Collections for People: Making Stores Work Harder


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Speaker: Dr Suzanne Keene, Reader Emeritus in Museum Studies, UCL

With the recent National media interest, it is more important than ever that museums
can put their stored collections to work and make them accessible to the visiting
public. Building on the Collections for People research, this seminar will look at
practical ways of making stored collections more accessible.

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  • Goethe
  • A positive attutude - a friendly message, tea facilities, a fluffy seagull!
  • This was a UCL research project. From working in the MoL / ScM, I was very aware that: People unaware of, or baffled by, the existence of museum collections. ‘ I suppose you use the objects to change the things in the exhibitions?’ ‘ I suppose people come and work on the objects for research?’ ‘ Why do you have collections when you can’t display them?’ ‘ Why don’t you let some of the collections go to private owners who will appreciate them, then?’ These are the research questions that were addressed. We sought answers by these means.
  • To the audience: I’m sure you agree with this statement! (the one in red) But we were surprised to find that almost every type of museum was represented in the ‘more users’ group - that’s 400 users or more a year.
  • So we looked for differneces between ‘more user’ and ‘fewer user’ museums. There were actually not many. One that stood out was this: the degree to which access to stored collections was positively promoted. A much higher proportion of ‘more user’ museums promoted access strongly. Moreover, in the ‘fewer user’ museums, the vast majority promoted access weakly or not at all. (just show this slide slowly, and repeat it, as it’s a bit complex)
  • So how did they promote access? Replies suggested that the press was effective.
  • This was another striking difference. ‘More user’ museums generally go for open stores and various forms of unrestricted access; fewer user ones, one-to-one supervised engagement.
  • What does Open storage mean?
  • But mostly, numbers accessing stored collections just don’t stack up against figures for visitors to exhibitions. The National Trust developed this useful concept for their property, Tyntesfield. You may have heard about the McMaster report which emphasized ‘excellence’ for people engaging in culture. Well, collections seem to offer lots of opportunities here. Next some examples.
  • But mostly, numbers accessing stored collections just don’t stack up against figures for visitors to exhibitions. The National Trust developed this useful concept for their property, Tyntesfield. You may have heard about the McMaster report which emphasized ‘excellence’ for people engaging in culture. Well, collections seem to offer lots of opportunities here. Next some examples.
  • Then, we investigated how users found the service - reaching them in these ways.
  • They said things like this:
  • But I don’t mean to say that access is always rosy, for either party.
  • The main excuses … But let’s see what the ‘more user’ museums did to get round these percieved problems
  • I must admit, storage accessible by loft ladder is a bit of a killer for public access
  • There were few substantive differences between more and fewer user museums. the main conclusion was that almost any museum could have much greater public access to its collections. It is mostly a matter of attitude on the part of the museum staff and management.
  • Collections for People: Making Stores Work Harder

    1. 1. Collections for People: making stores work harder 1 – About collections Pilgrim Trust
    2. 2. Those difficult questions I suppose you use the objects to change the things in the exhibitions? Hmm, exhibitions don’t work quite like that I suppose people come and work on the objects for research? Please don’t ask how many people ... Why do you have collections when you can’t display them? Ah, they’re the heart of the museum, you see But can you afford the storage cost if they are only useful for a few researchers? But they’re for the future!
    3. 3. How did we get here? Cataloguing the natural world Mass production and consumerism Urban development - archaeology Disappearing worlds - ethnography
    4. 4. Admit it, we just love to collect
    5. 5. Collections - 1001 kinds <ul><li>Art / aesthetic </li></ul><ul><li>Functional objects </li></ul><ul><li>Archives for research </li></ul><ul><li>Places & people collections </li></ul>
    6. 6. Why should people want museums to have collections? <ul><li>Economists and the cultural value debate … </li></ul>
    7. 7. Kinds of cultural value <ul><li>Authenticity value </li></ul><ul><li>Symbolic value </li></ul><ul><li>Historical value </li></ul><ul><li>Spiritual value </li></ul><ul><li>Aesthetic value </li></ul>
    8. 8. Authenticity value – research eg, authenticating Vermeer: depends on 100’s of humbler objects
    9. 9. Symbolic value – identity Canada Europe (Vienna) Australia UK
    10. 10. Historical value – learning
    11. 11. Spiritual value - creativity <ul><li>These massless bodies have been made visible through the effective exploitation of their inherent flatness. </li></ul><ul><li>The thin, pentagonal shapes are ... composed with both harmony and sobriety ... ‘ </li></ul>Byrne & Smith, sound installation, The sculpture of the Grant Museum Brittle stars are found in …
    12. 12. Spiritual values - history, memory, discovery
    13. 13. Aesthetic value – enjoyment of beauty
    14. 15. Values >> Uses <ul><li>Authenticity value >> Research </li></ul><ul><li>Symbolic value >> Memory, identity </li></ul><ul><li>Historical value >> Learning </li></ul><ul><li>Spiritual value >> Creativity </li></ul><ul><li>Aesthetic value >> Enjoyment of beauty </li></ul>
    15. 16. Use values and even “Non-use” values Existence value Option value Bequest value Prestige value
    16. 17. Future museums?
