Documenting Change: Thinking Differently about Collections Documentation in Smaller Museums, by Inbal Livine of the Powell-Cotton Museum.

Discussing how the Powell-Cotton Museum changed the way it approaches its documentation backlog, Inbal Livine gave some great insights into ways of collaborating with academic researchers, subject specialists, and community groups to improve cataloguing and documentation in under-resourced museums.

Inbal first discussed the Pacific Presences collaboration the museum undertook between 2016 and 2018. Having been approached by researchers doing a project on Pacific cultural objects, the Powell-Cotton Museum realised the opportunity to gain from working with a larger funded organisation.

Over two years, the museum worked with subject-specialist experts and diaspora communities to improve the documentation and cataloguing of Pacific objects within their ethnographic collection. Objects were scanned and the specialist knowledge of communities and experts were recorded to be put on the database – through which they could move past the minimum of skeleton records required by SPECTRUM.

She then moved on to how this has helped the museum tackle their dreaded backlog.

While the museum, like many other small or medium sized museums, is understaffed (with traditionally only one curator) they were able to utilise the opportunity to gain knowledge about their collection and, ultimately, improve the catalogue, location tracking, and packing of a key group of objects within the collection.

Through the project, they were also able to outline a framework for future work with similar organisations, which opens up the possibility for funding through new streams, such as research councils.

But how can projects like this become a legacy, rather than a ‘once off’? Firstly, you need to consider these projects as actual possibilities, not just a one-time thing. Working with small museums is attractive to funders, so why can’t museums benefit from this? As so many small museums have seen a reduction in staff, and increase in multiple-hate working, we need to take the help we can get. 

By showing your museum as a place that is ready and willing to work with larger organisations, you can open up these funding streams and help improve your documentation without the capital required for a self-led documentation project. Use who you know to build your reputation as a place to work with, including subject specialist networks, social media, and local links, and be sure you know what your museum wants to achieve.

Once this is in place, Inbal suggests that these projects can help to take museums back to the basics of good documentation. By working with specialists on these projects, small museums can move beyond the minimum requirements of SPECTRUM to have fantastically in-depth catalogue records.

And, most importantly, keep the projects going. Keep looking for partners to focus on the next section of your collection – by having discrete projects of collection types, you can succeed in one area completely then move on to the next, rather than attempting the daunting (and impossible) task of improving everything at once.

Finally, make sure you’re getting the most out of the projects. Be creative, be innovative, and be efficient; this message was surely the most important message in how to rethink documentation. Involve everyone and work together; you can get much more done than alone.

Written by Samantha Jenkins, Peoples History Museum