girl looking at pictures in an art gallery exhibition

Curating an external exhibition

Posted Posted in Exhibit, museums, libraries, archives, collections, planning, Using archives and collections

As a freelance curator, I do get asked to mount exhibitions for other organisations, sometimes in their location, sometimes not. Putting on an exhibition of unfamiliar objects with an unfamiliar subject in an unfamiliar location brings one or two challenges and more than a few questions. Invariably an initial conversation goes something like this:

‘Hello, are you a curator?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Can you put on an exhibition for us? What will it cost? How long will it take?’
‘Yes I can. First I need a few details about what you’d like, when you’d like it, how long for, who does what….’
‘Oh. I thought it was just putting pictures on walls?’

In case you’re unfamiliar with museum exhibitions, here are a few initial questions and considerations before a budget/timescale can be set. What is the size of the exhibition? Where will it be? How many objects might there be? How long will it run for? What do you want to see in it? What is the exhibition saying and to whom? And at what level to say it – beginner, intermediate, expert? What are the aims of the exhibition? Do they fit the aims and mission statement of the display location? Will the objects be worthy of display? Will they be in good condition? Will the organisation’s intended budget cover their initial ideas? (Usually, no!) How will objects move from place to place? Who will be responsible for packing/crating them? How will they be physically displayed? Who will organise and pay for the mounts and frames? Who will actually get up on a ladder to put paintings on walls? Who will condition check them on arrival? Who is responsible for advertising and promotion? Who selects each object – those with subject specialist knowledge or those with an oversight of how museum exhibitions work? How will the exhibition be monitored and evaluated and by whom? How long might research take – what information will be provided to the curator? Who will develop the concept and write the panels – those with the knowledge of the subject or those who know about writing text for visitors? Who decides the layout, lighting, display? Is there anything that already exists that can be re-used? Who is responsible for finding, putting together and mounting any audio visuals? What of insurance? Who pays for it in transit or in the museum? Who puts the objects in position? What’s in the budget for interactives? And speaking of budgets…who sets the budget? And who, from the company or organisation, will liaise with the curator – marketing, purchasers, company historians, secretaries, technicians, volunteers, MDs, CEOs? Depending on the organisation’s structure, all might have to be prepared to give some time to make it happen.

You see, it’s not all ‘just putting pictures on walls’. A simple one room exhibition of mixed media will take a minimum of three months (and that’s rushing it) exhibitors at a national museum will probably allow three years to plan and implement something new. As to budgets – a very simple temporary display will probably be upwards of £10,000; a blockbuster will be many millions. Most of the time taken is in liaison and making arrangements. Even a simple thing like a difficult mount for a single item might take hours to research, order and present. Curators are keen to do as much as possible to ensure that the exhibition works as a whole; clients are keen to do as much as possible to avoid curatorial fees. Discussion, early decisions about who does what and open lines of communication are key to smooth relations with stakeholders.

If you’re thinking of putting on your own exhibition – perhaps for an important anniversary (congratulations!) – here are The Company Curator’s Top Tips:

1) It will take longer than you think. Work well in advance. Think years, not months.
2) Have an accessible budget ready to go.
3) Communication and early, transparent decisions about who does what – in writing – are vital.

Happy exhibiting!

box with old photos in it

When it really is too late

Posted Posted in Care, Storage, Using archives and collections

Recently I was approached by a large global company who needed my help with their heritage collection, which they were very proud of. They weren’t sure what they had and had no idea how to use it. I looked, assessed and quoted for cataloguing and digitising the collection, which comprised boxes of photographs, promotional material, old newsletters, ledgers and company documentation with a few other objects thrown in for good measure.

Last week I was informed that they were ‘unable to proceed with the project’. Intrigued, I asked why – was it me? Was it my price? Was it the market? No, they said, it was the collection itself. They had collected items for the archive since the company had been founded – that’s 50 years – and this process involved one simple step: putting suitable material in the archive location. Over the years, a large collection had built up, which occasionally a staff member would sift through to find useful items.

However, at this time of deciding what to do with the collection and how to move it forward, they had come to a simple shocking realisation – the photographs in the collection were entirely undocumented and therefore meant nothing to anyone. They had no idea of who the people in the photos were, what the occasion was, where the photo was taken or its date. No-one had ever thought to write this down. Much of the collection that they thought they had was, in an instant, proved intrinsically valueless. Without interpretation and documentation a photo means very little. If your collection is built on undocumented photographs then I would say that you have a problem which is often, without a lot of research, cost and effort, going to compromise your heritage.