    17. 18. Future museums? My hero! Mark Dion, installation artist
    18. 19. Next, some evidence
    19. 20. 2 - Some evidence Pilgrim Trust
    20. 21. How many people use / access collections? <ul><li>80% - fewer than 400 users a year (10 a week) </li></ul><ul><li>20% - 400 or more users a year </li></ul>So, what made a difference???
    21. 22. Kind or size of museum? The top 20% - 400+ users <ul><li>7 Small local museums </li></ul><ul><li>7 Large local museums </li></ul><ul><li>6 University museums </li></ul><ul><li>6 Highly specialised collections </li></ul><ul><li>5 Large object collections </li></ul><ul><li>3 English Heritage archaeology regional stores </li></ul><ul><li>2 Large national museums </li></ul><ul><li>“ It’s the old story. Small museums are far behind the bigger ones.” </li></ul>
    22. 23. Difference: Why more users? 1: Promote access 1999 - 98% of respondents offered access to stored material, less than 22% promoted it in museum literature
    23. 24. Difference: How promote access? <ul><li>Six of the 36 ‘more users’ museums used the press to promote access: Only two of the 135 with ‘fewer users’ </li></ul><ul><li>The website was the most common medium </li></ul><ul><li>Many museums used talks, society newsletters and outreach activities as well </li></ul>
    24. 25. Difference: Why more users? 2: Provide access 
    25. 26. ‘ Open storage’ <ul><li>Often (not always) for large/industrial objects </li></ul><ul><li>Access usually by tours/open days </li></ul><ul><li>May be permanently open </li></ul><ul><li>Often includes access to observe or talk to staff </li></ul><ul><li>May be attached to the museum or a separate location </li></ul><ul><li>May combine more than one museum’s collection </li></ul>
    26. 27. What about the numbers? Preserved for everyone Visited by many The general public: visits to the collections in general, e.g. store tours, open stores Inspiration to some Special interests: programmes, events, special days, societies to a significant few Pivotal exper-ience One-to-one engagement: researchers, artists, for social benefits, volunteers
    27. 28. What about the numbers? Visited by many Inspiration to some Thanks to the National Trust, Tyntesfield, who developed this concept Preserved for everyone … for ever … to a significant few Pivotal exper-ience
    28. 29. Visited by many Access days to sections of store once a month Usually 4 advertised store tours per year Strong links with schools, local colleges/uni’s, community groups, other museums and Archive Service users … we preserve working practices… People come to see this … … nothing in the reserve is of consequence. EVERYTHING worthwhile is on display. Several enthusiast groups who are well acquainted with the collection Mainly local and specialist groups … 
    29. 30. Visited by many-open days
    30. 31. Visited by many – stores tours
    31. 32. Inspiration to some Rugby enthusiasts, family history, sports historians Musical instrument makers & designers Dissertation students, volunteers, Cold War researchers, archaeological researchers/academics People interested in pierhead painters … Gypsy Travellers to see our Gypsy Wagons and Gypsy Floral Tribute A level textile students City & Guilds patchwork & quilting students Women with a specialist interest in our collections Visiting professors from Russia
    32. 33. Inspiration to some - research
    33. 34. Inspiration to some … artists Dario Lanzardo, ‘Arca Naturae’ Collections of the Turin Museum during a move Mrs Janet Knell, drawing Grant Museum, UCL
    34. 35. Collections as medium
    35. 36. What do users say? <ul><li>We contacted - </li></ul><ul><li>Research users </li></ul><ul><li>Some users who came to workshops </li></ul><ul><li>Mystery Shoppers </li></ul>
    36. 37. Research users said … Sometimes I’ve had great success and fun, other times it’s been like pulling teeth Only positive is staff – consistently helpful and positive The readiness to allow the viewing and photographing of collections, made my task remarkably easy. Make the first statement: “We want to make our stored collections more accessible … Please come in” Employ a collections interpreter who can assist people Do it! The collections are a brilliant resource for secondary schools I have had a positive experience in accessing museum archives because the majority of museum staff have been keen to help and have taken an interest in my research.
    37. 38. Some museums found thorns among the roses … We have suffered at the hands of unscrupulous researchers who systematically ‘nick’ documents and images … would only consider even giving me the number to call to arrange a visit … once I had produced my Student ID to prove I was a post-graduate student. Phone calls never returned, no specific email given, general email elicited no response. We caught one visitor with a specialist group stuffing objects into his pockets - very embarassing
    38. 39. A pivotal experience
    39. 40. Pivotal experience “ Volunteers come from a wide range of backgrounds and organisations including local mental health charities and disability organisations” Volunteer … long periods out of work due to depression … regularly since 2004 … important collections management with archaeology … Placement via … Association for the Blind … now full time employment in admin., having developed new skills …
    40. 41. Pivotal experience <ul><li>Collections work: a safe, secure, calm well ordered place </li></ul><ul><li>Museums should be humble … </li></ul><ul><li>Offer collections work (conservation and collections care?) as a service to other organisations </li></ul><ul><li>Tick many objectives on local authority agenda </li></ul>
    41. 42. Why not more? <ul><li>“ We’d love to, but …” </li></ul><ul><li>Not enough staff </li></ul><ul><li>Not enough space </li></ul><ul><li>Store too far away </li></ul>
    42. 43. The storage loft is accessible by loft ladder … Main store is 2 miles away and difficult for public to access. It is not staffed. Current fashion … to promote “use it or lose it” without supplying the means and support … conservation attitudes based on deep packaging and reducing exposure and handling.
