Two years ago I sat in the audience of the ARC Conference, which addressed issues of collection ownership, access and care, feeling very overwhelmed at the challenges I was about to face at my own institution.
The conference topics highlighted to me how far behind our institution was in our ability to facilitate access to the collections. Any time we had an access request from a donor or lender, or they asked for their object back, or we developed an exhibition, or were asked for image permissions, we embarked on a sometimes lengthy process of searching for the documentation and, often, the object itself.
Our documentation surrounding ownership and provenance was in an appalling state – it was spread over various locations, misfiled, contradictory and the majority existed solely on paper. I would like to share with you five steps we have made to rectify our embarrassing, but perhaps not uncommon, situation. If you are in similar circumstances, these steps may assist in finding a solution that can be worked towards over time, with the right preparation.
Confirm ownership status of every object in our collections
STEP 1 – AWARENESS OF THE PROBLEM
As a profession, we pride ourselves on making ethical, methodical and careful decisions. It can be difficult to draw attention to mistakes made in the past or to admit that the system has failed. We have spent the last five years focusing on delivering a new museum and adjusting to numerous staff changes, never finding time to fully address our inherited collection management issues. For us, this project was an opportunity to responsibly and transparently attempt to fill in the provenance gaps created by previous staff and their decisions, procedures and beliefs.
Educating Yourself and Your Institution
I encourage you to all enrol in the Institute of Art and Law, Diploma of Law and Collection Management, read Norman Palmer, or speak to someone who has completed the course. Then spread the word.
Our institution has a small team a team of five (a manager, two registration and two curatorial staff). Together we cover all collection management and exhibitions, not only within the museum spaces, but around the Melbourne Cricket Ground. We each have our own individual responsibilities but contribute to every project we undertake. I am lucky to work with such a close-knit group whose day to day activities intersect between registration and curatorial priorities. We work hard to ensure open communication between the two facets of our team – something that may be difficult to foster in larger institutions. If you can manage to bridge the gap so that all staff, and potential donors and lenders, understand the need for due diligence when acquiring objects, you’re halfway there!
Forced into Action
It is easy to accept that unknown ownership is not a problem, simply because no one has ever questioned it. We have had ownership claims in the past where we have relinquished an object we thought we owned because we did not have the documentation to support our position, only to see the object sold at auction soon after.
We are currently working through two ownership contestations and these situations could have been managed with greater efficiency had the details of the acquisition been recorded accurately and the documentation filed correctly.
STEP 2 – ASSESSING THE PROBLEM
Know Your Collection and Its History
Sports heritage often starts out as a necessary part of a game – a cricket ball, a garment or a trophy awarded to the winner. But a cricket ball can become a souvenir for a player taking the most wickets, a garment can be thrown into the crowd at the end of play, a trophy can be contested each year across borders – council, town, state or country. All of these transactions are often undocumented and there is no financial gain. Possession of these objects can change hands at various times, without ownership being stipulated, before the object is then presented to the museum. Tracing ownership under these circumstances can be difficult at the time of acquisition, let alone many years later!
A lot of the objects in our collections are not one-off unique items. We have numerous duplications of programs, tickets, and sporting equipment that differ only slightly because of their association and so, with unremarkable provenance, are hard to trace back to prior owners. This in itself is one of our major challenges. But what made this project seem even more daunting was that it is not just about one institutional collection – but three! As Registrar, I manage the three separately-owned heritage sporting
- The Melbourne Cricket Club Museum collection,
- The Australian Gallery of Sport and Olympic Museum collection, and
- The National Sports Museum collection.
We estimate the collections total over 100,000 objects with about 3,500 objects on display at any one time. Different curators, with different procedures and two databases, have managed each collection over time.
Between 2003 and 2006, the first whole collection inventory was attempted, coinciding with the relocation of the collections to an offsite facility to make way for the MCG Northern Stand redevelopment, which included the new National Sports Museum. This inventory resulted in the creation of approximately 50,000 database records, which included only basic object information and a current location across the two older collections, with limited acquisition information. About a third of these records had images attached. In 2007, the department was restructured to allow one team to manage the collections. This was also the year our inaugural Registrar was appointed. Prior to this, documentation of the collections was the responsibility of all, with no one ultimately accountable.
The National Sports Museum, only being a year old when we started to think about the Owned vs Loaned project, was excluded as, fortunately, comprehensive records were created from day one. However, some objects that were once loaned to the other two collections, have now found their way to be loaned again to the National Sports Museum. Knowing our collection management history has assisted us in understanding where we are now and the situation we find ourselves in.
We believed that the majority of the answers we sought resided on Accession Forms, handwritten notes, printed emails and manual cataloguing systems such as catalogue cards and worksheets. We identified all the locations where these had been housed after the redevelopment of the Northern Stand and the relocation back to the MCG. This included 4 different rooms at the ground, approximately 80 filing cabinet drawers, 12 shelves and 35 boxes. Not only was all the documentation in different locations, it was filed by type. In order to build up a picture of the history of an object, we needed to consult multiple files and spaces. Once we were able to get it all in one location and sorted, we could immediately see that some years were better documented than others. After dedicating time to prioritise filing, we now have one file per object, instead of many.
We also identified other sources of documentation where acquisition information may reside such as annual reports, department reports, meeting minutes, newsletters, the Melbourne Cricket Club Library collection and the corporate archive.
