Learning from the past 2: capturing and sharing information

This is the second of a series of posts looking at the lessons about museum documentation thrown up whilst I was researching my recent article on the website of the Horniman Museum (where I work as Documentation Manager), investigating the objects related to the ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic exploration which were once owned by the Horniman. I’ve already looked at accession registers; in this piece, I’ll talk about capturing and sharing information; further posts will look at recording what happens to objects; and finally, at how we can make that information available online. It’s worth remembering that I’m writing about documentation that was drawn up in the late 1930s, and the late 1950s and early 1960s – but problems with what happened then are useful prompts to doing things better today.

Beyond the information recorded in the accession register, it’s also very useful if as much information as possible about an object is captured when the object is acquired. Yes,  a curator will often know more about what an object is than does its previous owner – but equally, the owner is likely to know much more about the context in which the objects were collected; in the case of anthropological objects, they may also have seen them being made or used. It also helps researchers to know something about the person from whom the objects were acquired (e.g. which Miss Shackleton).

The usual mechanism for collecting this information nowadays is an object entry form. These should be filled in every time a non-museum object enters the museum’s premises, and they are powerful documents: they establish:

  • who is leaving the object at the museum
  • that they do actually own it, or represent someone who does
  • what they intend the museum to do with it
  • what the object is
  • that its ownership  is transferred to the museum if it is offered for acquisition
  • what the museum can do with it if it’s not offered for acquisition, and the owner doesn’t collect it (practically every museum I know of has a cupboard – or larger space – full of objects which were never collected by their owners; dealing with them is a complex question which I won’t go into here)

And crucially, the forms provide a space for the person completing the form to record everything that’s know about the object.

Another method is something that I’ve instigated at the Horniman, and which I am in the process of incorporating into a revised set of acquisition procedures: a people data collection form. This provides a way of recording information about people who are connected to our collections: preferred and full names, date and place of  birth, biographical information (at least in relation to our collections), and a way of contacting them  in the future. Crucially, it also lets them say whether or not we can keep this information on our database, and publish it.

Equally, it makes sense to research the object as comprehensively as possible at the point at which you acquire it, rather than wait until your potential sources have moved away or died off. I found that there was much information available about our former Antarctic objects which could be gathered relatively easily, although it hadn’t been collected or recorded when we acquired the objects.

But other information, which could have been easily established when we acquired the objects, was less obvious and on the point of being lost: it was only by contacting his nephew Bruce Young that I was able to confirm that W. Goodman Barnes was Bob Young‘s brother-in-law, and so presumably acquired the seal skulls which he sold to the Horniman in 1936 from Young when the latter was visiting family in England in the late autumn of 1935, following his return from the second Byrd Antarctic expedition.

Equally, there are many things which we just don’t know at all, either because the information had already been lost, or because we didn’t ask, and record the answers, when the objects were acquired: for example, precisely where and when were Colbeck’s birds’ eggs collected? Did any of Scott’s objects travel with him to Antarctica, and if so, when? Who took the photograph of Shackleton?

But, as I’ve mentioned, none of this is much use if the information is not kept and shared with everyone who needs it: the staff who care for the object and tell the public about it, researchers, visitors, etc., etc. In other words: don’t just put the information in a filing cabinet and not tell anyone about it.

And this brings me to the information that was put in a filing cabinet: the history files. They’re not always called history files – I’ve heard them referred to as object files or dossiers in other museums – but their basic function is the same: they are the files where a museum keeps miscellaneous information that it gathers about its objects, such as correspondence with researchers interested in the object, offprints (remember them?) of articles which publish the object, photographs, research notes, and so on.

I mentioned in my original article that I’d finally found information on the Horniman’s Antarctic relics in its history files, in the Anthropology department’s office in the main museum site at Forest Hill – rather than in the stores at the Study Collections Centre, where the documentation staff are normally based.

Different museums organise their history files in different ways: by accession number is quite common. In the Horniman, the Anthropology department organise them by the source from which we acquired the objects. This means that all the information relating to the acquisition of a large collection is in one place, which is quite useful; but it makes it difficult to dig out information that relates to an individual object. And it does mean you need to know the source of the object you’re interested in – which means you will already have had to look something up before you can find the history file. And of course, it helps if the objects have been registered first: I was looking for files under Colbeck and Shackleton – but the information I needed was under Kennet, the name being used by Captain Scott’s widow when we acquired the Scott objects from her – and these objects had never been entered in the accession registers. (As part of our recent project to list the Anthropology history files, it’s been refiled under Colbeck.)

Once I’d found the file, it proved useful: it provided, after some digging, a list of objects, and it showed me what had happened to them. The first couple of items – correspondence from Lady Kennet about the objects she gave us – were a little frustrating: I’d have liked to have seen copies of the letters which we sent her, as they would have told me more about the reasons why we decided to set about collecting Antarctic relics in the late 1930s. The later items, dating from the late 1950s and early 1960s, were more satisfactory, as both sides of the correspondence had been recorded.

However, there were some drawbacks to the file. Not all the information it contained was correct: for example, Samson’s initial letter requesting permission to transfer the Antarctic objects elsewhere says we acquired them from Louis Bernacchi, rather than Lady Kennet and Miss Shackleton. At the risk of becoming a bit circular, perhaps a better history file would have led to a better history file, giving Samson more accurate information before he began to dispose of the objects. (And I’m still intrigued by that reference to Bernacchi: how is he involved in the whole story?)

And this raises the second problem about the history file: with the exception of Lady Kennet’s two letters, it really only tells us about the disposal of the objects – all the information which I have been able to glean from it was collected and preserved as part of the disposal process, rather than as a result of research into the objects we’d acquired. This also explains why the three different acquisitions – Kennet, Colbeck and Shackleton – were, unusually, grouped together into a single file: the history file, in this case, was in fact a disposal file. At the moment, we don’t have a separate file series for disposals, so I suppose this makes sense; but now that we’re beginning to process disposals systematically, we will create one.

So, what have we learned from the Horniman’s Antarctic relics about capturing and sharing information? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it mirrors what I said in the first of this series of posts: spend some time at the beginning to gather as much information about the object as possible, and make sure it’s all added to the object’s main record (usually the museum’s database) straight away. That way, everyone knows the information exists, and can use it; and the museum can therefore make much more effective use of the objects. It’ll take time, but it’ll be time well spent.

Next: recording what happens to objects

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