Learning from the past 3: recording what happens to objects

This is the third 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, and capturing and sharing information; in this piece, I’ll talk about recording what happens to objects; and a final post will look at how we can make that information available online.

As I’ve mentioned, the bulk of what we know about the Horniman’s Antarctic relics dates from the two episodes, in 1956 and 1961, when we decided the objects would be of more use elsewhere, and that we should therefore get rid of them: the process known in museums as disposal.

When people give objects to museums, they usually do so in the expectation that they will be kept, cared for, and exhibited to the public for the long term, if not in perpetuity; after all, that’s what museums do. But museums have finite resources, and not everything that is acquired in one curator’s fit of enthusiasm is, in retrospect and with the benefit of hindsight and after all due consideration, worth that particular museum’s while to preserve. This doesn’t mean that the object itself is not worth preserving; just that it may be of more use elsewhere. In fact, when one is contemplating a disposal, it can be quite useful to ask oneself whether an object could be made to ‘work harder’ in another museum.

When disposing of an object, it’s important to balance the disposing museum’s finite resources with the donor’s legitimate expectation that the object will be cared for over the long term (never mind any explicit conditions attached to the acquisition, whether by the object’s owner, or by a person or organisation who may have funded the acquisition or subsequent work on or with the object). There are a couple of very good reasons for this. First of all, it’s simply the right thing to do: museums should be exemplary, public-spirited organisations and should therefore behave in a principled and ethical fashion. Second, it sets a poor precedent: people will be less willing to give objects to museums if they think that they will not be cared for and preserved.

For these reasons, nowadays museums are very careful when they take the decision to dispose of objects, and work within an established set of guidelines for doing so ethically. Museums which fail to follow these guidelines can be – and are – censured: one of the side-effects of the last few years of austerity has been the growing number of museums which have sold parts of their collections to raise money, and have suffered as a result.

So how did the Horniman do in 1956 – incidentally, long before the current guidelines on ethical disposal were published? Well, not badly: our director at the time, Otto Samson, was careful to seek the permission of our governing body – at that time, the London County Council (L.C.C.) – to dispose of the objects. He also consulted stakeholders, in this case Captain and Lady Scott’s son, Peter Scott, to make sure he was happy with the proposed transfer, although there was no need to do so: it was only polite, and cannot have harmed the Horniman’s reputation. When it became clear that the objects were not all going to be transferred to the Royal Geographical Society (R.G.S.) or the Scott Polar Research Institute (S.P.R.I.), as originally envisaged, he sought to have the L.C.C.’s permission revised accordingly [019].

In other respects, the 1956 disposal was less satisfactory. It’s now clear that, when disposing of the E. A. Wilson print and (possibly) second pair of skis, Samson did not know the objects’ provenance: this was very risky, because they may have been subject to restrictions preventing the disposal which he was unaware of, and of course he was unable to consult the original donors or their representatives. (Disposing of objects of unclear provenance is of course much more risky if the objects in question are valuable.) In part, this must be down to a lack of research done on the objects when they arrived in the Horniman, as discussed in my previous post. When disposing of an object, you should always remember that this is potentially your last chance to gather information about the object, and to know what it was you got rid of: it’s therefore prudent always to spend time researching the object as thoroughly as possible, so you don’t find yourself inadvertently disposing of something you later discover you should have kept.

Nowadays, the preference is always for an object to be transferred to another accredited museum, and, with the exception of the objects which went to the S.P.R.I., this didn’t happen in 1956. Samson originally proposed that the objects should go to the R.G.S. or the S.P.R.I., both notable public bodies with formal collections. The R.G.S. replied to recommend that the objects be offered first to the S.P.R.I., but they would gladly take them if the S.P.R.I. did not want them. The S.P.R.I., in turn, were only interested in the pictures, but suggested H.M.S. Discovery, a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve training ship, and the Sea Rangers establishment Quest as destinations for the remaining objects – neither organisation with any track record in caring for museum objects. In retrospect, these objects should perhaps have been offered to the R.G.S. rather than Discovery and Quest – but then, our governing body didn’t object when asked to approve the new destinations.

