Learning from the past 1: accession registers

A couple of weeks ago, I took advantage of the centenary of the departure of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (also known as the Endurance expedition) to publish an 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 said something about what these objects add to our knowledge of Antarctic history, but the process of researching the article has also thrown up some valuable lessons in museum documentation, and I thought I’d share them here, in a series of posts. First, I’ll look at accession registers; then, capturing and sharing information; third, recording what happens to objects; and finally, looking at how we can make that information available online.

First, a brief reminder: documentation is the series of systems which museums have in place to ensure that they know what they own, can account for it, and record as much as possible of what they know about it for the benefit of anyone who’s interested.

Amongst the most vital parts of a museum’s documentation systems are its accession registers. They record everything that a museum acquires as part of its core, ‘accessioned’, collections. More specifically, they list:

  • an object’s permanent, unique identifying number within the museum
  • a description of the object, so it can be identified later if for any reason it has lost its number (which should, of course, never happen – but ‘belt and braces’ is a key principle for museum documentation)
  • when it was acquired
  • who it was acquired from
  • how it was acquired

The registers should provide an unambiguous and precise list of everything a museum owns. So – bearing in mind I’m writing about acquisitions made in 1938 – how did the Horniman do? The answer is: not very well; but some parts of the museum did better than others.

Wherever possible, the register should list each individual object, and give it its own number. There are, every now and again, occasions where this is impossible – where a collection is acquired that’s so huge that it cannot reasonably be entered into the register. But it really does have to be huge before this is an option: I’d say into the high hundreds or thousands of identifiable objects, or hundreds of objects which cannot be identified at all without significant research. In these cases, you must make sure there’s a clear account of everything that’s known about the collection (either an itemised list of objects, or, if that’s impossible to produce, a detailed description of the collection as a whole), and that this is easily available to everyone who will have to deal with it.

In the case of the objects relating to Captain Scott, acquired from his widow, Lady Kennet, we fell at the first hurdle: they were never registered, and I only found out about them from the relevant history file (more on these later). Which means I don’t actually know whether they were ever formally part of the collection, never mind what their numbers were. So, when I finally entered them into our database, I gave these objects temporary numbers, beginning with ‘nn’ for ‘no number’: nn19588, nn19589, and nn19560. You can see from these numbers how big a problem we have with objects which have become separated from their numbers: this is a constant source of delight to documentation and collections management staff at the Horniman.

Later correspondence makes me think that these were believed to have been part of the collections: they were put on display (but we sometime display ‘prop’ items which are not part of the core collection), and they went through a deaccessioning process (again, more later). Whether or not objects are part of a museum’s core collection is actually an important question: the core collection may be subject to different legal restrictions from other property, and will almost certainly be subject to stricter standards of care – which in turn has implications for the quantity of museum resources which they will use over their lifetime.

In the case of the objects relating to William Colbeck, the anthropology curators did a bit better: they recorded that we had acquired some of his ‘Antarctic relics’, and that we’d done so from his son. But these acquisitions fall into a period – coinciding with the Curatorships of L. W. G. Malcolm and Otto Samson – when our registers left a great deal to be desired: Malcolm’s register comprises a series of brief, undated entries written into a ledger, whilst Samson’s are simply bound-up carbon copies of quarterly reports to the London County Council on what the museum had acquired, arranged by date and source but often not specifying what individual objects were acquired (or even how many), nor giving each object a number: these were applied retrospectively, and, because we kept one ‘register’ for gifts and another for purchases, the same number has often been applied to two different objects: another source of constant delight.

So, the Colbeck acquisition is entered as:

Mr Colbeck, 67 Queenswood Road Forest Hill.

Collection of his father’s Antarctic relics (S.S. Relief Ship “Morning”.)

In other words: which of Colbeck’s four sons? And what objects? And how many of them? Exactly when  were they acquired, and how? And what were their accession numbers?

The Shackleton acquisition is somewhat better described:

Miss Shackleton, 40, Langton Grove, S.E.26

Life Buoy of “Quest”, Wire circlet from Shackleton’s open boat – Photograph of Shackleton.

Here, at least we know how many objects were acquired, and what they were (more or less); but which Miss Shackleton? Sir Ernest had many sisters, and a daughter. The address narrows it down a bit, but two of Shackleton’s sisters lived at that address in 1938, and another – who died that year – next door. And again, exactly when were they acquired, and how? And what were their accession numbers?

Such vagueness is not inevitable: some of Colbeck’s objects were birds’ eggs, and these were recorded in the separate natural history register. There, we see that they were acquired on 29 January 1938, and that they were donated, by C. T. Colbeck (interesting, because this is not William Robinson Colbeck, the son who also went exploring in the Antarctic as second officer of the RRS Discovery during the BANZARE voyages of 1929-1931). And we see that they were numbered NH.38.2, four Adélie Penguin eggs, and NH.38.3, one Antarctic Skua egg.

So the lesson here is: ensure your objects are properly registered upon acquisition. That way, you will:

  • know exactly what you own
  • be able to identify it
  • and understand the context it came from.

Yes, it can be a pain to itemise all these objects in what is often a hand-written document – but if you take one thing away from this post, it’s this: get it right at the beginning. The time taken to document an object as thoroughly as possible when it enters the collection is never wasted, and will save much more time later on, when the object comes to be used or processed in any way.

Next: capturing and sharing information

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