10 April 2014,
Collections reviews are a hot topic in museums these days, and for good reasons. Reviews form an integral part of collections management. Last October on this blog, I introduced a number of recent reviews of natural science collections. Now it’s time to talk about the Welsh Museums Federation’s approach.
The dry bit first: we developed a methodology that reflects the constraints of the project. And they are pretty tight: we needed to undertake 20 reviews with an average time allocation of two curator days each. This means getting an overview of holdings, assessing their significance, and identifying any collections needs in a single day. We adapted UCL’s significance toolkit rather than using the more recently published CyMAL assessment. We felt that this better reflected the questions we were asking and the constraints of the project. If you want to know more about the methodology, please get in touch with the 'Linking Collections' project manager.
‘Linking Collections’ was conceived because natural science collections up and down the country are, generally speaking, relatively neglected and in need of TLC. We have found that this really is the case. In some cases, specimens were lovingly repackaged in acid free tissue in good boxes – and then not checked for ten years because of lack of specialist curatorial expertise, sometimes with spectacular results. If you work in a museum you know all about this; you are likely to have seen things no mortal eye should ever have to witness.
Let’s focus on the review process itself. It’s quite simple really. A pre-review questionnaire sent to partner museums early last year collected information about scope and approximate size of collections. This then formed the basis for a decision on how many and which curators (reviewers) to send to each museum. Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales very kindly provided ‘Linking Collections’ with expertise in the form of specialist curators; the National Museum is now the only museum in Wales with specialist natural science curators.
The project manager acts as the match maker and organises the (review) dates. At the museum, each reviewer is
paired up with a local member of staff or a volunteer – in either case somebody who either already is, or will be in future, working with the natural science collection. In this way, the reviewer benefits from local knowledge of physical access to the collection. At the same time, the local staff/volunteers get hands-on training in object handling and a deep insight into their collection from the reviewer. This way of working not only speeds up the process of working through a collection; it also forms an important part of the training element of ‘Linking Collections’, as one of the main aims of the project is to improve the local understanding of natural science collections.
While the reviewer assesses the objects, the assistant fills in the EXCEL data matrix on a laptop. The data matrix asks for a definition of a ‘review unit’ as well as its size (a unit can be a single specimen or an entire cupboard full of specimens); information about provenance, the collector, collection date. We then record any information about local relevance and historic notes, as well as a simple indication of conservation state, documentation, quality of packaging and any potential health and safety issues. Then there is a block of columns with significance assessments, on a traffic-light-scale, regarding different levels of importance (local to international) and value (scientific, historic, educational, …). Finally, the reviewer also records an initial recommendation for potential use of the review unit.
The information we get from this assessment helps determine the potential of each collection. It will also enable to identify gaps in collections that could be addressed, in the future, through the museum’s collecting strategy. And because the approach is consistent between 20 museums it will be possible to compare these collections directly, and see how they complement each other, or whether there are similar problems affecting them. This last point is particularly important in the context of establishing the Distributed National Collection in Wales, which is what this project is all about.
Follow 'Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales' on Twitter @LinkinCollWales or Facebook.
12 February 2014,
Now that the collections reviews have started in earnest (6 collections down, 14 to go) and things are settling down a bit (ahem...), it is about time to introduce our project partners. Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales is a collaborative project involving many people and organisations. The idea of creating a network of collections (the very philosophy of the Distributed National Collection) would not be possible without partnerships. If we think of the project as a growing plant a number of analogies spring to mind.
The Welsh Museums Federation is instrumental for sowing the seeds of the Linking Collections project; the Federation is the strategic body for sector professionals in Wales and promotes good practice while providing a forum for discussion. Like a spider in her web, the Federation has the links it takes to pull the strings.
The seeds are watered by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund which provided a grant of £100,000 towards the project. These grants fund collections work outside the scope of an organisation’s core resources; in this case for a project manager to pull together collections reviews, data digitisation and online publishing, education resources, a touring exhibition, community engagement and training for museums.
Major nutrients for healthy growth of the little plant, lets say Nitrogen and Phosphorus, are provided by two major partners, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and CYMAL. Amgueddfa Cymru looks after the national collections. Seven museums in different parts of Wales with different themes provide one of the cultural backbones of the nation. Specialist curators from National Museum Cardiff are crucial for the smooth and reliable completion of the collections reviews in the partner museums.
CYMAL are the Welsh Assembly Government's heritage and culture arm; they provide advice and support to the sector in Wales, develop professional standards, manage grant schemes and advise the Minister for Culture and Sport on policy matters. Thanks to support from CYMAL, a number of training courses are going to be run for partner museum curators and volunteers.
