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Curator’s Advent. Day 18. Archives

Photographic postcards displayed as museum objects in the Isles of Scilly Museum.
Photographic postcards displayed as museum objects in the Isles of Scilly Museum.

Is an archive (series of documents) just another type of museum collection? No it is not. Archival and documentary collections are organised differently and the information they contain is (mostly) read rather than gleaned through observation, measurements and other forms of object research. However, sometimes you’re going to walk straight into Dilemma Avenue. Is a collection of photographs an archive or a set of objects? When is a manuscript book an archive and not an artefact? Context is everything. If 100 documents or papery writings come as a set you might like to threat them archivally. If you have two or three photographs as part of a donation you might be more tempted to keep them in situ and threat them as objects. What’s the most useful way you can organise archives for the benefit of your people?

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Curators

Curator’s Advent. Day 17. Digitisation

Digital photograph of me wearing neon glasses.
Digital photograph of me wearing neon glasses.

Converting information into a digital format and preserving the data. That is all it is. Seriously.

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Curators

Curator’s Advent. Day 16. Slow death by copyright

Nothing to see here.
Nothing to see here

The curator who wants to share collections freely and openly is saddened by the imperialistic appropriation of out of copyright works by virtue of creating a new slavish copy. The curator who wants to share collections freely and openly is saddened by the government licensing scheme for orphan works. The curator who wants to share collections freely and openly is saddened by the perpetuity in copyright imposed by corporate buy-outs. The curator dies bit by bit at every opportunity lost.

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Curators

Curator’s Advent. Day 15. Loan out

Cardboard box with sign saying Be Against Trampled.
Loan out: Be Against Trampled.

Any curator should get excited at receiving a loan request. Traditionally addressed to “The Director,” s/he will ceremonially pass on the request to us in the know to seamlessly deal with the transaction. The particular breed of curator that usually deals with loans out (and in) are the wonderful registrars. Facilities reports all OK; insurance certificate received; condition check done; packed up and ready for shipping (transport booked?). Job done.

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Curators

Curator’s Advent. Day 14. Loan in

Doll called "Miss Cornwall" allegedly wearing traditional Celtic clothes, 1960s.
Doll called “Miss Cornwall” allegedly wearing traditional Celtic clothes, 1960s.

It’s good to share, isn’t it? Borrowing objects from other museums and private collections helps complete stories. Lending is the foundation of the museum economy. Let’s do more of it.

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Curators

Curator’s Advent. Day 13. The troublesome donor

    Scotch egg without runny yolkScotch egg without runny yolk

The problem donor is like a fancy Scotch egg. Promises loads on the outside, loaded up with pretty (but tasteless) garnishes, yet when you cut into the business end of the egg you are met with a rather rubbery egg with a hard yolk.

Donors who never give something for nothing, for example, like a named gallery, a particular series of exhibitions (that s/he guest curates) or a plaque, or a raft of stipulations about perpetuity, or a direction to purchase certain things for the museum that will be good for the collection, plague the curator on a regular basis. Pressured to accept things that have no place in the museum, in return for some government-incentive backed, tax break-driven cash injection, the curator is often the a lone voice of dissent amongst a cacophony of obsequious kowtowing from colleagues and ‘friends’.

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Curators

Curator’s Advent. Day 12. Show and tell

Show and tell interactive in the Unwrapping the Past gallery on ancient civilisations at the Royal Cornwall Museum
Show and tell interactive in the Unwrapping the Past gallery on ancient civilisations at the Royal Cornwall Museum

Show and tell is my most favourite activity as a curator. I don’t get to do it nearly as often as I should like. It’s quite simple. Choose a theme or subject, get some great stuff out from your stores – or even out of a showcase – and show your visitors. If you are feeling brave, tell them how to handle the thing safely and let someone else get their mitts on your hallowed treasure. It’s the best feeling all round.

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Curators

Curator’s Advent. Day 11. Research enquiry

Lamp-post by N. Holman, Makers, Penzance (Market Jew Street, Penzance)
Lamp-post by N. Holman, Makers, Penzance (Market Jew Street, Penzance)

The research enquiry is a most basic way for a museum to share the knowledge and stories contained in its collections–and often that about its surroundings too. A publicly-minded museum curator will relish the opportunity to share openly and widely with researchers of all motivations and from all walks of life. Answering enquiries is a direct and intimate activity between a museum and member of the public whether they are academic professors, students, TV production companies, family historians or just plain curious. Curators, where museums still keep them, have a special responsibility to dispense the ultimate purpose of a museum working for public benefit by generating and disseminating accurate and honest information. In turn, the museum may receive new knowledge from the enquirer which can be recorded and reshared to expand or challenge its understanding of its collections and the communities, and communities of interest, that it exists to support.

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Curator’s Advent. Day 10. Relative humidity

Image of a beach. Relative humidity on a warm sunny day with a light breeze is just about right for humans but can be iffy for some objects
Relative humidity on a warm sunny day with a light breeze is just about right for humans but can be iffy for some objects

Mould, corrosion, warping, splitting, delamination, vinegar syndrome, desiccation, off-gassing are all symptoms of poor control of relative humidity and fluctuations in the moisture of the air surrounding a museum object remain the biggest threat to their long-term health and well-being. Too dry can be as bad as too wet. The whirling hygrometer spun purposefully around our heads has been replaced, by and large, by digital and radio controlled monitors. We love to see that 50-55% for paper and wood and 35-40% for iron.  For the curator who does not have the yackers (money) for multiple environmentally controlled zones, or who can’t afford the energy bill of hefty air conditioning units, silica gel has become a friend. Secreted (discretely) in a showcase or in appropriate quantities within the packaging environment, the curator can employ this and a treasury of techniques to keep objects nice and comfy, and presentable.

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Curator’s Advent. Day 9. The showcase

A nice museum showcase, anti-bandit, anti-UV, anti-pest, anti-humidity... get the idea?
A nice museum showcase, anti-bandit, anti-UV, anti-pest, anti-humidity, antacid… get the idea?

The museum showcase is the frontline defence system that repels all manner of undesirable effects on our hallowed collections: bandits, the environment and sticky fingers. You may laugh but most curators will have to specify a showcase made from anti-bandit glass at some point in their careers. But there is a more elevated purpose for the showcase. It maintains the air of reverence and mystique surrounding a museum object. The vitrine is a window to wondering. It provides artful elevation of even the humblest artefact – a bit like a simple ingredient in the hands of a skilled cook. Visiting museums with showcases full of object is a bit like watching a cookery programme – you can imagine and long but you can’t taste, touch or smell.