We saw in the last post how backlogs of unlisted, unsorted and unknown collections can build up in stores, and how the first step towards getting this sorted is to create an inventory. But what happens then? How does having a list of stored collections help the museum? And how does the museum visitor gain from this lengthy process?
Here at the Museum Collections Centre, we’re creating our inventory list by adding information to our collections database. This is on a nifty programme called EMu, and it has somewhere to record all the information about objects we have. Whether it’s a detailed description of the object, a record of how it came to us in the first place (where we’re lucky to have this information!), or even a note from a curator about an object’s past story, it’s all there on the EMu database. In theory.
I realised just how important it is to list objects on a database when I first started working in museums in the early 2000s. I was working on a collection of butterflies in a tiny, stuffy store in the attic, where the collection had lain unloved and unknown for decades. It wasn’t a collection anyone had used; researchers didn’t know about it, no-one wanted to borrow it and certainly none of it was on display anywhere. Frankly, it might as well never have existed. It reminded me of the age old philosophical question “if a tree falls in the forest but no-one hears it, does it still make a sound?”. If a museum object is lying in store, not listed anywhere and effectively unknown, does it really exist?
It’s only when it makes it to the database that an object suddenly becomes real. Until then, it might only exist in the memory of long retired curators who might have seen it in the 1970s, but it is beyond the reach of the museum today. As soon as it has a record, with a description, an indication of where in the store it is, and if we’re being hopeful, some background context and a photograph, it’s suddenly made real, tangible and most importantly, useable.
Once we have a record for an object, we can start making links to other objects in the collection. This will then mean that previously hidden gems can be used to tell stories in exhibitions, examined by experts for research, feature as stops along our store tours or appear in this blog. Information in the museum world really is king, and without it, objects really can be lost to the world.