What not to do if you have an undocumented collection? Don’t rush out, ask colleagues who the people in the photos are and write that information on the back of the photo. Why? You’re creating more problems – you might then discover the next time you look at the photos that the ink you used has now transferred to the photo below it. Archivists record photos in ways that don’t damage the photo and do ensure that the information stays with it.

box with old photos in it
old photos

What should you do? Ask a professional! Plan for this aspect of the future and learn about the right way to ensure that your collection will be understandable and meaningful to people in 50 years, 100 years or more. Don’t let your someone in your company be faced with the decision that this company is now facing: what to do with 50 years of now-meaningless history?

Digitisation: one way to be remembered at work

Posted 1 CommentPosted in Opinion, Storage, Using archives and collections

Digitisation is a hot topic at the moment (OK, I’ll qualify – it’s a hot topic in the world of collections and collectors).  By 2008 the number of devices connected to the internet outnumbered the human population.  We love to be online and digitisation can only enhance this.

Digitisation (the scanning or photographing of physical items into a digital form) is a great way of recording the object’s condition at that point in time, sharing information, showing and  protecting objects which are too rare or fragile to be on show, making collections accessible, using them in new ways, supporting new methods of research, allowing new audiences to interpret content, and generating income from image sales.

So what’s the problem?

The main problem (after ‘what to digitise’ – I mean, who wants to pay for and manage a second, virtual collection because – unthinkingly – they digitised everything?) is that it’s very tempting for companies, particularly those with limited space, to think ‘Let’s digitise it and chuck out the originals!’.  Seeing as we’re talking tech,  I’ll use an emoji:  It’s very hard not to run away screaming when a client says this.

 

I have only one answer to the person who asks ‘Do you think we should keep our collection after we’ve digitised it?’ and that is yes.  If you are considering the digitisation-and-bin method, ask yourself why anyone ever visits museums and galleries.  Do they go to look at copies or at the real thing?  Would you be happy if our great national museums and galleries took photos of everything inside, threw out the originals, shut up shop and said ‘yeah, but you can see them online now, and we don’t have to pay for a museum any more’?  Do people value cut glass rings or diamond rings?  Real pearls or fake?  Genuine artwork or prints?  Tutankhamun’s death mask or a postcard of it?  I hope you see where I’m going here?

 

Your company heritage is your own unique record of your company’s history, people, working conditions, processes, developments and successes.  It is tangible, physical, real, genuine.  It can be held, seen from three sides, displayed this way and that, passed round, shown off;  it has an associated feel and smell which a scan or photograph does not.  The past becomes the present when you’re in a space filled with that past, feeling the hands of time, people and place wrapping around you and pulling you in – this cannot happen when you’re on a computer looking at single objects one by one.

 

Don’t go down in company memory as ‘the one who threw out the collections’. Be remembered as the one who did something with them.

 

Faith Carpenter curates for The Company Curator, working across Berkshire, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. We can help you to tell your story to your customers and clients.

www.thecompanycurator.co.uk

https://uk.linkedin.com/in/faithcarpenter

https://www.facebook.com/thecompanycurator/

07842 320691

Image of a museum exhibition text panel about collecting and collectors

Hoarder, accumulator, collector: a collective obsession

Posted 1 CommentPosted in Exhibit, museums, libraries, archives, collections, Opinion, Using archives and collections

Hoarder, accumulator, collector: a collective obsession

Image of a museum exhibition text panel about collecting and collectors' obsession
Obsession – hoarders, accumulators and collectors

‘Obsession: Collectors, Collections and Collecting’, was an exhibition I put on a while back, reflecting the passion of collectors for their objects.  Part of the exhibition involved defining what a collector was and how they differ from hoarders and accumulators. The crucial differences in defining whether someone is a collector, a hoarder or an accumulator is the way in which they go about adding to their possessions and what they mean to them.

Hoarders

You’ve probably seen the programmes on television about hoarders, such as the famous ‘Life of Grime’, which featured Mr Trebus and his houseful of possessions – so many possessions, in fact, that he couldn’t move about in the house, had no idea what was in it and had rats within the piles of stored items. Mr Trebus, and many like him, are hoarders. They cannot bear to throw items away as they ‘might come in useful one day’ or ‘it’s wasteful’ or  they ‘need’ them.  Accumulators have often suffered trauma in the past which makes them view every object with an inherent and deeply felt desire to use, possess or save the item. Their objects become a physical barrier to the world around them,  a world from which the owners become increasingly detached. Hoarders are strongly emotionally attached to their items, even if they are what others would class as waste, and feel that to part with their items is to lose themselves. This kind of collecting is seen as a treatable disorder.

Accumulators

Accumulators store items in much the same way as hoarders do – they want to use, possess or save the item but have no concerns about throwing things out when necessary and no particular emotional attachment to most of them. Items are brought into the collection in a haphazard way. In this type of collection, a collector might have multiples of identical items, items which add no new knowledge to the collection, damaged duplicates and extremely similar items. Often this type of collector will see value in quantity over quality. Accumulators often collect as an emotional response and their collections lack historical or scientific importance; for instance groups of china frogs or souvenir teapots, fridge magnets or stuffed toys.

Collectors

A collector collects with a specific aim – to have one good representative example of everything that it’s possible to own on the subject. This collector looks for areas that aren’t represented and searches out items to fill those holes. This collector does not duplicate excessively but might, for instance, collect the same image printed at different times by different people, seeing a value in those differences. The collection will be well thought out and the collector will be able to define parameters; for example ‘British First World War Medals’ or ‘prints of the County of Oxfordshire’ or ‘Georgian silver teaspoons’. They will be able to cite the reasons why they collect and what they hope to achieve. Often, these collectors spend many hours establishing histories and provenances and will usually have documentation for each item as well as a catalogue of their collections.

Obsession

While preparing for that long-ago exhibition about collectors, it became evident that many collectors were obsessed. Their collection was their main hobby; their focus; their motive. Collecting takes over their lives, informing where they holiday (there’s a medal in that museum I’d like to see/a dealer I’d like to meet/a type of item only available from one place), costing a great deal of money and taking up a great deal of time. Often called eccentrics, these people are the backbone of museums over the world, often donating their well-preserved, beautifully catalogued, documented collections to museums and writing books in their subject areas. The late Colin White, when in his role as the director of the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth, once told me “The world needs experts” and these collectors are often the world’s experts. Long live the true, obsessed, eccentric collector!

New Year, New Strategy? Use the old to show off the new!

Posted Posted in Using archives and collections

New Year, New Strategy? Use the old to show off the new!

So 2017 is here – (a shock, I know – each year seems to move ever more swiftly the older I get). So how can we use this year in new ways? What new strategy can we adopt to show that we’re moving with the times? Ironically, to show new things, old things can often be the answer.

Look to the past
The past is the informer of the present and the future. We can look to it in myriad ways to find out what we did well and what we did badly. We can look at how we’ve changed, progressed, learned, adapted. We can see if we are reactive or proactive. We can see how we’ve dealt with challenges, from minor to major, and what effect those changes had – was it positive or negative? We can, if we look closely enough at a long company history, see the different ways that different company directors work – their differing leadership styles are written in the company’s footprint.

But why look?
Knowing what’s gone on is such a useful way of knowing how to proceed. You can evaluate a plan better if it’s been done before and failed because you can find out why it failed. You can try a plan again even if it failed last time if you know that other parameters – customer needs, changes in spending, technology – have changed too. If it’s not been done before, you know that you are the pioneer and can move in any direction you choose and this is empowering.

Where can we look?
Your company records, archives and collections are fabulous tools for evaluating your company’s future. They can tell you all of the above. Your company history can give you the confidence to lead in new and challenging directions. Perhaps this means that through your company’s past you can see the future? Maybe that’s a bit whimsical, but a new year with new hope and new ideas…anything is possible! Look to the past to think of the future and a Happy New Year to you all.

heritage blacboard image reading time for change

Out with the old and in with the new…and the old

Posted Posted in Exhibit, Using archives and collections

Heritage for the new year

This time of year is often a time of reflection, evaluation and of planning. What went right? What went wrong? What could be improved on? How can you improve client perception of your company’s trustworthiness, survival skills and friendliness? With a heritage strategy….of course! If your company is older, more venerable, has been around the block a few times and has gained wisdom, knowledge and status, tell your clients. Don’t just add something like ‘since 1820’ on the website – show your clients. Other, newer companies can’t do this, making you one step ahead – don’t waste the opportunity to show your achievements.