    43. 44. What, no space? <ul><li>Museums have - </li></ul><ul><li>Housed their archival collection in the local Record Office, available to researchers on specific days </li></ul><ul><li>Equipped the Registrar’s office for researchers - she can continue with her own work while they study objects </li></ul><ul><li>Replaced four separate rooms for different collections with a single study room staffed by curators on a published rota </li></ul><ul><li>Used collections study rooms for curators to do collections work alongside researchers and users </li></ul>
    44. 45. What, no staff? <ul><li>Museums have - Equipped a wider range of staff </li></ul><ul><li>Museum interpreter team members sent on a course in Roman history, can now conduct public tours </li></ul><ul><li>Collections management staff provide many kinds of collections access in an off-site collections centre </li></ul><ul><li>A collections access officer makes the practical arrangements and develops relationships with outside bodies </li></ul><ul><li>Paid Guide Enablers – they train themselves to conduct tours </li></ul><ul><li>Specific collections access staff (not specialist curators) </li></ul>
    45. 46. What, no staff? <ul><li>Museums have - Used external resources </li></ul><ul><li>A budget to pay external tutors to deliver courses, sessions, etc., using the collections </li></ul><ul><li>Partnerships with sectors outside museums who would largely supply the resources </li></ul><ul><li>A visible store that will be staffed and managed by library staff </li></ul>
    46. 47. Store too far away? <ul><li>There’s always the car! Restricted target market segment not necessarily bad. </li></ul>
    47. 48. How to have popular collections? <ul><li>All in the mind(set)? </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ People if they express an interest are warmly invited to see the reserve collection ” </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>“ … as long as they have academic approval ” </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>“ Aimless visitors are directed to the exhibition except for occasional special public tours ” </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>“ There isn't much interest in the stored collections ” </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>“ Only person who researches is me” </li></ul></ul>
    48. 49. How to have popular collections! <ul><li>Advertise collections - press, local radio, leaflets </li></ul><ul><li>Open the stores for groups, days, special events </li></ul><ul><li>Tell users what’s in the collections - online catalogues, website collections descriptions </li></ul><ul><li>Think inreach </li></ul><ul><li>Use more of the staff </li></ul><ul><li>Offer a service – work with collections - to local and specialist organisations and individuals - let them drive </li></ul>
    49. 50. The last word – from a museum <ul><li>“… break down the market for use into a series of niche markets, understanding the needs of each, without abandoning the core market use by researchers in favour of new potential users.” </li></ul>
    50. 51. And thank you to … Collections for People Suzanne Keene, Alice Stevenson, Francesca Monti Pilgrim Trust
    51. 52. Open stores, open days
    52. 54. Visited by many-offsite open days Birmingham Museums & Galleries Oxfordshire Museums Service Science Museum large objects London Transport Museum
    53. 55. Birmingham Museums & Galleries <ul><li>Lots and lots of inspirational ideas & events, e.g.: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>opening at 4am in the morning for a special photography event as part of Birmingham's City of Culture bid last year) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>a Halloween evening on the last Friday in October which was attended by 547 people in 2 hours! </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>two big free open days every year. These are normally attended by c. 1000 people each </li></ul></ul>Collection visitor figures 2005-06 500 2006-07 2100 2007-08 3400 2008-09 4000 2009-10 4500 2010-11 4000 to date
    54. 56. Oxfordshire Museum Services – Offsite store Open Days <ul><li>Two open weekends a year. Staff and volunteer guides attend, have days off in lieu, so no extra staff cost. </li></ul><ul><li>Store tours and a room with tables where staff demonstrate processes, eg conservation, documentation </li></ul><ul><li>Most common visitor comment: Interesting … Very interesting … </li></ul>
    55. 57. Science Museum Wroughton – Events for collectors or enthusiasts BBC Wiltshire: “ The Science Museum Wroughton is opening up one of its vast aircraft hangers to the public, this weekend, for an exhibition following the history and uses of wood and paper... “
    56. 58. London Transport Museum <ul><li>The Depot – offsite store </li></ul><ul><li>Open Weekends </li></ul><ul><li>Open stores a weekend every month </li></ul><ul><li>“ To avoid the queues, tickets can be booked in advance …” </li></ul>
    57. 59. Not just transport anoraks … <ul><li>Websites+movieCreative Review - Down the Depot.html </li></ul>