I am the new Collections curator at Western Bay Museum. My role is to manage the collection and improve museum practices to ensure it is preserved safely for a long time.
As part of this I’m sharing examples of best museum practices with our volunteers and public to give a ‘behind the scenes’ insight of a museum.
What is a museum?
Here is a rather cheesy video produced by Auckland Museum which goes behind the scenes to show the work that is done there, particularly on their natural history collections.
Auckland Museum, perched high a hill to show its status as a ‘temple of knowledge’ was built in the heyday of museums. Since the 1980s the ‘new museology’ has seen a change in how museums operate. Today they aim (at least) to be more inclusive places which engender meaningful cultural two-way participation.
Here is an interesting blog from the UK about how museums are relevant in current times:
Some museums do not even have collections or buildings. For example the New Zealand FashionMuseum (nzfashionmuseum.org.nz) has no collection of its own. It shares collections held in other museums and private collectors. For example this Piupiu printtie dress by designer Adrienne Whitewood is in the Rotorua Museum collection. The Fashion Museum’s exhibitions are online or are travel around museums nationally.
Why do museums collect?
So, museums do not just collect objects from the past and they don’t collect for the sake of it. There has to be another reason and that is to retain, interpret and celebrate the story behind the item. Western Bay Museum will soon have an Acquisitions policy which will clearly set out what we collect. We will collect objects from across the district, not just the Katikati region, and we will collect contemporary material, not just historical.
It is expensive to store, document and preserve collections, so they need to be focussed, with a local story to tell. This is going to be our aim from now on.
2: The life of an object
When an item comes into the museum it has had a life, doing what it was designed and meant to do. It may have been passed from person to person and/or handed down the generations.
They may have also used it or else kept it only to provoke memories of their ancestors. Some items are sold and have new owners, and some become part of private museum-style collections.
When it gets to the museum, its life changes again and it is retained for preservation as a museum object. It is treated differently from then on, and the aim of the museum is to hold it for future generations retaining the condition it had when it came into the collection. It should not deteriorate and is protected from anything that can cause it damage.
An excellent example of a full and long life of an object is Katikati’s first piano which is in the museum collection. Purchased by the Fletcher family in Dublin, it travelled to New Zealnd with them in 1875. Here it was bought from the Fletchers by James Lockington Jnr for his wife. For several years it was the only piano in the area and James Lockington Snr would transport it around the area in his tip dray for use at dances.
The dance would end when he needed to go home in his dray to milk his cows. It was passed down the family to Stella Wills and Nancy Bateswho donated it to the museum where it is now on display.
As you can imagine is in a bit of a state which only goes to demonstrate the fantastic life it has lived. It is important that the state it is in is retained, to allow its full story to be told.
Preservation vs Restoration vs Conservation
There is often confusion between these three terms and it is not surprising. They are all pretty similar. Museums tend to focus on Preservation with a little bit of Conservation, usually done by experts (Conservators).
These are specialists, usually trained overseas as New Zealand doesn’t have any Conservation courses, the nearest being in Australia.
The TV programme The Repair Shop shows us how powerful objects are in connecting us to memories and emotions. That is why museum exhibitions can be so powerful. However, the work undertaken on that programme would (or should) never be done by a museum as it removes the story of that object. I find it quite upsetting when an object that has survived the World War 1 trenches is then restored on that programme.
Is that not disrespectful to the soldier’s story and all they went through?
Here is a video which explains the difference between Restoration and Conservation made by a Conservation company in the US:
Big museums have Conservators on the staff and small museums like us usually hire Conservators to carry out this work (if there is funding). This should give you a chuckle and shows what can happen when amateurs have ago at art conservation:
Museum collection managers tend to focus on Preventive conservation (yet another term) which is all about avoiding damage to objects from various threats.
3: Preventive conservation
As mentioned, museum collection managers aim for Preventive conservation as it is the most cost-effective way to keep collections safe.
Usually only about 10 percent of a museum’s collections are on display at any one time. Moving them from storage and on to display puts them at risk.
Other risk factors include the exposure to light and of course museum visitors. This time is usually minimised as much as possible especially for fragile items such as textiles.
The basic principles of Preventive conservation are:
- Effective control of your building’s environment
- Safe handling and display techniques
- Good storage
- Pest management
- Effective security
- Planning for emergencies
We need to work on ALL of these things.
This blog on basic Preventive conservation also lists the 10 agents of deterioration to objects and collections:
This is a more in-depth article for those who are keen:
This blog describes the different pests that Auckland Museum has to deal with. For us I would also add cockroaches and crickets…
To minimise the risk to objects museums have a few rules like “no food in the museum” and “no touching the objects”. This short article from the Canadian Museum of Nature explains why food isn’t allowed:
4: Handling collection
As you will have noted, handling is one of the main risks to objects in the collection and therefore we want to minimise it as much as possible. But we know that for many people the chance to handle objects can add hugely to their levels of understanding and appreciation of them. Not everyone learns the same way and for some people the tactile experience helps them learn and understand much more than reading or listening.
