Friday, January 29, 2016

January 2016 Update

Evaluation Preparation
Questions are now pouring in about this summer's evaluations. Almost all of the museums I've spoken with have divided up the sections and assigned tasks to individuals or committees. I've been reviewing HR policies and talking about mission statements and helping museums clean up storage locations in their's been quite a mixed bag. This has made for some interesting, and very email/phone-heavy days at the office, but it's really encouraging to hear about how museum workers are rolling up their sleeves and working through the evaluation questions.

In November's blog post I shared a number of resources that will be useful in preparation work. I have also been getting back into book reviews, which are really book snapshots - quick tips & info that I can share from our reference library. If something really piques your interest, you can borrow the book. My most recent reviews are of the CMA Ethics Guidelines, and a 6-part series on the Small Museums Toolkit from AASLH. If you want to check through my other book reviews, just click on the book reviews button on the right side of the blog.
I should also say that these resources should be helpful for museums in general, whether you are on the list to be evaluated this summer or not.

As I said before the holiday break, I strongly encourage you to be in touch. My response time is starting to slip a bit as the volume of questions increases, so please don't wait until Spring to reach out.

Collections Database Info
I'm very pleased to say that our new server is working nicely (and quickly) and gives us lots of room to grow. As I've said over the past few months, there is a lot of database activity going on, but it is increasingly of the "cleaning up" variety rather than the addition of new records. This month, museums added 333 (yes really) records to the databases, and 750 new images. Collectively, we have documented 221,794 artifacts and attached 106,083 associated images. As I said in November, every little bit of this work is progress. For museums being evaluated, it increases your chance of a good result on the collections section, and for all museums, it's about being good stewards of the collections that the public has entrusted to us.

Here's the regional tally:
Southwest - 120,327 artifacts, 48,932 images
Central - 42,659 artifacts, 24,934 images
Northeast - 30,968 artifacts, 21,609 images
Cape Breton - 27,840 artifacts, 10,608 images

Congrats to the Central Region for adding the most records and images this month!

Special Projects
I'm going to skip the image lesson of the month and instead share some other tidbits. Just like museums have infinite irons in their collections, we have a number of irons in fires. So here are a few projects that we have on the go.

Fleming Project
We launched our annual Fleming class project this week, where the students adopt a Nova Scotia
"adopted" museums for this year's project
museum and do some proofreading and research work on selected collection records. This year we have 27 students working on 270 records for 10 museums. As ever, it will be very interesting to see what the students dig up as they work through their adopted artifacts. As crazy as it is to believe, this is the 5th year for this class assignment. In the past the students have discovered some amazing information about artists, local companies, and provided a wealth of contextual information about artifacts. If you're curious to see what artifacts are in this year's list, check out our NovaMuse Facebook page where we'll be profiling these items over the coming weeks/months. Here's a map of who is participating this year. In case you're wondering why you only see 9 pins instead of 10, The Army Museum has camouflaged itself underneath the HMCS Sackville.

Made in Nova Scotia Project
one of MacLaren's furniture books
Finally, I'd like to give you an update on this phoenix of a resource. We've referred to this as our crazy, never ending, rainy day project. It definitely is. What I'm really excited to share though, is that the Nova Scotia Museum is actively working on it right now. About two years ago, the new Curator of History stumbled upon former curator George MacLaren's research notes for his books on Nova Scotian furniture makers. And now there is a volunteer working with the curator to reconcile these notes with our Made in Nova Scotia database. Some people just started yawning, but other people just said COOL!  We're really excited about this partnership, about sharing MacLaren's unpublished research notes, and mostly we're excited about increasing the quality and depth of information in the Made in NS database. To date, the NS Museum volunteer has finished working through furniture makers of Hants County, and is plugging away at those of Inverness County, adding a lot of new entries to the database. If you want to check out what's already in the database, you can go to - Browse - Made in Nova Scotia.

SME Work
This is something that we are still trying to finesse, but really launched a couple years ago. Every once in a while a subject matter expert (sme) will leave comments on a NovaMuse record to let the museum know more about the item - how it was used, how it was made, special terminology, if something has been misidentified...basically correcting and improving the database record. So we thought it would be great to reach out to particular groups to encourage this kind of information sharing. We've dabbled with baskets and industrial collections, and right now we're working on military items. As we speak, a detailed list of 164 military badges are with a "sme" so that he can tell us more about these items from various museums' collections. We think that we've finally found the most efficient way to facilitate this sort of work, and hope to tackle more of it in the future.

That's all for this month. Enjoy the snowstorm and we'll talk soon.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review - Ethics Guidelines

You're probably wondering how on earth I'm going to critique our national code of ethics for museums, and rightly so. Well, the new Museum Evaluation Program addresses ethics head-on; we're looking for museum boards to adopt these guidelines or use them as the foundation of their own. So full disclosure, my intention is not to critique our code of ethics. My intention is to promote it, and to highlight some areas that have been or are still issues for some museums.

