Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Collection Conundrums

Rebecca A. Buck and Jean Allman Gilmore. Collections Conundrums: Solving Collections Management Mysteries. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-933253-08-4. $55.00

Reviewed by Bernadette Callery, University of Pittsburgh

One of the things that digitization of archives and museum collections has done is to shift the focus of archivists and museum collection managers from the document or the object to the record, or more specifically, to the metadata that comprises that record. Practitioners of both disciplines put considerable energy into constructing surrogate records for the benefit of the many users who will probably never examine the original. However, while much of the collaborative literature across these disciplines addresses the mutual concerns of descriptive standards and controlled vocabularies, it is well to remember that responsible stewards of collections should begin by determining the deceptively simple fact of ownership of collections under their care.

Even the glamorous provenance research that leads to repatriation of international treasures begins with the examination of the basic techniques of collection documentation and the process of accessioning. Best known for their 1998 work, The New Museum Registration Methods, museum registrars Rebecca Buck and Jean Gilmore, set before us the delights of various under-documented museum objects, particularly old loans, a term which refers to “expired loans or loans of unlimited duration left unclaimed by lenders who cannot be readily located by the museum.” (p. 32). They begin by providing a primer of museum documentation techniques, illustrating the range of informal and incomplete recordkeeping systems from which the modern collection manager must disentangle the old loans, items found in the collection, unsolicited gifts and other imperfectly documented objects. While “museum workers must develop their own systems, based on the history and traditions of their individual museums,” (p. 24) Buck and Gilmore base their useful guide on the body of procedures for dealing with these problems that has accumulated in the profession since the 1970s. What is striking about these procedures is that they require the museum staff to be proactive in resolving the collection conundrums, including initiating legal proceedings to determine the status of ownership of an object or collection.

With quiet assurance, Buck and Gilmore identify the problems and explain possible options for solutions and their comparative risks. The particular strength of the work is their range of experience, reflected in a set of clear definitions of all the possible categories of these collection conundrums, supplemented by summary tables, including those identifying legislation dealing with museum loans by state and the deaccession risk chart (p. 48). Sidebars and mini-case studies discuss techniques for locating donors and artists or creators, handling objects of shared ownership and the endlessly fascinating problems of numbering schemes used to distinguish between material actually transferred to the institution and those (sometimes literally) left on its doorstep. While issues of fractional ownership are more frequently encountered in museums than archives, it’s handy to have a source which provides a compact discussion of this particular buzz word. But archivists will certainly have questions of what to do with supplemental collections, including “fakes, forgeries, copies and other instances of questionable authorship,” ephemera, reproductions and exhibition materials.

It’s curious that there is no real equivalent for the educational or hands-on collections which museums use as a technique for disposing of undocumented materials. As these items have no research value because they lack sufficient data, they can be used for show and tell, as examples of a particular type of object. While expendable, these materials can provide a valuable hands-on experience, especially for students. Two equivalent collections in the special collections world are the remarkable assemblage of samples of illustration techniques, printed pages, paper and detached covers collected by Terry Belanger for use in various Rare Book School classes and the collections of photographs maintained as part of the print identification workshops at the George Eastman House used in their one week intensive seminar “Preserving photographs in a digital world.”

The chapter on guidelines, policies and procedures, which begins with a section headed “Just say no” emphasizing the need for strongly written collection development guidelines. While deaccessioning can be used as a form of collection control, it is a more efficient use of everyone’s energies to not accept marginal items in the first place.

Two major case studies serve to illustrate the situations and solutions discussed earlier in the work. The one dealing with the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture chronicles the many changes in direction and location of this Spokane, Washington institution, moving from a private collection under the care of a local historical society to its merger with the Museum of Native American Cultures, with its custodial responsibilities to various regional Native American groups. Changes in mission necessarily are reflected in a re-alignment of collections and this case study presents many opportunities for working through complex ownership conundrums. The study of accessioning the N.C. Wyeth House and Studio addresses the many challenges of an artist’s collection and is an excellent illustration of how to answer the question of “to which period should a house museum be restored?”

Handy appendices include sample affidavit forms, deposit for storage agreements, deeds of gift, including fractional gifts, and incoming and outgoing loan agreements. Discussions throughout the text are well-footnoted and the work includes bibliographies for additional reading.

This is a must-have reference work for archivists who have any dealings with museums and indeed anyone interested in the process by which ownership of collections is established. And how could you not love a book which pictures a Mark Dion installation on the cover? Appropriately, this is his interpretation of the seventeenth-century cabinets of curiosity, titled “Cabinet of the Terrestrial Realm.”


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