Each undocumented, or poorly documented, object is a missed opportunity for the museum to do all of the things they are celebrated for: engaging people, connecting people, sharing stories.Kathleen Lawther, Curator, April 2021.
Continuing our interviews with curator, in our latest we speak with Kathleen Lawther. Kathleen is a freelance curator who is obsessed with what is, and what is not, recorded about museum objects. Kathleen’s recent work with museums includes documenting new acquisitions, and creating a micro-site to showcase them, for the Fashioning Africa contemporary collecting project at Brighton Museum. Kathleen runs the Acid Free Museum Collections consultancy.
Tell us a bit about your journey into collections documentation
I like to say I got into museums because I have misplaced empathy for inanimate objects, which is true.
It’s also true that, like many people entering the museum field, I thought I wanted to be a curator and create exhibitions. I wanted to do something visual, that also involved writing and telling stories. Of course, (again like many people) I found that kind of work was not easy to get. So, I have done whatever people would pay me to do, and often that has been documenting objects. I started out doing admin for a museum learning team, worked on a collection relocation project, then in a collections management role at a national museum. At the same time I was doing a distance learning MA in Museum Studies.
That was the most shocking contrast for me, going from all the objects being precisely located to not really knowing where or what everything in the collection was.
At one point I went from working for that large museum with a big, dedicated collections management team and a rigorous auditing system to a tiny town council museum with a handful of staff doing everything. That was the most shocking contrast for me, going from all the objects being precisely located to not really knowing where or what everything in the collection was. It’s not just tiny museums though, I’ve found that levels of documentation are poor in almost every organisation I’ve worked in since.
This is where the misplaced empathy comes in; I think it’s a shame for all of those objects to sit unknown in the stores. But it’s not really about feeling bad for the objects. Each undocumented, or poorly documented, object is a missed opportunity for the museum to do all of the things they are celebrated for: engaging people, connecting people, sharing stories.
Not a lot of people have the determination, curiosity, and patience to do what I do.
Now I am a freelancer and I love working on documentation projects. One of my favourite activities is taking a messy jumble of objects and records, with multiple accession numbers, or no accession numbers, and making it coherent. Then the objects and the records become useful to the museum’s wider work, instead of being a problem. I would still like to do exhibitions and displays, using those objects to tell stories, but lots of people want to do that, and are good at it. Not a lot of people have the determination, curiosity, and patience to do what I do.
Back when I finished my MA I started my Acid Free blog. At the time it was a way for me to stay engaged with wider issues in the sector. I found I loved writing and people responded to what I had to say. After I wrote about my experience coming from a working class background, Jess Turtle, then at the Museums Association, and now doing amazing things with the Museum of Homelessness, contacted me and encouraged me to apply for the MA’s Transformers programme. I can honestly say it was life-changing for me. I cried a lot, I questioned myself a lot, but ultimately it gave me the confidence to speak out more and to work towards what I want. All of these experiences have led to me becoming a dedicated advocate for collections documentation.
How do you feel collections documentation is valued within the museum profession?
I think it is undervalued, because it is misunderstood. It is perceived as a boring, low-skilled activity which has nothing to do with engaging people with the collections. I think when you mention the need to complete documentation people switch off. Maybe they assume it is about arbitrarily filling in every box on a form with dry, pointless information, rather than an opportunity to ensure stories, interpretation and research are shared now and in the future.
Often it would have been women assistants responsible for recording and cataloguing objects and specimens, while male ‘professional’ curators did the more visible and high-profile work.
It’s seen as quite bureaucratic and clerical, and actually that reflects the way it has been within the museum profession ever since museums became professionalised. Often it would have been women assistants responsible for recording and cataloguing objects and specimens, while male ‘professional’ curators did the more visible and high-profile work. And we know that when women dominate a field of work it tends to be undervalued.
Museums are memory institutions, we have a responsibility to record what we have, and what we do.