And here they come – they have already been mentioned a couple of times: the partner museums. There are 20 of them, and in our little analogy they are the soil in which the plant is growing. I am going to list them all because they deserve it:
And we are not finished: communities are the carbon dioxide each plant needs for photosynthesis, and communities take an increasing interest and get more involved in their local museums. This ranges from amateur collectors organising community-curated displays, to Welsh speakers sharing their knowledge of vernacular terminology, to volunteers helping with identification and curation of museum specimens.
The light for the healthy growth of the plant comes, naturally, from school pupils (particularly from local primary schools), who are increasing better able to utilise their museum, through improved engagement programmes, updated exhibitions and a system of ready-to-use loans boxes with activities and guidance for teachers.
Last but not least, each plant needs someone to look after it, and the gardeners in this case are the members of the steering group. Usually, they prefer to remain modestly in the shadows, but they, too, deserve a mention for their work of seeding and weeding:
Dr Richard Bevins, Keeper of Natural Sciences, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
Diane Gwilt, Keeper of Collections, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
Jane Henderson, Senior Lecturer, School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Cardiff University
Dr Hefin Jones, School of Biosciences, Cardiff University
Rachael Rogers, President, Welsh Museums Federation
Mike Wilson, Head of Entomology, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
A healthy plant is growing
Now I am going to sit back and watch the plant grow. Oh no, there is the next collections review to organise, the data to be edited, the annual report to finish, another meeting coming up… However, I will very much enjoy this new growth in the museum landscape. I hope you will enjoy it too.
For any comments, suggestions, or to contribute to this exciting project please get in touch: Facebook - Linking Collections Wales, Twitter - @LinkinCollWales.
27 January 2014,
On Friday, Adrian Plant and I, along with Christian Baars, took part in a Collections Review at Carmarthen Museum as part of the Esmee Fairbairn ‘Linking Natural Science Collections on Wales’ project. The museum, was in a lovely old house, the old Bishop’s Palace, just outside Carmarthen. We spent the day in the natural history store, systematically going through all of the boxes to see what was in each one and assess it’s condition and potential importance. As not all of it had been accessioned even the curators were not sure what might be there and we had a very interesting time never knowing what might be in the next box. Amongst the specimens we found were a collection of weaver birds’ nests and a ‘vasculum’ (metal box containing botanical specimens) containing an old seed collection along with the original bill of sale. Hopefully, some of these specimens may now find their way out to public display at some point in the future.
8 November 2013,
This is ‘Part 2’ of my thoughts on distributed collections, the first one having appeared on this blog in May 2013. There is a drive to create a Distributed National Collection in Wales as part of a move towards joined-up content in museums, which is essential to provide both public and professional access to collection information and specimens alike. The Welsh Museums Federation is at the forefront of this development, with the main aim of the Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales being to implement the Welsh Museums Strategy’s concept of a Distributed National Collection for natural science collections.
If collections are dispersed, access to data and specimens can be difficult; there may not be much information about a collection, or access may be restricted because of lack of staff, or stores may be physically inaccessible – if you have anything to do with museums you will have been in a crowded store where you can’t swing a (mounted) cat for the number of boxes and things triple-stacked on top of each other. There are many reasons why collections may be dispersed and I would like to explore some of these reasons here.
Dispersal within a single museum
In many cases, particularly in museums with a social history focus, inaccessibility of natural science material can arise from the way the collection is classified and, accordingly, organised in the stores. Museums with dedicated natural science collections keep all vertebrates together, all fossils in one place and all insects in the same cupboard. However, if your focus is on collecting local social history objects your collections management system will be designed to help you classify dresses, wooden spoons and Victorian drill bits. Any natural science specimens will then be slotted into that classification system with the result that, for instance, some mounted objects and taxidermy are stored in the ‘Hunting’ section while others can be kept under ‘Domestic’. As a result, specimens which under one classification system (natural science) share common characteristics are physically dispersed throughout a store because under a different classification system (social history) the emphasis is on different features.
Dispersal within a regional area
Historically, many collections with local relevance ended up in local museums. This is why so many museums have a couple of stuffed barn owls and a box full of cow bones – seemingly unnecessary duplication. This may be a reflection of the relatively similar collecting interests of people – have you been able to resist the temptation of picking up some old cow bones when you saw them scattered in a field? And once you have them in your possession, what better to do with them than donate them generously to your local museum as an example of the local biodiversity?