Examine Database Usage
At the same time, we assessed how we had been using our database. Around 2001 we had spent time, effort and money on customizing windows to ensure data out of each old database was safely transported into the new fields. But we found that we were working with a dataset that did a good job of describing the physical characteristics of the object and its location, but lacked ownership and provenance consideration. As a team, with equal registration and curatorial input, we looked at each field we were using – and each field we weren’t using – and decided what our ideal dataset would be – in preparation to add information discovered.
Review Collection Management Procedures and Question Acquisition Methods
Again, as a team, we reviewed our procedures and ensured each responsibility was documented, that there were no gaps in processes and that acquisition methods were discussed, considered and documented. We found that our most common acquisition terms of Donation, Purchase and Loan, required supplementing with Corporate Gift and Internal Transfer, particularly for the private collection. We also agreed on the documentation required to support all future acquisitions.
Sample Your Collection
With just over 60,000 records in our database, 55% lacked acquisition information. To get a better indication of the sort of problems were we up against, we assessed a small sample of the collections and compared documentation to our database records. Over seven uninterrupted days, a total of 268 records were assessed with the following findings
- 140 records had no acquisition information
- 24 records had incorrect information, and
- 104 records had correct information, mostly with partial information
Based on this sample, we extrapolated the results and determined it would take 5 years for one person to assess each object in both collections.
STEP 3 – COMMUNICATING THE PROBLEM
As is always the case, asking for more money and resources is difficult and every institution is different. In our case, we manage museum collections in a business environment that is focused on sporting events, entertainment and functions. However, we are fortunate that ‘Heritage’ is identified as one of the business’s core values and once management understood the risk to their assets and reputation, as well as the financial benefits (such as a potential saving in insurance premium for high value objects that were no longer in our possession) they were willing to fund one staff member for this project for two years.
Having fully assessed the problem, and knowing the frustrations, we decided to split the role into two part time positions. This allowed us to recruit two talented Registration Officers in July 2011 with different skills and experiences that can support each other and share this enormous task.
STEP 4 – MAKING CHANGE
We rewrote our collection management procedures and commissioned the database amendments already identified. We limited the number of people that had access to the database and the number of people with editing permissions to ensure that we could maintain data integrity. We also acquired fireproof storage for collection documentation and relocated all paperwork to one secure area with camera surveillance and electronically-monitored key access.
Once all collection documentation was located in one place, we developed a new filing system for paper files, which we then rolled out across our electronic files. As with our paper files, we located and reorganized electronic files that had been stored in different parts of the network. We also considered naming conventions of collection documentation files to assist in identification and maintain consistency.
An Inventory With A Difference
We learnt from the previous inventory that focusing on the object may not offer up the results we required. So this time we put the documentation first and the object second. Our process is as follows:
- Start with the Registration Number and compare information on documentation against information in our database
- Confirm ownership details – owned or loaned?
- Scan legal documentation and file it in our newly organised filing structure, named consistently. A link is made to the database record.
- Confirm object locations
- And finally, detail findings on an electronic form.
This electronic form has a threefold purpose. Firstly, it acts as a checklist for our Registration Officers to ensure a consistent approach to each object. Secondly, it documents ownership conclusions based on the evidence discovered. A copy is saved in both the electronic and paper object file. And thirdly, it is emailed directly to me, where the data is easily compiled into project statistics that help to accurately report progress and problems that, in turn, assists with lobbying for additional funding.
STEP 5 – IDENTIFYING THE UNKNOWN
We can identify Owned. We can also identify Loaned. But what about the Unknown? After assessment, objects that are deemed to have inconclusive ownership, are categorized into one of five ‘Unknowns’:
- Unknown Intent – We know who it came from or when, but not the intent (Donation or Loan).
- Missing Paperwork – Paperwork indicated, but not located.
- Incomplete Paperwork – Paperwork completed, but missing signature.
- Undocumented – We have it in our possession but we don’t know who it came from or the intent (Donation or Loan).
- Uncatalogued – Additional objects may be mentioned on paperwork, but not recorded elsewhere, or, object may not be documented in the database.
Objects that end up on this list are regularly revisited and reviewed. Some may resolve themselves as we progress further into the project and more information is found.
THE FUTURE – STEP 6 – KNOWING THE UNKNOWN
We realise that our first five steps are just the start. Additional efforts will be required to scope, plan and, finally, attempt to resolve these Unknowns as well as further provenance research on selected objects. We know we may be able to resolve some of the incomplete or missing paperwork and unknown intents, but we also know that some of these problems will remain, despite all of our best efforts, as the information has been lost or disassociated forever.
Are our objects owned, loaned or unknown?
After one year, we have assessed 13.5% of the collections and estimate that it will take another 5-6 years if we continue at the current pace. We have discovered that the majority of the unknowns in the public collection are Unknown Intent, where there may be an acquisition source listed, or a letter mentioning the transfer of objects – but nothing stipulating if the intention was a loan or donation. The private collection has mostly Undocumented unknowns, where there is no documentation about where and when we acquired the objects. Interestingly, each collection has a similar percentage breakdown of owned, loaned and unknown. The good news is that of the objects assessed overall, 62% have been confirmed as owned and 9% as loaned (either a returned loan, expired loan or current loan). The remaining 29% are currently inconclusive. However, we have been able to turn some of these unknowns into owned or loaned after further information was discovered misfiled, or found while looking for something else!
Some advice if about to embark on similar projects:
- Treat documentation with the same care as objects
- Stay focused, don’t get distracted
- Know when to stop researching
- Not everything has an answer
- Maintain consistency
- Be in for the long haul
By April West, Registrar, National Sports Museum and Melbourne Cricket Club Museum