An example of the low value placed on documentation is succession planning in the sector. Museums are memory institutions, we have a responsibility to record what we have, and what we do. Yet often when a long-serving member of staff, especially a curator, leaves an organisation there is a sense of panic that expertise will be lost. Yes, that individual’s skills will be lost, but if we took documentation of collections seriously, all the research they had done, and knowledge they had gained would be readily available in the object records.
What’s the public perception of collections documentation?
Like so many things, I don’t think we in museums know enough about the public perception of the work we do. I think, and this is only an assumption, that it wouldn’t occur to people outside of the sector that lack of documentation is a problem. One thing we do know about public perceptions of the sector is that people tend to trust museums. So, they probably assume that museums are doing what they need to do, that collections are well cared for, neatly stored and meticulously catalogued, and that museums can be trusted to do this work.
On the other hand, there are people who have a (justifiable) mistrust of museums, such as people who advocate for repatriation. Projects like Un-Documented: Unlearning Imperial Plunder by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay perpetuate the idea that looted objects are meticulously catalogued by museums:
The first migration is of the objects, generating professional care, scrupulous documentation, and generous hospitality in museums and archives: they are the (relatively) well-documented.Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Un-Documented: Unlearning Imperial Plunder, December 2020.
While I understand this is rhetorical, comparing the migrations of objects and people, and it is well worth watching, it feeds the assumption that everything in museums is well-documented. In reality one of the most pressing arguments for properly inventorying collections is that museums cannot possibly respond to repatriation claims when they do not know what they have. We also need to do provenance research, but the first step has to be accounting for which objects are actually present. The prevalence of undocumented loans and gentlemen’s agreements in the (recent!) past means that what is listed in early accession registers and even on databases rarely reflects the current contents of the stores. If people knew the true extent of the issue, there would be absolutely no argument that colonial acquisitions are ‘better’ cared for in western museums.
We cannot know everything about every object or collection, but we should be recording what we do know so it does not get forgotten or lost. The same discoveries shouldn’t have to be made again and again.
Every so often there will be a news story about something being ‘discovered’ in the stores and museum people get affronted. I’m not sure if it’s because they want the credit for the discovery themselves, or they want it to seem as if they knew perfectly well what was there all along.
But the reality is there will always be discoveries to be made in museum stores and archives. We cannot know everything about every object or collection, but we should be recording what we do know so it does not get forgotten or lost. The same discoveries shouldn’t have to be made again and again. The idea of ‘dusty stores’ in these types of stories also infuriates museum workers. I don’t mind it though, it’s more of a romanticised view of the work we do than a criticism of our collections care practices.
How do you feel generally about the skills within the sector right now when it comes to documentation?
I think there are a set of skills needed which are not currently associated with documentation: critical thinking, self-awareness, complex problem solving.
Some of the key skills that are associated with documentation (if you look at a sample of job adverts, which I did) are attention to detail, working with databases, data entry and typing skills, the ability to stay motivated through repetitive tasks. I think this reflects my earlier point about documentation being seen as a purely clerical role. Where there is a dedicated documentation person in a museum, they are there to type, not to think critically. Sadly, where there is not a dedicated documentation post, often the work does not get prioritised, leading to more backlogs.
All of these skills are necessary, but they are not all that’s necessary. I think there are a set of skills needed which are not currently associated with documentation: critical thinking, self-awareness, complex problem solving.
Personally, one of my most valuable skills is that I can see something, recognise it as being connected to another thing and, crucially, remember where I saw the other thing (this also makes me extremely good at identifying samples in songs). I don’t know how you would recruit for this skill, but it’s about being able to develop an overarching view of the collections you work with and the connections between them.
You need to be able to think on a macro and a micro level. Of course, if a museum has a thorough documentation history recorded in their collections policies and procedures, you don’t need your staff to have perfect recall for a certain type of accession number, they just need to know where to look it up.
I don’t think documentation should be seen as the work of one person. Of course, it helps to have dedicated people to manage the database, keep procedures up to date and train others, but everyone who works with objects should be able to access, use, and contribute to information about them.