Local museums are, of course, also fantastic repositories for local biodiversity and geology. However, there is rarely a collections strategy which would ensure systematic sampling of the entire local flora and fauna. As a result, the extent to which the local area is actually represented in the museum collection depends on a number of things (enough material for another article), essentially chance. This means that, theoretically and statistically, the combined collections of many museums in a geographical area may be a fairly good representation of the natural history and geology of this area. Is this really the case? While creating a Distributed National Collection in Wales we will soon find out.
Collections may be dispersed for other reasons, for instance entirely deliberately. The artist Marged Pendrell has her own take on dispersed collections of natural science material. Over a number of years she had collected a large number of skulls from North Wales. A recent move to a smaller studio prompted her to disperse part of her collection by offering sheep, fox and badger skulls – as being representative of her local environment in Snowdonia – to interested takers. Marged compiled photographs of the skulls in their new residences into a book (Dispersed Collection – Skulls). In that sense, while the collection was broken up physically, it still exists as a concept, with information about the specimens preserved and accessible.
Every museum with natural science collections has a near identical remit – to inform the public about biodiversity and natural history – and as a consequence every such museum has much the same material (although the extent and diversity varies with the size of the collection). There are numerous duplicate mounted foxes, mammoth teeth and trilobites of the genus Calymene in collections across the UK (and Europe). However, even before the recent haemorrhaging of specialists from museums only a small number of collections employed expert curators who would have detailed knowledge of very specific parts of collections. Therefore, many museums hold collections that are not publicly available, not even publicised. This is no fault of the curators – every museum has overlooked areas of collections which are low priority for that specific museum but which may be internationally important.
As a way around this dilemma Mark Carnall from the Grant Museum of Zoology has suggested – as a thought experiment – to reorganise collections taxonomically (scroll down to page 65). Instead of storing specimens from every taxonomic group, storage space would be used instead to house only specific taxonomic groups, i.e. all the nation’s badgers would end up in in museum A, all the dandelions in museum B, the fossil corals in museum C – you get the picture. Arguably, an impossible task, as the logistics and resources involved in achieving this would be phenomenal. However, there would be a number of advantages to such a system, mainly in terms of efficiency, specialist knowledge of each collection, access and research.
National Dispersal - the case of Wales
Natural science collections exist in more than 100 institutions in Wales. The majority of specimens are kept at the National Museum in Cardiff, but records of the natural history and gegology of Wales are, in essence, distributed across many different collections. Combined, these collections give a pretty good picture of Wales' natural environment (albeit one which may be distorted by historic events and the personal interests of individual collectors and curators). At present, however, it is difficult to access these collections as even local curators often do not have sufficient knowledge about their holdings.
The Welsh Museums Federation’s Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales project is aiming to improve this situation. It does not suggest changes of location or ownership of collections, but envisions much improved access to basic collection information for museum users. Collections reviews to establish a base line of collections knowledge are now under way, and a website will be the public access point to this information. In addition, a major touring exhibition of the treasures of Welsh natural science will showcase our wonderful collections and will be a powerful way of bringing them into greater prominence, offering the public a change to engage directly with our distributed national collection. Welsh natural science collections, wherever they may be stored, will be accessible to any potential user.
24 October 2013,
There are many reasons for undertaking a museum collections review.The main aim is often to establish the present state of a collection – level of documentation, physical location of specimens and object, as well as their storage and conservation requirements. One objective of the Welsh Museums Federation’s Linking Natural Science Collections reviews is to establish what kinds of collections are distributed across museums in Wales. This information will then be used to enable improved management of natural science collections on a national level, as well as facilitating better use of these collections. Due to the scope of the project and resource limitations, only about 20% of Welsh natural science collections are going to be reviewed – those members of the Welsh Museums Federation which are also accredited museums. This is bringing Welsh institutions one step closer to a Distributed National Collection.
A number of natural science collections reviews have recently been undertaken in various parts of the UK, largely stimulated by the Museum Association’s programme Effective Collections to improve the understanding and use of stored collections. This programme is supported by a grant scheme to enable collections reviews with expert help.
The overview presented here is fairly comprehensive but does not claim to be complete; if I have not mentioned other review projects please get in touch and let me know as I may not be aware of, or do not have sufficient information on them. While there are many similarities between these projects, each had its own starting point and aims. Accordingly, the methods vary between projects.
Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery undertook a review of their spirit collection in 2009 to increase skills of curatorial staff, make recommendation for improved use of and access to the collections and to promote the collections. Specialist consultants assessed the collection. The methodology applied utilized the University College London’s Collections Review Toolkit to assess condition, documentation information, potential use and significance.
University College London
University College London carried out a review of their varied collections of 380,000 objects between 2007 and 2009. The primary objective was to survey aspects of collections care, use and significance with a view to inform future management of the collections and developing them as a resource for teaching, research and public engagement. The review also considered the historical significance and their relationship with UCL. The result is a clear and accurate picture of the contents of the collections, where and how they are housed, and to what degree there are integrated into the work of the university.
The Regional Geology Stewardship assessed geological collections held in the West Midlands between 2009 and 2012. Now, the West Midlands Biological Collections Review aims to create a snapshot of the biological collections held in 55 institutions (including educational institutions and historic houses, but prioritising accredited museums) - their significance, condition and current usage, and to offer practical advice with managing and using them. At each institution the curator will fill in a form adapted from the Significance 2.0 framework of the Collections Trust and the RAW Collections Care Healthcheck. The project is managed by the Curator of Natural Sciences at Birmingham Museums Trust who will also provide training for collections that are at greatest risk and have greatest untapped potential.
Royal Albert Memorial Museum
The review at Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) was even more ambitious, as they reviewed almost one million objects during 2011-13. The entire – and very diverse – collection was divided into 122 review groups of related or connected material. This was preceded by entering each item from the collection in an electronic database (which had taken almost ten years to complete). A two-stage review then assessed the significance of objects to inform future use of the collection: a macro-level review from the perspective of a non-expert to determine significance and potential, and an in-depth assessment involving external subject specialists, peer review or public consultation. The review methodology was based on a hybrid version of the Renaissance East Midlands ‘Reviewing Significance Framework model, which itself draws upon the Collections Council of Australia’s ‘Significance 2.0 framework, and University College London’s ‘Collections Review Rubric. This uses a grid to determine importance in a structured way and can then be used to aid planning for future collections projects, use and interpretation. The review method can also identify gaps in the collections where future collecting programmes can be focussed.
North West England
Five museums in the North West (The Beacon in Whitehaven, Penrith and Eden Museum, Keswick Museum, Stockport Museum Service and Touchstones, Rochdale took part in a natural science collections review because they hold relatively large collections, but have no natural science curator; subject specialist consultants where therefore used. The objective was to find ways that the museums could work together to increase understanding about the collections, and to give guidance on the storage, use, and scientific and cultural value of the material held. The review highlighted scientifically important specimens and an extensive educational potential of the collections.
The Horniman Museum’s Bioblitz review was completed this year (2013), followed by Geoblitz. This reviewed a collection of 250,000 natural history and 175,000 geological specimens within 12 months by employing subject specialists to assess each specimen. The idea was to assign relative significance levels to specimens to facilitate planning a programme of future collections management, research, conservation and the use of the collection. Significance criteria were historic, scientific, rarity/uniqueness and public engagement; specimens rated in a number of these categories, serving several roles, now make up the core of the collection. The process of the review itself was also recorded, via Twitter, a blog and photographs; this helped facilitate conversation with user groups to determine future uses of the collection.
Gwynnedd Museum / Bangor University
Gwynedd Museum & Art Gallery and Bangor University departments recently carried out condition surveys of their diverse collections (natural history, geology, ceramics, art, furniture etc). The aim was to get a better idea of the nature and scope of each collection, and also to be able to prioritise any work needed in the areas of collections management and care, documentation, and conservation. External reviewers provided a condition report and a prioritisation of future work required. This has already resulted in a funding application for a Collections Officer post to improve collections management, care and access; the long-term aim is to accredit these collections.
Doncaster Museum Service undertook a review of their natural history collection (379,000 specimens) between 2010 and 2013 to determine collections development needs and to improve access to and promote the use of the collection. The Taking Stock reviewadhered to the Museum Association’s ‘Disposal Toolkit and used consultants if internal expertise was not available. C.I.R.C.A, the latest element of Taking Stock, has been instrumental in refining and developing the approaches to reviewing collections. This methodology is now being retrospectively applied to the internal and Effective Collection advisory reviews, to facilitate decisions on collections development.
Linking Collections in Wales
The ‘Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales’ project is currently reviewing collections in 20 museums across Wales with the help of specialist curators from Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales. Levels of importance (local, regional, national, international) are being assessed as well as the type of value of specimens or review groups (scientific, historic, aesthetic, social, educational, rarity). Recommendations will then be made on potential uses (science, education, pubic engagement, none). The reviews are scheduled to be completed by early Summer 2014 and the results will be made available publicly via Peoples’ Collection Wales. Landmark specimens discovered during the reviews will be showcased to the public in a touring exhibition from Autumn 2015. This will be one way for people to explore our Distributed National Collection.