Thursday, January 7, 2016

Book Review - Small Museum Toolkit 6: Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation

This book review has been a long time coming, which is a little ironic since this final book is the one I was most looking forward to reading. So let's wrap up this series shall we?

Most museum professionals acknowledge that it is our collection which sets us apart from other kinds of non-profits and heritage organizations. This is why the collection cropped up in various ways in each preceding book - whether it was in relation to fundraising for collection improvements or establishing solid governance practices. This book however, gets into the nuts and bolts of working with artifacts.

What surprised and disappointed me the most about this one was its traditionalist approach to collections work. Many sections could have been written 5 or 10 or even 15 years ago. I was hoping for something that was technically-savvy that would inspire museums to push forward their collections work in really inspiring, relevant, and creative ways. Our new Prime Minister said last fall, "because it's 2015", in response to a question. I think that applies here. Any discussions about our work as museums and information managers must include a full integration of technology. It cannot be seen as separate, additional, or icing on the cake. Anyone still working solely in paper for collections documentation and/or not sharing collections info online is seriously hampering activities and progress in their institution, and the old excuses about computers & databases being too expensive are no longer justifiable.

Having said that, there are of course many relevant points and much great advice in the book about collections. It kicks off with the basics in collections care and focuses on simple things that anyone can do. This aligns nicely with our approach to the Museum Evaluation Program, and includes things like having a housekeeping plan, and using appropriate storage and exhibit materials. It also outlines the need for a disaster plan and that personal safety should always be top of mind.

The second chapter talks about historic houses and landscapes, two areas that aren't exactly known for their innovations or changeability. The author of this chapter has some very poignant words on this subject, which can apply to museums in general:
"Sometimes conflicts arise when we equate 'historical' with 'unchanging.' Has your historic house museum learned how to embrace and adapt to change? Change is not a threat; it is an opportunity to grow and create new cultures of decision-making...Vibrant, dynamic historic house museums adopt plans and policies that are responsive and resilient to changing circumstances...Authoritarian, hierarchical chains of command are yielding to more inclusive, interwoven circles of participation and responsibility." The author continues to advise/warn that boards and governing organizations must have progressive strategic plans in place, review and update outdated mission statements, and continually assess their operations. 

The chapter on collections management sounded so familiar that I felt like I was initially cheering on the author as I read. It's nice to get some backup on some of my key messages of the past few years; the extreme importance of having ownership of the collection and not spending time & money on stuff that belongs to someone else, and ensuring that gift agreements are signed and other documentation is obtained from donors. There are lots of great 'how-to' tips and also some admonitions about inappropriate numbering systems and marking methods. When it comes to marking, I still see some museums using pressure-sensitive tape/labels, white-out (thankfully just a legacy issue but still frustrating), ballpoint ink, metal-edged tags, and various other metal fasteners like pins, staples and wire. All of these are no-nos.
What frustrated me about this section was the lack of discussion around collections management systems, or databases as we more frequently call them. It also relegated collections management to behind-the-scenes rather than seeing it as an opportunity for community engagement, marketing, advocacy, etc etc etc. The thriving museums of today understand that collections management is not just an internal activity, and that's the message that was missing in this chapter. 

The remaining chapters focus more on the policy and planning side of things - addressing issues like acquisition, conservation, and deaccessioning. I didn't find anything exciting or earth-shattering here, but it did remind me that many museums are lacking in the planning aspect. Since we have various templates and resources on our website, I know that some museums have used these to update existing policies and forms, but this is still very much a work in progress. When it comes to collections or conservation planning, few museums are doing it, and this needs to change. The first step is assessment. All of the books in this series include little text boxes of case studies and important bullet points. It's a nice quick way to reinforce the information and I find it very effective. One of my favourites in this one is near the end is short & sweet and pretty "common sense", and  is taken from the National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums. I say common sense, and yet I can think of many museums that struggle with this list of standards for collections stewardship, at least in part:
1. The museum owns, exhibits, or uses collections that are appropriate to its mission
2. The museum legally, ethically, and effectively manages, documents, cares for, and uses the collection.
3. The museum's collections-related research is conducted according to appropriate scholarly standards.
4. The museum strategically plans for the use and development of its collections.
5. Guided by its mission, the museum provides public access to its collections while ensuring their preservation.

If you take nothing else away from this blog post, take those 5 points. They tie nicely back to the other lessons we've learned in this series. It's all about your mission, rules & guidelines help rather than hinder, ongoing research is a must, you can't operate effectively without a strategic plan, and finally, we exist to serve our community.

I know this wasn't as full of highlights as my other reviews from this series, but hopefully there is still something helpful that strikes a chord with you. If you'd like to go back through the other books in this series, check out these links:

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