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The project has delivered benefits in several areas: collections management, service capacity, access and staff development. Public and curatorial access to an important collection has been significantly improved. Curators now spend a fraction of the time previously spent in locating, transporting, packing and repacking items in response to enquiries or for exhibitions and the project has provided content which will be used as a basis to tender for a more sophisticated collections management system and as a springboard for future web-based access. More significantly, a visit to the project and tour conducted by the Documentation Assistant directly influenced the Service Manager in the design of the Service restructure in a positive way. The new structure now includes a dedicated Documentation Team in addition to Curatorial and Interpretation Teams. Whilst the restructure did not bring in additional resources it embedded the fundamental importance of collections documentation. The restructure also resulted in removing operational responsibilities from trained curators who can now concentrate on collections care.
To pilot the documenting and inventory of part of the collections and use this pilot project to inform a framework and process/template for a retrospective documentation plan to tackle the remaining collections backlog. The project provided an improved inventory for the costume collection and confirmed the existence of, and percentage of, loans in the collection thus meeting the Accreditation standard in several areas. Hard data on the time taken to carry out basic elements of documentation and re-packing tasks enabled a framework for the process and a checklist for use in their future retrospective documentation project, which was a key aim. The project required funding for an additional Documentation Assistant post. Improved work and storage space was also a key aim.
Fife Council Museums Service came into being in 1996 with the creation of a unitary authority from three former district services centred on St Andrews Museum, Kirkcaldy Museum & Art Gallery and Dunfermline Museum. Each area had built up separate local collections including costume. The collection held at Pittencrieff House Museum (PHM)in Dunfermline was the result of the previous owner – the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust – focusing on acquiring “fine” costume to display in the Museum during the 1960s and 1970s.
The project ran for three and a half years and in that time a new store and a working area was created, enabling packing, boxing and documentation of the costume collections. The project started at PHM where a methodology was established and subsequently adapted for the two other areas. Two upper two floors of PHM were converted from a mixture of public access and storage to costume storage alone. The top floor was equipped to form a dedicated costume store and two rooms on the first floor were converted from a store and a gallery to a costume working area and an office. In Kirkcaldy the work space in the main store was unsuitable so a temporary working space would be needed in the basement area of the main building.
An Assistant Curator was relocated from Dunfermline Museum to PHM to supervise the project and work with a team of Museum Assistants. Initially a one year post of Temporary Documentation Assistant was match funded by Museums Galleries Scotland and Fife Council. This was extended for a further year. From December 2007, as a result of an internal restructure, a newly created post of Documentation and Quality Control Assistant spent 6 days at Kirkcaldy Museum learning how to carry on the unfinished project work there. Museum Assistants were trained on the job in-house. In addition, two one-day training sessions led by freelance conservation experts from The Scottish Conservation Studio were held in Fife venues covering storage, managing and cleaning textiles and pest identification. This was also supported by a grant from Museums Galleries Scotland.
All existing paper records for Costume items were brought together at PHM. This involved extracting and copying information from the main collections records as well as moving some records (like daybooks) from other venues. The information from the paper records were typed into a museum collections database (MS Access). The contents of every Costume box were examined and repacked where necessary. Selected objects were photographed and by the end of the project:
• 6436 paper records were added to the electronic collections database
• 5494 objects were unpacked, examined and checked against existing paper records
Where necessary, those records were improved by additions or amendments. If no records were found a new temporary record was made and the object labelled with a temporary number.
• 2272 objects were photographed
• 5494 items were conditioned checked
• 5007 were repacked and given a new location
Lesley Botten: “We now know much more about the scope, content and condition of the Costume Collection. The project has provided hard data about the process of clearing a documentation backlog and given us information which we can use to plan further backlog tasks. The resource implications have been clearly set out too. Our best estimate is that we are holding 7,750 items of costume in Fife Council museums. Scotland’s National Audit 2001 reported that 80,656 items of costume were held in Local Authority museums (including Glasgow). Fife therefore holds around 10% of the costume collections deposited in Scottish local authority run museums. We were able to analyse the gender, age and classification of the costume collection and obtain percentages of the holdings in each museum. We also developed a separate category of classifictaion for jewellery and doll’s clothes. This information will contribute to our scheduled review of our Collecting and Disposal Policy. On a day to day basis decisions about whether to accept specific items of costume into the collection will be much better informed by having access to a searchable database.
Estimating timescales. Allow an additional “contingency” time element to deal with unforeseen events. The initial plan estimated that most of the collections could be processed in a single year but failed to include “contingency” time to allow for planned and unforeseen breaks in the work such as staff leaving or sickness absence, restructuring and an emergency closure for repair work. The Work Audits used for the project were not detailed or specific enough to accurately quantify the amount of staff time spent working on the project. We underestimated how many other calls there would be on staff time unrelated to the costume project. Costume collections are recognised as being inherently “difficult” in that they require the most careful handling and storage. There will be other collection types such as ceramics, for example, which will require much less resources to complete.
The biggest lesson from the Costume Documentation Project is that cataloguing of museum objects is very labour intensive. Retrospective cataloguing is even more time consuming and it is cheaper and easier to record all known information about objects when they first come into our hands. Resources must continue to be directed both to retrospective documentation and to preventing the build up of new backlogs. The value of a “subject by subject” approach to retrospective documentation has been proved as a strategy for Fife Council’s museum collections. The process will be applied next to our ceramics collection on the grounds that it receives a high number of enquiries, is a well-defined collection and has strong visual interest. This project could not have happened without considerable support from Museums and Galleries Scotland.”
This project is an exemplar to the sector in terms of planned collections care and management, tackling a significant backlog and making the best use of resources in order to improve service and capacity. All staff involved have benefited from learning to work as a team and gaining a better understanding of documentation and collections care issues. The project developed their planning and organising skills and staff working on collections will benefit in future from a dedicated collections working area created at Pittencrieff House Museum and a new collections room at Kirkcaldy Museum. It also demonstrates the staff’s foresight in taking advantage of advocating their work within their organisation and achieved excellent outcomes as result.
Through Museums Galleries Scotland’s quarterly magazine, MGQ.
The final report on the project was comprehensive and provided a lot of detail on the analysis and evaluation of the information they had recorded during the project, particularly that gained around collections knowledge during the documentation work.
Lesley Botten, Museum Collections Co-ordinator, Fife Council.
01592 583204 or firstname.lastname@example.org
1st Mar 2007
1st Mar 2010
14th Jul 2010
Who else took part?
The Scottish Conservation Studio.
Museums Galleries Scotland and Fife Council
£24,446.00 and £57,465.00