Curator’s Advent. Day 7. Object record

An object and a record, but not an object record

An object and a record, but not an object record

They say that without provenance the museum object is worthless. The object record acts as a certificate of authenticity and contains everything from vital statistics on materials, dimensions, broken or worn bits, to ownership history, exhibition history, publication history… quite a lot of history. Index cards used to be the favoured medium of the curator’s record keeping but now we use all manner of databases–all that history reduced to 0s and 1s. Led by simple names controlled by peculiar technical dictionaries called thesauri or vocabulary lists, there was a strange habit, that I believe some still indulge in, whereby it’s frowned upon to write in proper sentences so you might get something that reads like a Victorian telegram:

record, vinyl, 7″ (17.78cm), black and silver, with sleeve, paper, torn, 1964.

Mediterranean material culture from prehistory to now

Back in March my chapter on material culture for the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Mediterranean History came out.

It was a challenging exercise to condense into 8000 words the essence of the study of material culture in a Mediterranean geo-historical context and also to represent all periods of human history at the same time.

I have always been interested in the making and circulation of objects and this interest has never really obeyed traditional geographic or period boundaries. I feel as comfortable analysing an inventory of a 12th-century monastic treasury as I do trawling through 19th century order books. I know my way around early medieval metalwork as much as I do modern souvenirs in social history collections.

My background in museology has without doubt influenced my points of view and perceptions. As someone professionally involved in the presentation and interpretation of artefacts I am responsible for finding out what stories objects can tell, while also presenting a lens on the world through human creativity and productivity.

Finger ring, reusing a late Roman agate seal, from southern Italy, late 7th century (credit: Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli).

Finger ring, reusing a late Roman agate seal, from southern Italy, late 7th century (credit: Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli).

This attitude towards historical material culture and our sources for it is summed up in the first paragraph of my chapter:

The creation and use of complex tools are distinguishing traits of the human animal. As such, material culture is intrinsic to the humanities, whether approached through archaeology, anthropology, history, art or museology.

Fundamentally this chapter attempts to blow apart academic tendencies to narrow down–but this doesn’t mean that it eschews detail and depth. It provides food for thought on how we understand people’s relationships with things, with production and with consumption. That the basic need for humans to have and exchange commodities is as crucial to life as food and water. Most studies of material culture tend to speak in non-human terms, are clinical and distant from experience, or otherwise concerned with artistic conceits.

Ore procurement book from Grenfell and Co. copper company (credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Aylesbury).

Ore procurement book of Grenfell and Co. copper company (credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Aylesbury).

I was inspired in part by Fernand Braudel’s approach to studying and comparing economic and material life, and in part the seminal work edited by Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things. The abstract to my chapter explains its contents.

This chapter explores how the study of material culture illuminates Mediterranean history in new ways. Early discoveries in the Mediterranean influenced the development of material culture studies from archaeological classification to the phenomenon of making collections of classical artefacts during the Grand Tour which formed the basis of modern museums. Taking inspiration from Braudel’s other paradigm on the inter-relationship between economic and material life, this chapter then presents a series of vignettes on the materiality of eating, sitting and sleeping, which address how and why Mediterranean object cultures should be perceived in a globally-comparative context. There follow three epochal studies that apply Braudel’s global approach as well as object biography and documentary reconstruction to provide new perspectives on the prehistoric, ancient, medieval, early modern, modern and contemporary Mediterranean, taking examples from ceramics, the copper industry, the consumption of silk, textile conservation, souvenirs and mass craft manufacturing.

Top ten for heritage digitisation projects

Preparing for digitisation: Record photograph from an album in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust.

Preparing for digitisation: Record photograph from an album in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust.

Digitisation usually refers to making collections data, including images and other media, available online. But it may also refer to making any quantitative (e.g. historical datasets) or qualitative information (exhibition and learning resources) available and discoverable via the web.

A digital collection usually comprises an object record describing the object, its composition or makeup and other descriptive elements. It may have an associated image, video, audio or document with it. Sophisticated digital collections will display links to related objects and information. Some are aggregated into larger digital repositories which allow you to search across several collections such as Culture Grid or Europeana.

The digitisation movement in the UK heritage sector started in earnest under the New Opportunities Fund Digitisation (NOF-digi) programme, funded by the National Lottery between 2001-3/4. One of my previous projects, Hantsphere, was part of this. NOF-digi projects taught heritage and cultural technologists a lot about good and bad practice, and most importantly about sustainability. A significant amount of data remains undiscoverable and in some cases has been lost altogether through lack of onward funding and resources within the organisations that ran these projects. Continue reading

A bad curator blames their tools

M-Shed, tells the story of Bristol especially its industrial and social history

M-Shed, tells the story of Bristol especially its industrial and social history

I have been a member of the Social History Curators Group (SHCG) for a few years now. Of all the professional groups and societies dedicated to museum and collections work I have found SHCG to be the most useful. Most degrees and qualifications in museum studies (or indeed heritage management) lack opportunities for sustained subject-specialist training unless it is part of an internship, vocational attachment or similar activity. That’s why SHCG and other curatorial networks are so important.

FirstBASE is SHCG’s recently launched online resources centre, an invaluable library of information for anyone dealing with social (and industrial) collections. SHCG also organises training events and when I saw one advertised for identifying tools I leapt at the opportunity. Here is my review, which will also appear in a forthcoming SHCG newsletter.

Training Review: What is it? Identifying mystery objects: trade tools

Venue: M-Shed, Bristol, 4 March 2013

I didn’t know a twybil from an adze before the training. By the end of the day I could enthusiastically explain the difference between a dado plane and a plough plane.

