Raikes: May 1996

Introduction

Collections management is at the heart of much contemporary discussion and scholarship about museums (Fahy 1995; Roberts 1988), reflecting the central role which it plays in practical museum work. It has also been the focus of much critical attention in the past, both from the government, particularly with regard to the national museums (Roberts 1988) and from non-government bodies (Fahy 1995). This has led to the rise of a wide variety of standard setting initiatives in the United Kingdom, alongside developments in other countries.

Collections Management: A Working Definition

Firstly, it is necessary to make some sort of definition of the term "collections management" and attempt to relate it to the abstract concepts of "art" and "science." Collections management is a term which, as Roberts points out, "means different things to different people" (Roberts 1988) and there are a wide range of definitions in the relevant literature (Fahy 1995; Doughty 1988; Lewis 1988). Roberts' definition that collections management consists of the "policies and procedures" of the museum, regarding "accessioning, control, cataloguing, acquisitions and loans" (Roberts 1988) seems to be a useful description. We may also consider the areas identified by Malaro (1995), which also include insurance, inventories, and access to collections. By amalgamating some of these definitions, we may describe collections management as the "policies and procedures" (following Roberts) which a museum develops, in order to deal with the objects in its care in a responsible and consistent manner.

"Art" and "Science"

The concepts of "art" and "science", are extremely complex and require simplification. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the former is a "human creative skill" and the latter "systematic and formulated knowledge." The distinction made by these definitions between "skill" and "knowledge" are not particularly useful for the purposes of this essay, as collections management requires elements of both. Thus, I propose that for collections management to be an "art", we must identify it as something "creative" and for it to be a "science", as something "systematic" or "formulated." From our earlier definition of collections management itself, we may immediately veer towards the "science" side of this argument, but a more detailed study of the issues involved is required. This essay will look first at the background to the standard setting initiatives concerning collections management and then at particular standards set by bodies including the Museums and Galleries Commission (M.G.C.), the Museums Documentation Association (M.D.A.), and other professional groups.

Overview of Collections Management in the United Kingdom

The very existence of collections management standards shows us that it is naive to believe that museums have always implemented rigorous programmes of documentation and collections care. Although Leicester Museum had an accession book system in 1849 (Boylan 1988), and the British Museum recorded donations in The Book of Presents from 1756 (Light 1986), other museums, and even those with these early systems, were in a state of disarray until very recently (or are still in such a condition). Brighton Museum Service admitted in the 1980s that it had no formal entry or accessioning procedures, and the British Museum recognised that it had great difficulty locating many of its artefacts (Roberts 1985). Problems such as these began to be highlighted in the 1960s and 1970s with critical government reports about the auditing and inventory procedures in national museums (Roberts 1988). The Wright Report (1973/4) recommended that museums improve standards in collections management and particularly in documentation (Roberts 1988). This led to the rise of the Information Retrieval Group of the Museum Association (I.R.G.M.A.) and then to the Museums Documentation Association, setting standards for all types of documentation in collections management (Roberts 1988; Roberts 1985; Light 1986). However, criticism continued into the 1980s, for example with a National Audit Report in 1988, and other concerns were expressed about non-national museums (Fahy 1995). This led to:

...a proliferation of schemes and incentives to improve collections care, co-ordinated by the Museums and Galleries Commission and the Area Museums Councils (Fahy 1995).

The 1982 Museum Association Conference concentrated on professional standards (Roberts 1985). The issue of standards in collections management, relating closely to that of public accountability (Fahy 1995; Roberts 1985), is now a crucial one, and moves towards improvements and perhaps a more systematic "scientific" approach are currently being made.

Setting Collection Management Standards

I will begin a closer study of collections management standards by looking at the work of the Museums and Galleries Commission, as perhaps the most all-encompassing of the standard-setting bodies. Its initiatives include the Registration Scheme, Care of Collections Standards, and Guidelines on museum issues (M.G.C. 1995a). The Commission works alongside the Area Museum Councils and the National Heritage Memorial Fund in helping museums that have reached certain standards, particularly those meeting the Registration requirements, to access funds (M.G.C. 1995a; Fahy 1995). This has caused some (perhaps justified) concern about a "two-tier" system, with divisions between those museums which have and which have not registered (Fahy 1995). The link to funding does, however, show that the Museums and Galleries Commission's schemes are considered important enough to warrant financial incentives, also perhaps implying that some museums may require inducements to persuade them to tackle the difficult task of improving collections management procedures that have suffered from years of neglect. The case of the Cumbrian Museums Service (Gill 1993) demonstrates what a long and complex procedure it is to improve standards sufficiently to meet Registration Scheme requirements. It is also worth noting that extra weight is lent to the Registration Scheme by the Museum Association Code of Practice for Museum Governing Bodies (section 4.1) and the Code of Conduct for Museum Professionals (section 1.6) which both assert that a museum should comply with Registration Guidelines. This corroborates the fact that great efforts are being made to establish an official line which advocates a consistent, systematic, and thus perhaps "scientific" system of collections management in British museums.