As anyone who has attended one of the workshops I teach can attest, I pull out my little purple book regularly. It is foundational in our work, and yet we hear all too often that new museum staff or board members or volunteers are completely unaware of these ethical guidelines. Let's focus on that last word - guidelines. These aren't punitive constraints that inhibit our work. They are simple, effective rules that inform decision-making. They provide transparency on your activities, and show your community that you follow national museological standards, educating them about these standards in the process.
Now let's get down to the highlights.

Governance - Your board members must understand their responsibilities. Period. These include obtaining financial resources to keep the museum running smoothly (note that I used the word obtain, as in the board members have to do it rather than calling out 1-2-3-not-it and pointing at someone else). There is also a reminder that the museum director is the only staff member who is directly answerable to the board, ie the board doesn't get to run around 'supervising' summer students or other staff members. That's the director's job. As someone who has been on the receiving end of this more than once, you've got to set up a clear organizational chart and stick to it.

Accessibility & Presentations - Museums need to pay special attention to being culturally respectful, presenting various viewpoints and traditions in an impartial manner. If part of an exhibit or talk is about the bias that existed around a certain subject, being open and upfront about that bias is a must. An example of this was in the news recently when a very well known museum in Europe decided to rename artistic works in its collection that made the current Curator uncomfortable. Sharing past perspectives, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable they make us feel today, is part of our job. Ignoring the fact that insulting slurs have been directed at various cultural groups is ignoring our role as educational and socially responsible institutions.

Employer/Employee Relations - There is a lot of chatter right now about the insanely high expectations of museum workers versus the long hours and low wages, and how some of our best and brightest people are burning out. While the ethics guidelines aren't that blunt, they do contain some pretty set standards:
- workers must be courteous, efficient and helpful when dealing with the public
- workers must be respectful, cooperative and supportive of their colleagues, and senior workers must share knowledge and skills with co-workers
- workers must adhere to institutional policies, use the museum's name & resources for official business only, be conscientious of their duties, stay current with museological trends and work to improve their skills.
As employers, museums must have policies in place to ensure:
- equal opportunity in job postings, recruitment and promotions
- job descriptions are regularly reviewed, and workers are given proper support
- potential conflicts of interest are avoided or addressed appropriately
- workers are never asked to conduct illegal or unethical tasks
- workers are able to suggest changes to policies and procedures
- that the museum has contingency plans in place in the event of labour disputes

The other key guideline in this section has to do with professional development. As I like to say, we are educational institutions, and that includes internal education. We have to be actively increasing our knowledge and improving our methods through professional development and networking opportunities - workshops, conferences, regional meetings...these are crucial to a museum's success.

Now for the long list of collection-related issues:

Acquisitions - I've ranted about this before, during site visits, while teaching workshops, and in this blog. For a number of reasons, museums don't like to say no to donations. There also seems to be an increasing number of museums that want to accept donations for sale or trading purposes. These practices are all unethical. The guidelines state that "acquisitions for museums should be made with a view to permanency, and not for the purpose of eventual disposal." That means we can't be taking stuff that we think will fetch a high price at auction. If someone offers to give you something to use for fundraising, such as an artist donating a painting for you to sell, that is entirely different. That is not an acquisition nor does it have anything to do with the collection.
The ethics guidelines also strongly warn museums to avoid the following scenarios:
- collecting outside of your mandate
- collecting items that you can't store properly, exhibit, catalogue or conserve within a reasonable period of time
- collecting items with conditions attached
- collecting items for the purpose of trading
- collecting items that fall under the mandate of another museum

Loans - I'm sure my long-time readers will remember this post about permanent loans. As a follow-up to that, we also developed a documentation package on Reconciling Old Loans to help museums address this issue. Yes it takes a lot of time and effort to work through, but it is extremely risky, unethical, and an oxymoron to have "permanent loans" kicking around the museum.

Deaccessioning & Disposals - A few quick points here include the fact that it is okay to remove objects from the collection, that your goal should always be to keep things in the public domain, and that you must carefully document the process. One of the other key pieces comes up time and again though, so I'm just going to let the guidelines speak for themselves on it. "Museums may not dispose of collections by returning them to the original donors as a gift, (whether or not the donor receivd any tax benefit at the time of the donation); however, museums may allow the original donor to purchase the material at current fair market value. As a courtesy, museums should allow living artists the first right of refusal to re-acquire their earlier works." Notice that it didn't say the heirs could lay claim to an object or purchase it at a token price.
If the museum ends up selling deaccessioned items, the money must be used for collections-related purposes.

Let's stop there for now and go back to the beginning. Remember that I said my intention was to highlight some areas where I see issues. This is not an exhaustive, in-depth look at our entire code of ethics. It's really important that everyone in your museum knows these guidelines. If you don't have the little purple book, or the black & white pdf version already, you can download it here.

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: