Wheal Martyn – dealing with documentation backlogs

Jo Moore, Curator and Collections Coordinator at Wheal Martyn, has written this guest blog about how Wheal Martyn approached dealing with their documentation backlog, which was identified following an audit of their collections.

Volunteers identifying industrial machinery in the compound © Wheal Martyn Trust

My connection with Wheal Martyn began in 2011 when I was commissioned as a freelance curator to undertake a collections audit at the museum, which had not employed a curator for the previous few years. This involved looking at the collections management and condition of all items, both on display and in store. At the end of the audit I wrote recommendations for priority actions.

Towards the end of this work, in 2012, the role of part-time curator for the museum was advertised – I applied for it and was successful! The audit I had undertaken, and the knowledge I had gained of the collections, put me in a very good position to be able to hit the ground running! In this blog I will be focusing on the documentation side, rather than care and conservation aspects, of Wheal Martyn’s collection.

The audit identified that the backlog in documentation at the museum was clearly a priority to be tackled – the locations of items on the Modes records were inaccurate in many cases and there was obviously a large number of items which had not been accessioned previously, though it wasn’t clear just how many. It was going to be a huge task…

The first thing to be put in place was a documentation plan, assessing each of the nine Spectrum primary procedures required by the Museum Accreditation scheme and the four stages of documentation backlog, as detailed in requirement 2.5 of the Accreditation guidance notes. So, the primary procedures…. How was Wheal Martyn doing?

Each of the nine procedures was reviewed and the results were then summarised into a table:

Spectrum procedure Main action required Tasks Timescales Notes
1. Object entry

2. Accession register

3. Security copy of accession register

No action required
4. Marking and labelling Assess need for marking programme at end of full inventory check Keep records of need during inventory check At end of inventory check
5. Loans in Loans in items to be accessioned Loans in to be catalogued, photographed and entered onto Modes system December 2014
6. Loans out Follow up on contract with borrowers to review loans and update documentation Contact lenders again

Review/renew loans

Bring Modes records up to date

 April 2015
7. Cataloguing Undertake catalogue of un-accessioned items (documentation stage two)

Once stage two has been completed then a plan will be created to tackle stages three and four

Add items to ‘No Number’ spreadsheet as they are located

Write plan to complete stages three and four

Completion of backlog plan

October 2016


November 2016


September 2021

8. Location and movement control Create a programme to undertake full inventory check of all accessioned items (documentation stage two) Assess resources and timescales for all areas (See Appendix 2)

Ensure anomalies in Modes location names are resolved


May 2014


July 2014


October 2016





9. Object exit  No action required

A plan was developed for the full inventory check, in order to check the accuracy of item locations on Modes and list all the un-accessioned items. We started by making a complete list of all locations in the museum where collections were located. Using information from Modes we put together a plan, area by area and with timescales, estimating how long each would take to complete. This was based on the number of items recorded in each area on Modes, and assuming an average of 50 items per day. The team consisted of one member of staff and three volunteers working together. We also decided to take the opportunity to photograph objects, since none existed, and to improve the packing of items at the same time. Another volunteer was responsible for re-naming the digital photographs with the inventory number of the item and linking it to the item’s Modes record.

Volunteers working on minerals collection
Volunteers working on minerals collection © Wheal Martyn Trust

We began each area with a Modes grid print-out of that location, which would speed up the process. Accessioned items in the right place were simply ticked, those not on the print-out were added in pencil. An accompanying list (called the ‘No Number number’ list, simply because it made us smile) was kept of all items with no inventory number marked on them. All items, whether accessioned or not, were photographed.

We planned the project, month by month, to give us a programme – and a vitally important sense of achievement! As the project continued we kept tabs on progress, using the (truncated) table below:

February – April 2014

Location Sub-location Inventory check completed Inventory photos taken Inventory photos linked to Modes Changes of location made on Modes Changes of location made on hard copies Number of items on Modes to be marked with inventory number Number of items missing Number of items not found on Modes inventory check print-out
Office store Box 1 x x x x 0 0 2
Box 2 x x x x 0 5 0
Box 3 x x x x 0 0 0
Box 4 x x x x 0 0 0


Volunteers helping to sort the Old Workshop Store
Volunteers helping to sort the Old Workshop Store © Wheal Martyn Trust

And the four stages?

This was the state of play in 2017, when the documentation plan was last reviewed:

Stage one: all documentation procedures are in place and used. This stage is complete.

Stage two: an inventory is being produced of the material identified as a potential backlog (ie. material not yet identified as having been accessioned on Modes), using a ‘No Numbers’ spreadsheet. This was initially planned to have been completed by September 2016 but, given the unexpectedly large size of the backlog, was only completed in April 2017.

Stage three: using the results of the stage two backlog, discrepancies will be checked to identify any items which have been previously accessioned and subsequently lost/misplaced/mis-assigned or have simply lost their inventory numbers. At this stage we will be able to identify with some accuracy the actual volume of the backlog of unaccessioned items.

Stage four: items which at this stage have still not been identified against the Modes records will be considered for accessioning into the collection and, if appropriate, Spectrum procedures undertaken. This stage will be completed within five years of the completion of stage two, ie. by March 2022 (previously planned to be September 2021).

Where are we now?

We are just coming to the end of the full inventory check of all objects on the site, this (unsurprisingly) having taken longer than predicted. As well as checking that locations are correct on our nearly 9,000 Modes records, this has involved listing all the items not currently accessioned (1,329 to date) and photographing everything. It has been an epic journey and one that simply would not have been possible without the help of a wonderful team of volunteers.

Old Workshop Store - new ceiling, new lights, new shelves!
Old Workshop Store – new ceiling, new lights, new shelves! © Wheal Martyn Trust

What next?

Now that stage two is complete we are planning to tackle stage three, sorting out the huge number of queries and anomalies which have arisen from the inventory check. This will require delving through old paperwork, such as exit forms and accession registers, as well as methodically working our way around each location on the site, ‘No Number’ and ‘Missing Items’ lists in hand.

Stage four will require us to look at individual remaining items to decide whether or not they should be accessioned, added to our handling collection – or disposed of. We are expecting the latter to take quite some time as, although the items are not accessioned, we will still try hard to find appropriate new homes for them. It is important to try to keep things in the public domain, as far as possible.

Here’s to updating the documentation plan again!