Which particular elements of collections documentation practice would you like to see modernised or improving?
For me it is not so much about practice as about attitudes, and to a lesser extent, about tools. Much of the guidance needed to improve documentation practice is already there. Spectrum is not perfect, but it does give museums the tools to work through their documentation challenges and provides a framework for solutions. The problem is that it takes real work on the part of the museum to use the tools of Spectrum to create a documentation practice that works for them and supports the needs of the organisation.
I think there needs to be a shift in attitudes to value this work, because so many improvements in access would follow.
We all know there is a lack of resources for documentation work, but resources are allocated by people. I think there needs to be a shift in attitudes to value this work, because so many improvements in access would follow.
I’ve touched on it elsewhere, and Ananda Rutherford has clearly laid this out in her CRC interview, but the other big attitudinal change needed to improve documentation is to stop seeing it as neutral work, and to confront the bias inherent in our collections.
A lot of what is recorded about collections is interpretation, it is subjective, but is treated as fact.
The obvious answer in terms of modernising practice would be that digital tools can help us here. People talk about the possibilities of data visualisation, an even artificial intelligence, but these tools can only be as good as the ‘data’ you put into them. Collection data is full of holes, and I would question whether it should be treated as ‘data’ to begin with. A lot of what is recorded about collections is interpretation, it is subjective, but is treated as fact.
Consider the homogeneity of the museum workforce throughout time and how a tiny and non-representative proportion of the population has given themselves the authority to describe and define what these objects are and what they mean. That’s your dataset.
Rather than thinking about flashy digital outputs, we should be focusing on tools that are designed to make it easier to do our jobs.
I do think digital improvements can be made, but in a more practical way. Rather than thinking about flashy digital outputs, we should be focusing on tools that are designed to make it easier to do our jobs. When people don’t see documentation as part of their role, they can avoid learning to use the database properly, but you could also argue that understanding the quirks of a particular database shouldn’t be a barrier to people getting their work done.
I dream of an integrated, well-designed system that could support the needs of everyone who works with museum collections and record it all in one place.
If you look at successful digital products, they are easy and intuitive to use. When you look at a museum collections management system, they are clunky, ugly and outdated. They have not substantially moved on from when they were first introduced, and again, the information we record in them has not moved on either: transcribed from earlier records, or copied and pasted. There is so much transcribing and copying and pasting going on, of both old records and in adding things like new exhibition text to the database, and it is a waste of all of our time. I dream of an integrated, well-designed system that could support the needs of everyone who works with museum collections and record it all in one place.
What next for you?
During 2020 I was working on a research and development project funded by an ACE Developing Your Creative Practice grant. This is an incredible fund and I encourage all museum people to apply. The brilliant White Pube have put together a library of successful submissions to help people apply (you can find mine on there!)
The pandemic obviously changed the course of my activity, but it was wonderful to be able to spend time reading and thinking. The programme is very much about personal development rather than outputs, but I have realised I am quite results driven so I now want to work on something with a clear outcome.
I want to encourage everyone who works with collections to think critically about the way museums create and record narratives around objects, and to consider their own positionality and how it affects their work.
I am working on developing a new project to share some of the conclusions of my research and advocate for the importance of documentation work in ensuring museums can tell diverse and meaningful stories about their collections. I want to encourage everyone who works with collections to think critically about the way museums create and record narratives around objects, and to consider their own positionality and how it affects their work.
My working class background and it has definitely shaped both my experience working in museums and my takes on the sector (so much unnecessary gatekeeping)
When I am not thinking about documentation, I am part of the steering group for Museum as Muck, the network for working class museum people. We launched this new website last week.
My working class background and it has definitely shaped both my experience working in museums and my takes on the sector (so much unnecessary gatekeeping). Being part of a group who are committed to creating a fairer and more equitable sector keeps me motivated when the pace of change can feel so slow.
Kathleen Lawther on Twitter: @kathleenlawther
Kathleen’s Acid Free consultancy.