The Registration Scheme

The Registration Scheme is perhaps the most significant of the M.G.C. standards. It was introduced in 1988 after a pilot scheme in the North of England in 1986 (Newberry 1988), with a second phase implemented in 1995 (Fahy 1995). It aims to achieve "minimum standards in museum management, collection care and public services", and to "foster confidence in museums" and "provide a shared ethical basis" for museums (M.G.C. 1995b). The basic requirements for a museum to become registered include having an "acceptable constitution," a "planned approach to management," and perhaps most importantly in relation to collections management, an "acceptable provision for the care of collections" (M.G.C. 1995b; Fahy 1995). The care of collections element to Registration requires a museum to have a proper collections management policy (Fahy 1995). It was this element which prompted Calderdale Museums Service to overhaul and improve its collections management procedures (Glaister 1993). Thus the scheme formalises collections management and ensures a degree of consistency throughout registered museums. This may be considered as a "scientific" element, but it should also be stressed that the scheme is extremely flexible and takes into consideration the various sizes and capabilities of all kinds of museums. The guidance notes for Registration state that:

The criteria are such that they may be met equally by a national museum and by a village museum run by volunteers. Registration is not concerned with the scale of a museum's operation, nor with making detailed qualitative judgements about each museum's activities (Fahy 1995).

It is this flexibility and the fact that the scheme is a minimum standard allowing for further initiative to be shown by participating museums, which suggests an element of "art", moving away from the extremely rigid and formulated rules of a "science." We may also include here the option given to museums to register provisionally in the scheme whilst attempts are made to meet the appropriate standards. This was done by the Dickens House Museum while a new cataloguing system was implemented (Bean 1994). The same can perhaps be said of the M.G.C. Guidelines, including, among others, publications about disability within museums, customer care, and managing the museum environment (M.G.C. 1995c). These guidelines aim only to offer advice and thus allow the museum to work independently of any fixed instructions, while also being extremely useful indicators to the museum of what it ought to be aiming to achieve. The Care of Collections Standards, which currently encompass six topics including geological, biological, and archaeological collections (M.G.C. 1995c) are optimum standards and as such are much more rigid than the Guidelines or the Registration Scheme. It should be stressed, however, that these standards are in no way compulsory and thus, once again, allow a degree of adaptability. "Art" and "science" may thus be seen to co-exist here, with formulated and systematic "scientific" standards having been devised, which still endeavour to allow the flexibility and creativity more typical of an "art."

Independently Set Standards for Collections Management

At this point it is important to mention that there are also standards set by individual professional bodies to improve standards in their specialist areas of museum work. For example, the Social History Curators' group, formerly the Group for Regional Studies in Museums, has developed the Social History and Industrial Classification (S.H.I.C.) for documenting social history artefacts in museums (Fenton 1995). Not all users of the S.H.I.C. system have found it satisfactory, for example the curator of Hackney Museum found it to be too restricting for the mixed-culture community of the Hackney area (Johnstone 1990), thus perhaps suggesting that the "scientific" element of the standard is too rigid. Here we can see that it is not only the larger and perhaps more important bodies which are concerned with setting standards, but that the smaller professional groups are also making significant steps towards improvements in collections management, although they may not have the same scope to allow an element of flexibility into their schemes.

Documentation in Collections Management

We now turn to documentation as an aspect of collections management and in particular to the work of the Museums Documentation Association.

Good documentation plays a key role in the work of a museum, virtually every aspect of a museum's function depends upon the availability and reliability of this documentation (M.D.A. 1981).