We certainly have a record of where the objects went, which is good – but this is only in the history file, and has not been added into the accession registers, which is less good: the registers should provide a formal and unambiguous inventory of everything which a museum believes that it owns at any particular time, so the entries for any objects which have been disposed of should be marked accordingly.

When transferring an object to another organisation, a museum is well within its rights to attach conditions to the transfer – for example, stipulating that if the recipient wishes to dispose of the object themselves at a later date, they must only do so to an accredited museum. In the case of the Antarctic relics, one condition which would have been useful to me is for the recipients to have been asked to notify us of the objects’ subsequent fates: it was only through research that I learnt that the S.P.R.I. had disposed of the Shackleton photograph and that the Discovery objects travelled with the ship to Discovery Point at Dundee. And I still don’t know what happened to the Quest lifebuoy. All of this information would have helped me answer any questions from researchers who had heard about these objects in our collections and wished to find out more. And knowing where the objects are now is a help to anyone interested in the history of the Horniman: a museum’s history is largely the history of its collections, and if we know where we can find objects which were once part of those collections, researchers can gain a more rounded picture of those objects and therefore of the story the museum they once belonged to.

After all my research, and despite the paperwork in the registers and history files, there are still some objects which I know we once owned, but which I’ve been unable to account for. This is the point at which regular record keeping becomes crucial: specifically, knowing where all your objects are at any one time. All museums should be able to say exactly where all their objects are at any given moment. After all, we’re usually funded by the public in some form – whether directly by local or national government, or simply by admission fees – and we owe the public a responsibility to care for for the assets – the objects – on which we spend their money.

One way of accounting for our objects is by keeping a formal list of those objects that we currently own – the accession registers – which should at least tell us whether we still need to look for an object in our own collections. We’ve already seen that this didn’t happen in the case of the objects which were disposed of. Another way is by ensuring that we regularly audit objects: checking what is in a given location against what we think should be there. At the Horniman, we’ve done this as part of large projects, like Collections People Stories, and as an ongoing check of 500 randomly-chosen objects a year. Unfortunately, none of the missing objects has, so far, been thrown up by these audits.

This wouldn’t be a problem if we had an up-to-date record of where these missing objects are. Unfortunately, the last record we have of the objects dates from the 1950s, ten or so years before we started keeping objects in our current store, the Study Collections Centre (S.C.C.). If we were keeping records of which objects were where at that date, I have yet to find them; it certainly pre-dates our current system of storage by object function, implemented in the S.C.C. in the 1960s or 1970s, which provides the system of locations recorded on our catalogue cards. And it’s well before we first started keeping computerised records of our objects, with the easy updating of locations that that provides. So at the moment, I can’t say whether or not we still have these objects, and that’s not really satisfactory. I wouldn’t be in this position if we had a consistent system of location records which went back to the Museum’s foundation – in other words, a clear audit trail which we could start investigating in order to track these objects down – but alas, we do not.

So, we’ve seen that the Horniman’s 1950s disposal procedures weren’t too bad, although there are areas where they could have been improved. These should all have been addressed in the current, new procedures which we’re currently trialling with our natural history collections. We’ve also seen the importance of controlling our inventory – knowing precisely what is and isn’t part of the collection – and auditing it; and of keeping up-to-date records of locations over the long term.

In this, as in so much else which I’ve been talking about in these posts, it seems clear to me that there’s one fundamental lesson to learn: if you take the time and trouble to get your documentation right at the time you’re doing something – such as acquiring or disposing of an object or moving it – you won’t need to do it later, at some time when your sources have disappeared and old papers have been thrown away, and the whole process of finding the information you need has become much harder, if not impossible.

Of course, the Horniman is not the only museum in this position. One of the nice things about my work on the Antarctic relics has been that I’ve been able to repay some of the other institutions that have helped my research by giving them some more information about their collections. In the case of the S.P.R.I., it’s simply copies of the limited paperwork we have regarding the 1961 transfer to them of Colbeck’s photographs. In the case of Dundee Heritage Trust, who own the R.R.S. Discovery and the collections that she contained, they were unaware of the provenance of Captain Scott’s pipe and uniform button before they arrived on the Discovery, and I’ve been able send them copies of all the paperwork we have relating to those objects for their files.

Next: making information available online

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