.