As mentioned above, the M.D.A. grew up out of the work of I.R.G.M.A. (Roberts 1988; Roberts 1985; Light 1986) and today has links with the international theatre of standards initiatives under the auspices of CIDOC, the international documentation committee of the International Council of Museums (Fahy 1995). It has set up a data standard for use in museum documentation and produced computer packages, such as MODES, MODES PLUS, and CATALIST to assist documentation projects (Light 1986). However, the division of the organisation which provided these services is to close and the M.D.A.'s role in the computer sector will now be more of an advisory one (Gosling 1995). Training and back-up services are also an important part of the M.D.A.'s role in the museum world (Light 1986). Similarly to the M.G.C., the M.D.A. is supported by the Area Museums Councils and also features as a recommended standard in the Registration Scheme (Fahy 1995).

The first standard setting initiative of the M.D.A. was the production of the "Museum Data Standard," based on a system of recording forms, catalogue cards (similar to those developed by I.R.G.M.A. in the 1970s) and registers, defining the data categories which should make up a museum record (Light 1986). Each museum using the standard thus recorded more or less the same information and the Standard in fact described itself as "the first step towards a national museum data standard" (M.D.A. 1991). Many museums have attributed improvements in their documentation procedures to the use of the M.D.A.'s standards, notably Bristol Museum (Copp 1986) and the Tyne and Wear Museums Service (Baker 1986). The Data Standard is described by the Museums Documentation Association as following a "systematic analytical approach" (M.D.A. 1981). This emphasises the clearly "scientific" element of a system which allows only certain fields of information to be recorded (although there is also an element of adaptability, to be discussed below).

SPECTRUM

SPECTRUM (Standard Procedures for Collections Recording Used in Museums) is the Museums Documentation Association's latest standard setting initiative (M.D.A. 1994). It is a minimum standard, developed since 1991, containing twenty procedures for documenting a museum collection, including procedures for loans, acquisitions, cataloguing, disposal, insurance management (SPECTRUM Quick Reference), and other areas of collections management. The SPECTRUM system has been adopted by Oxfordshire Museums Service to assist in the drawing up of a procedural manual "to maintain inventory control and collections management standards" (Pearson 1994). Although there is an obvious need for a scientific approach to such a standard, the M.D.A. is keen to emphasise that the SPECTRUM system is extremely flexible, its intention being:

...to provide (such) a range of museums with a framework around which they can build their own, institution-specific procedures and which they can use to identify their own information needs. SPECTRUM allows for an awareness of a multitude of implementations, while at the same time ensuring a reliable and consistent approach which can be built upon in the future (M.D.A. 1994).

This statement makes it extremely evident that the combination of flexibility/creativity with formulated "scientific" procedures which was identified earlier in the work of the Museums and Galleries Commission (although not necessarily in that of smaller schemes like S.H.I.C.), can also be observed in that of the Museums Documentation Association.

Computer Documentation

The work of the M.D.A. cannot be discussed without a further mention of the role of computer documentation as an aid to the implementation of standards in collections management. As a tool of the standards rather than a standard setting initiative in itself, this aspect will only be discussed briefly. The use of computers has been seen as an exciting area in the museum world for a number of years and many different systems and programmes have been used in a variety of museums (many examples of these are given in Light 1986). Computer systems have not always been used wisely and have in some cases caused a number of problems, but have certainly been extremely useful in helping museums to improve their documentation and meet the appropriate standards (Ormond 1988). The use of computers and certain computer software in this way, in conjunction with the M.D.A.'s standards, has perhaps imposed more rigid rules on the documentation of museum collections and has had an effect on the image of collections management as a "scientific" discipline.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it can be seen that great and often much-needed advances have been made in collections management in recent years. Museum collections are now generally better documented and cared-for and easier to gain access to than they have ever been (Foster & Phillips 1988). Specialist staff are now being employed (Light 1986) and it is clear that modern collections management has a distinctly "scientific" element to it, with particular rules to be followed in many areas. The use of computers has also added to this reputation, perhaps. However, it is also evident that the "rules" set by the various standards for collections management in the United Kingdom are not as rigid as those that you might expect from a true "science." None of the standards are compulsory, although the Registration Scheme, for example, does bring with it distinct advantages (Fahy 1995). There are also many instances of the standards being flexible and allowing the existence of the "creative" element that is expected from an "art." The very "creative," or more accurately, "chaotic" (lack of) procedures of the past (for example those highlighted in Roberts 1988) have now, for the most part, been replaced with more "scientific" techniques. However, if a "science" is defined as something "systematic and formulated" and an "art" as something "creative" (Oxford English Dictionary) I believe that although collections management now veers more towards being a "science" than it did in the past, it contains elements of both "art" and "science" and is neither truly one or the other.


References and Bibliography

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