The way to get around this conflict, is to have a Handling collection which has been deliberately assembled for close-up visual and tactile examination.
The Wellcome Museum in London has a series of blogs about the benefits and challenges of Handling collections. The Wellcome Museum is a museum and library in London exploring health and human experience. The blog is here: Handling Collection – Wellcome Collection Blog (wordpress.com) – the first blog in the series is at the bottom of the page.
At Western Bay Museum we plan to start a Handling collection. The objects will not be accessioned as part of the permanent Collection but will be a separate collection. They will still come under my care but they will not be catalogued onto the database, but tracked in a different way.
Only about 300 out of the 11,000 objects in the Museum’s current collection have provenance i.e. we know their previous story and ownership. Ideally we should know about all 11,000, so we have to make sure we preserve all the ones that do have stories so they are safe for the future. None of the objects in the Handling collection will have known provenance relating to the Western Bay of Plenty.
Although the Handling collection objects do not need the same levels of administration as the permanent Collection, it is important that opportunities to use the items are always supervised by trained members of staff or trained volunteers. This will ensure that standards of careful and considerate handling will be practised, prolonging the useful life span of these objects.
As I start assessing the 11,000 objects, some will be transferred to the Handling collection. This decision will be based on its level of interest to visitors, sturdiness and relevance to current or future education programmes.
Objects that are currently accessible to visitors in the School Room, will be assessed and any with provenance transferred to the permanent Collection. The rest will probably become part of the Handling collection depending on the criteria above. All visitors handling these objects will be supervised by a staff member or volunteer at all times.
As well as being used by school and other groups in the Museum, Outreach programmes can be developed which strengthen the museum’s connection with the community. For
example, we could create themed packs of objects to take out to rest homes to spark memories and conversations.
Here is a glimpse into what Edinburgh Museums does:
This video from the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada,shows rest home residents engaging with their collection via a Handling kit:
5: Handling museum objects
As already mentioned, poor handling is one of the biggest risks to objects in the collection.
Here is a video from Australia which is a good overall look at handling museum objects:
You will also see some amazing packing and storage in this video.
There are times when it’s best not to wear gloves as they can increase the risk of damage to the object. There are times when the object might be a risk to the handler, so gloves are necessary. And there are times when it is essential to wear gloves to protect the object. There are also different types of gloves. All of that is spelt out by British Museum conservators in this video :
All these apply to us, even if our collection does not consist of mummies or Medieval figurines, we still need to handle them carefully. If an object has a story to tell it is an important object even it is an everyday item.
These general rules will apply to the Handling collection as well.
The next major project for us is to document the permanent Collection of the Museum. I am aware that a lot of work has already been done and there is already an inventory that has been created by Museum volunteers as well research carried out on a large number of the objects. The information already recorded will not be lost, but will be transferred to the database. The next step will be to fully catalogue the objects.
Here is a really good video about how museums go about documenting their collections and what sort of information needs to be recorded.
Unfortunately, it is too complicated to upload the data already gathered onto the database, and the best way will be to input data about the objects one by one. I will be managing this and I hope some volunteers will want to assist me in the project in various ways. This will allow us to more easily access information about objects, which will in turn make it easier to keep control of them and to develop exhibitions and programmes using them.
The database we will be using is called eHive and is a New Zealand product available through the company Vernon Systems Limited in Auckland. Vernon also produces a large database called Vernon CMS (Collection management system) which is used by all the major museums in New Zealand as well as quite a few overseas. eHive is a web-based product, which is aimed at small museums and is very simple to use.
There are various parts of the documentation process:
- Cleaning (if required)
- Labelling (writing an accession number on the object)
- Measuring and describing the physical appearance of the object
- Recording who made it, where and when, and research if required
- Photographing it from various angles
- Data entry and adding the photographs
- Packing the object in archival materials
- Locating it and adding the location to the database
7: Cleaning and labelling
These two processes are at the start of our documentation process.
Cleaning should be carefully considered. It is important for objects to be clean because dirt will accelerate their decay and attract pests. On the flip side we don’t want to remove the story of the object and get into the realms of restoration, by doing too much cleaning.
Here is a Canadian video explaining good cleaning methods:
Here are some more details videos for those who are keen:
The objects at Western Bay Museum have been given numbers, but they were assigned to a box of them, rather than individually. This has meant that we will need to assign each object its own unique number. The number will be written on the object in most cases. This is important as having loose labels can mean the object and its parts can get separated when on display. I have seen this nearly happen with my own eyes.
Here is the Aussie guy again with some good advice on labelling:
We will be using Paraloid as well as other systems in his video, which are standard museum methods.
Rosemary Deane, Collections curator, Western Bay Museum