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New Collections Management


Presentation to UCL students on the new framework of Collections Management, developed by the Collections Trust (then MDA) between 2005-7.

Presentation to UCL students on the new framework of Collections Management, developed by the Collections Trust (then MDA) between 2005-7.

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  • 1.
    • What makes a museum a museum and not just a random collection of stuff?
  • 2.
    • What stops an object from just being a passive ‘thing’?
  • 3.
    • A museum is a legal entity – we have a legal relationship to the objects in our collections
    • A museum is a social entity – we have a social/ethical relationship with the object
    • A museum is a creative entity – we extract meaning and connections from things
  • 4.
    • A physical object is the trigger for a series of meanings, interpretations and associations
    • A object of itself can inspire a reaction – aesthetic, emotional, non-rational
    • An object plus the information about that object becomes something active and descriptive
    • A collection of objects and their associations becomes a tool for narrating human history
  • 5. A short history of MDA…
    • The Museums Association sets up a Special Interest Group to look into these new-fangled ‘computers’
    • The MDA becomes a separate body
    • Museum Object Data Entry System (MODES) is launched
    • 1994 First edition of SPECTRUM , the UK museum documentation standard
    • 2001 SPECTRUM Knowledge: A Guide to Knowledge Management for museums
  • 6. The real history…
    • Geeks play with data
    • Sector creates stock-control for objects
    • Both strands get formalised into SPECTRUM
    • SPECTRUM becomes a requirement of the Museum Accreditation Scheme
  • 7. A note about: Accreditation
    • Replaced the Registration Scheme
    • Four sections
      • Governance and management
      • User services
      • Visitor facilities
      • Collections Management *
    • * Including SPECTRUM
  • 8. What is SPECTRUM?
    • 400+ pages long
    • A procedural standard – a more or less sequential list of processes you will need to go through with the objects in your collection
    • An information standard – a formal information architecture which gives standard definitions for the kinds of information you will collect about an object
  • 9. How it works in practice
    • When an object comes into the collection, give it a unique number
    • Write down everything you know about it
    • Every time something happens to the object, write that down too
    • Rinse and repeat
  • 10. Why document (the official list)
    • For users:
      • Find objects in your collections & in store
      • Answer queries from people
      • Respect the rights of others (eg. Data Protection)
      • Unearth the histories of diverse/minority cultures
      • Helps create learning & other materials
  • 11. Why document (the official list)
    • For your collection
      • Monitor sensitive or at-risk items in the collection
      • Prove legal ownership in the event of dispute
      • Trace lost or stolen items
      • Inventory for insurance purposes
  • 12. Why document (the official list)
    • For your museum
      • Identify objects for exhibition
      • Produce catalogues
      • Increases credibility with funders and politicians
      • Protects your rights (eg. Copyright)
      • Enables collaboration
      • Creates persistent knowledge (when Bob moves on)
  • 13. The backlogs question
    • A backlog is a perceived failure to keep your records as complete as possible
    • Came about because we went mad with collecting between 1970 and 1990, but couldn’t be bothered with management
    • Backlogs can quickly become a millstone – because you don’t know what you don’t know
    • Backlogs are also used as a political weapon (you have to give us more money, look at the state of our backlog)
    • There is no such things as a ‘backlog’
  • 14. Backlogs
    • A true backlog is a collection of objects for which there is no information at all, this is spectacularly rare
    • People usually mean that they have some objects which either haven’t been formally accessioned into the collection or which only have incomplete information
    • Incomplete information is fine – this is a long-term process, not a finite project
  • 15. How to fix a backlog
    • STEP 1 Define your terms. What constitutes a backlog to your museum in the context of your users
    • STEP 2 Backlogs happen for a reason – get your house in order and stop it growing
    • STEP 3 Your backlog should now be (a) smaller and (b) manageable. Get to it!
  • 16. MDA’s work
    • UK’s focus for expertise in the management of collections
    • Providing advice, guidance and training across 16 areas of collections management practice
    • From documentation to digitisation, copyright, legal compliance and electronic publishing
  • 17. What we believe
    • We love museums. We love what they do and what they mean to people
    • We believe that the UK enjoys the most vibrant and professional museum sector in the world
    • We believe that museums should enjoy the same profile and celebrity as any of the other creative industries
  • 18. Collections Link
    • 550 standards, guidelines and factsheets
    • 20+ publishers
    • 16 areas of collections management practice
    • Freely available online at
    • Local-rate telephone advisory service on 0845 838 4000
    • Give it a try!
  • 19. Cultural Property Advice
    • Detailed guidance and checklists on restitution, repatriation, theft and spoliation
    • Written by industry experts
    • For use by museums, private collectors and the art & antiquities trade
    • Coming soon at
  • 20. The future
    • We are at the beginning of the next big thing for museums
    • Variously called ‘ democratisation ’ or ‘opening up’
    • The idea is that the user community holds expertise and knowledge which should be used to interpret the collection
    • The curator may not have all the answers
  • 21. The future
    • We will always need to document for accountability , but the real value of documentation is using knowledge and information to create stories and connections
    • Opening up documentation to enable a two-way conversation with the community and with users
    • Documentation is becoming more closely integrated into service delivery
    • You will come across a sarky, conspiratorial attitude to documentation. Fight it.
  • 22. The future
    • Beginning to challenge some perceptions and learned behaviours
    • It is OK (essential) to get rid of stuff as well as collect it
    • We can be market-driven without dumbing-down
    • New technology creates as many problems as it solves – we need to step back from the bleeding edge and go for solid and dependable