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Curating the Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and Scilly

La Demoiselle Sauvage From King Arthur's Wood by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes

La Demoiselle Sauvage From King Arthur's Wood by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (credit: Hypatia Trust)

My first commission since relocating to Penzance, Cornwall was an audit of the little-known Elizabeth Treffry collection held by the Hypatia Trust that serves to document the lives and works of women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Meeting Hypatia

Having heard much about the Hypatia Trust and its founder, Dr. Melissa Hardie, publisher, author and collector, I wandered into Trevelyan House on historic Chapel Street on a cold January morning to find out more. A warm welcome and two hours of chat resulted in the start of a working relationship and friendship that I hope will last for many years.

…to collect, and make available, published and personal documentation about the achievements of women in every aspect of their lives.

(Ethos of the Hypatia Trust)

The situation I was greeted with goes something like this. The Hypatia Trust exists to further the knowledge of and about women and her achievements. It has a strong basis in understanding women in their regional or geo-historical contexts and so Hypatia exists in several locales, including Hypatia in the Woods in Shelton, Washington in the USA. Its ethos is strongly based in academic and intellectual pursuits and so collecting, especially books, is central to its activities.

Melissa Hardie, in the name of the Hypatia Trust, has already donated significant collections to libraries across the world from Exeter to Bonn, with the sole motive to improve the knowledge and visibility of women in social and historical studies. Other landmark achievements are the creation of the West Cornwall Art Archive with Newlyn Art Gallery and the innovative Cornish Artists Index, a freely accessible online database of artists in Cornwall and their works, past and present.

Elizabeth Treffry Collection

Elizabeth Treffry Collection at Trevelyan House

Finding a room of one’s own

And so the Elizabeth Treffry Collection is one of Hypatia’s several efforts to turn the tide of male-dominated narratives of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly by actively gathering knowledge about women’s lives and works in Cornwall and Scilly (not just those of Cornish and Scillonian women but all those who have made their lives and home there) and communicating it to a much wider audience through publication, education and participation. The collection’s strengths are in art and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries but its stretches far beyond Daphne Du Maurier and Dolly Pentreath, embracing the Cornish Land Army, women scientists, religion and more besides. And this was part of the attraction of wanting to get involved, to learn more about the relatively silent women’s stories in these enigmatic regions.

The collection comprises books, journals and archives (and a few artefacts) and mainly resides at Hypatia HQ at Trevelyan House with more stuff kept at the Jamieson Library of Women’s History, based in rural Newmill just outside Penzance. Melissa Hardie and the Hypatia Trust wish to tackle the urgent need to find it a new, permanent home where the collection can be publicly accessed, intoning Virginia Woolf’s essay on ‘A Room of One’s Own‘.

But before this search could begin in earnest, and an associated fundraising campaign could commence, a better idea of what the collection comprised and what its future might look like was required. And so I was invited to help Hypatia establish a professional basis for the curation of the collection by conducting a basic audit to quantify it, describe it and make recommendations for its future care and uses.

You can download and read the report to understand more about the collection and what I think its future could look like but I wanted here to write down some of my thoughts about auditing collections and the value of collections in our cultural lives.

Download Curating Elizabeth Treffry Collection report (PDF, 976KB)

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Reconstructing the historic global copper industry from business archives

Upper Thames Street, site of 27

Upper Thames Street, site of 27, at Paul's Walk, previously Paul's Wharf, headquarters of major copper firms in the 19th century (Tehmina Goskar)

On 9 November I will be participating in the Historical Metallurgy Society‘s Research in Progress meeting in Sheffield. The day promises to be extremely varied where experimental archaeologists, historians, scientists and others will be getting together to share various aspects of their work. Subjects will range from the excavation of a medieval smithy in Oxfordshire to the lead and copper ‘isotope signatures’ of North American native copper.

Read the draft programme for information on all the contributors (opens or downloads PDF).

My contribution to the day will focus on recent work I have been conducting on the business archives relating to major copper concerns that operated smelting and refining works in Swansea. These copper archives add essential information and colour to a broad picture historians have been building up of the global copper industry, predominantly in the 18th and 19th centuries, since the 1950s. However many of these histories have been reliant on runs of statistics from mining and geological journals, import and export information from mercantile shipping records and occasionally, official records government records and occasionally, correspondence and letter collections of prominent figures such as Thomas Williams of Anglesey and the Vivians.

Business archives are found in many county and special collections all over the country. Their content often relates to more than one firm and more than just local activity. For example, the Grenfell Collection held by the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University, comprises records relating to their head quarters at 27 Upper Thames Street, London and many of their dealings abroad, including with Spain, in addition to important detail about their major smelting works at Upper and Middle Bank in Swansea.

My Research in Progress paper aims to give an outline and a few examples of the way in which these archives can be used and linked together to reconstruct the elements of the historic global copper industry that remain obscured in mainstream histories that have not delved into these records in any great detail.

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Digital Britain and Collections

What role has Culture (capital C) in Digital Britain? And within Culture, what do digitised collections and content mean to the nation? Perhaps more importantly for the sectors involved in cultural provision (such as museums), can digital collections take part in the Digital Economy in a meaningful way? In January 2009, the UK Government produced an interim report setting out a kind of manifesto for placing UK Plc at the forefront of the “global digital economy.”

I would like to see the relationship develop more as that between supporter/donor and custodian, rather than just producer and consumer.

In response, Collections Trust made an interim response. And here is a summary my response to the interim response. I attempted to take the long view, looking back at my own experiences with digitised collections and other content. My full reply and Nick Poole’s (CEO Collections Trust) response can be read in the list archives of jiscmail’s Museum Computer Group list.
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