Underpinning the foundations of a collection by bringing together over 150 years’ worth of dispersed information on a digital database.
You should read it if:
You are interested in ensuring the longevity of a collection by raising standards in collections care and management.
The McManus’ Fine and Decorative Art Collections are Recognised as Nationally Significant, and comprise around 10,000 works. The core of the collections include 19th and 20th century Scottish art, contemporary works, significant Scottish and Dundee silver, and studio ceramics.
This project aimed to tackle decades of idiosyncratic and inconsistent documentation. A two year post was created to collate, interpret, and rationalise existing documentation relating to the acquisition, research, display, and copyright of objects within the Nationally Significant Collection. Previously this information was recorded in short-hand (requiring first-hand knowledge or considerable detective work to translate), and dispersed in different formats and locations, including index cards, hard-copy files, and CDs. The project utilised the EMu collections management system to collate, store, and manage all documentation. Information and associated digital material is now attached to individual object records, creating an at-a-glance history of each artwork. Recording this data on a digital asset management system makes it more accessible and ensures that the knowledge will remain with the collections. Future staff will be able to focus on building on this information, rather than having to repeat basic documentation tasks.
Challenges and successes
The project improved over 96% of the fine art records, enriching provenance, exhibition and loan history, research information and conservation records.
The project identified a number of artists for works previously misattributed or catalogued as unknown. The new attributions include Norman Edward Tayler and young Dundee artist James Duncan Stark.
Copyright clearance remains an ongoing project, although significant progress has been made in this area.
The difference made
Presentations successfully highlighted to trustees and stakeholders the benefits of investing in collections research and management.
Through ongoing work to create an online catalogue, knowledge and understanding of the collections will be shared with those in Dundee and beyond. This should encourage independent research into Dundee’s rich visual heritage.
Collections data is easier to search and share, which has already contributed to sector research, loan administration and public enquiries. Easier access to collections information will also support new staff joining the organisation in the future.
Increased social media activity during the project engaged a wider digital community and improved the online following for Dundee’s art collections.
What was learned
Succession planning must be built into day-to-day practice. The McManus had learned this the hard way as retirals, restructures, wholesale office and collection moves and the inability to plan for long-term storage of digital resources played havoc with collections knowledge and resulted in ineffective filing systems and difficulties retrieving information.
Visibility is key to ensure continued funding for museum documentation. The McManus achieved this through presentations to trustees and stakeholders, talks for non-specialists, and an exhibition Dundee Preserves showcasing behind-the-scenes work across all areas of collections management and care.
If you're thinking of doing something similar...
Agree a strategy for the backlog and stick to it. Rather than simply transcribing the shorthand and abbreviations on existing index cards, a decision was taken during this project to turn these notes into full records. While this was labour intensive, the resulting records are now far more useful.
Have a clear set of priorities but be prepared for changes. At the start of the project the team thought they had all IT systems and a clear plan for data storage in place. However, key elements of the projects had to be delayed due to introduction of new IT systems within Dundee City Council.
Speak to MGS as early as possible. The funding application for this project was initially turned down, and the McManus used feedback to strengthen the application before successfully resubmitting.