Collections Trust Outreach Officer, Sarah Brown, has some sound advice to help you rid yourself of that pesky backlog.
- Know the requirements
It can be easy to overestimate your museum’s documentation backlog, so remember there is no such thing as a finished catalogue record. Make sure you can differentiate between what needs to be done to meet standards and what could subsequently be done to improve your documentation.
The Spectrum 5.0 Inventory procedure sets out the basic information you need in order to be accountable for the objects in your care. If your museum has always met the minimum requirements for the other primary procedures, you should have this information already.
Once you’ve met the minimum Inventory requirements, you can think less about ‘tackling the backlog’ and more about how you can capture other information through research and projects.
- Prevent further issues
This is possibly my favourite tip. Of course, it’s tempting to dive in and start resolving known existing issues, but actually it’s really important to take a step back and ensure new problems and gaps are not being created. For example, when objects are moved, are the locations being updated?
Procedural manuals and training play an important role in this. A manual helps a museum to standardise the capture, recording, safekeeping and use of information about museum collections, and yours should be a set of evolving instructions describing how your museum carries out Spectrum procedures.
I frequently come across out-of-date manuals and manuals that don’t contain enough detail or aren’t in a usable format. Does yours reflect current standards and does it describe how your organisation currently does things? I also find staff often don’t know a manual exists, so is your manual used during training and induction or does it just sit unused on a shelf?
Collections Trust has online guidance on developing a documentation procedural manual which will help you get it right.
- Make a plan
Don’t dive in without making a written plan with clear objectives, actions, resources, measurable results and milestones. A written plan also makes your work visible, which is useful for advocacy and awareness (see tip 7).
- Manageable chunks
It’s important to prioritise and break work down into smaller chunks or projects, with milestones for monitoring progress. Milestones give an opportunity to communicate how you’re getting on and also to celebrate successes and achievements.
- Be realistic
This applies to timeframes, resources and what you can achieve. Test things out through pilot projects and ask yourself if that is really how long a task takes. There will often be an element of estimation, so always include some contingency time. Working on the plan with colleagues, especially those who will be delivering aspects of the plan, can help ensure it’s as realistic as possible.
In longer term projects it’s easy for people to get distracted by interesting research opportunities. Try to stick to the minimum and the scope set out in the plan. This should help keep your plan realistic.
- Regular review
This goes hand in hand with being realistic (see tip 5) and having clear milestones (see tip 4). In my experience plans often aren’t picked up again for years. If plans are reviewed more regularly, you will be able to assess whether your plan is still realistic, whether your resources have changed, and whether you’re on track or need to adjust a timeframe.
It’s also possible you won’t be in post for the duration of the plan, so reviewing and tracking progress will ensure your plan will be useful as a handover document as well.
- Advocacy and awareness
These are topics that come up often in our workshops and support groups, but there is a subtle difference between the two: awareness is about informing and advocacy is about persuading. Reflect on why key people within an organisation might not see documentation as a priority and then try to develop arguments to persuade them otherwise. Think about whether they respond to data, risks or links to forward-facing activities and priorities in the plan.
- Ask for support
Don’t go it alone. Ask for support inside your organisation and also from sector support organisations like Collections Trust and Museum Development, who can provide support in a number of ways. This might be an exchange of emails, a chat over the phone or attending an outreach session (these are listed on the Collections Trust website).
- Share your success and lessons learnt
Get some good documentation karma! You can share on Twitter using #BanishTheBacklog or #BanishThatBacklog, and in fact many of you did just that when we hosted @MuseumHour. We also welcome submissions for our blog.
Finally, we come full circle to keeping procedures in place. Make sure the core inventory information, for example current location, is maintained through the primary procedures. Going back to tip 2, do you have a clear manual and have people had adequate training?
Also check out the Audit procedure. This is about systematically checking the accuracy and completeness of the information you have about your collections. For example, a regular spot-check of locations will flag up issues before they get too bad and allow you to take action.