Use technology to leverage your company heritage

Put a page on your website with the interesting bits of your company’s history. Show how you’ve managed change, wars, times, people, difficulties. Show how the company has grown in status; has merged; has bought into or created new technologies; how you’ve diversified or reined in to better serve customer needs. Show how you’re supporting diversity or gender issues in the workplace by putting up the changing faces of your staff, particularly if you’re taking on new staff – find all the old staff photos and create a ‘staff through time’ wall. Use technology to show how the technologies developed by your company have always been ahead of the competition.

Use your archives on the office walls

Find old photos or prints which tell a story and have them framed in a timeline sequence. Choose photos of staff, of leaders, of the building, of work done. If you’re a manufacturer, use old blueprints or designs to show how things have changed in your industry. If you’re office based, what about a series of old blank contracts, indentures, maps, plans? Really use your archives to generate thoughts and inspiration.

Use your office spaces to show company heritage

Invest in a proper display case and show off pieces of company history – label them to tell the story you want clients to hear. One case not enough – you have more history, more space and more objects? Have a company history room with text panels and changing displays. Displays can show anything – how you did it in the past, how you’re going to do it in the future; both together. Just landed a great contract? Put a display together about all the great contracts you’ve landed and how this one is going to move your company forwards. Received another award? Put them all out on display for a few weeks. Manufacturing a new range? Put it out there; put the older ones out there; juxtapose them. Explain why newer is better.
Making your archives work for you justifies their existence, shows off your company heritage and makes your company look well-informed and interesting. Displays, websites and walls all offer information, a powerful tool which you can turn to your company’s advantage to keep you one step ahead.

Leverage for collections – Boots the Chemists’ archives

Posted Posted in Exhibit, Using archives and collections

old-card-1348456_1280While checking LinkedIn this morning, I was attracted by an interesting image. It was a blog from Boots the Chemist with a cartoon line drawing from 1903. I saw that Boots’ Archive Department were cleverly using their archives to create an online 2016 advent calendar with a new image each day – brilliant marketing, fabulous leverage and a lovely historical way of marking the passage of time – not only of this year but of their years as a company.

 

The image showed a sign pointing to Boots where one could find ‘cash and chemist’ and a van driving through the snow. The van was advertising Boots’ Christmas Card Department and the strapline was for  ‘Christmas cards, comics, books, toy books and calendars’. Although Boots sells all of these things today, it’s not what the shop is known for. This gives us an interesting historical perspective and leads to questions about their marketing and sales choices over the years; why they chose to sell or not to sell specific items; what worked well for them at this time and what works well for them now; the changing customer needs over the years. Looking at something like this is a way of evaluating company success and change over time.

 

Why don’t more people do this? Why is this seen as ‘a bit out there’? Surely it’s both a great way of reminiscing about a company, its products and what they mean as well as a fabulous way of promoting a company in a subtle way? What could you to leverage your company history and create client engagement in a similar way?

 

Here’s the first page link www.linkedin.com/hp/update/6211494794460426240 ;

image of old books and documents

The value of company archives and collections

Posted Posted in museums, libraries, archives, collections, Opinion, Using archives and collections

image of old books and documentsAre company archives and collections valuable? The answer depends on what’s in them.

 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that a valuable collection has to be filled with oil paintings, gold bullion and precious jewels – far from it. Company collections, unlike museum collections, are judged both on intrinsic and financial value, so a good company collection will be invaluable to the company regardless of its financial worth. It will illustrate the development, leadership, staff, processes, innovations, manufacturing or products of the company by providing a documented repository of information, images, documents and three-dimensional items. If a company does have financially valuable items, these are useful strategic assets to the company’s balance sheet and should be cared for as important historical items in a museum would be.

 

A poor collection will be the opposite – patchy in terms of when items were collected, unbalanced in terms of written, visual and three-dimensional items, and might contain damaged, eaten or mouldy items which are undocumented, uncatalogued and uncared for. Upon looking at items in a collection like this, little knowledge can be gained because images will be unnamed, documents will be unenlightening and photographs won’t have dates, locations or notes to enrich their intrinsic value. A good curator can spot the gaps, clean up the damage and try to repair the collection to make it worth keeping.

 

So is it worth having a collection? We all like to see where we’ve come from and to hear the stories of others, partly so that we can compare and contrast that with where we are now  and where we want to be. Companies are no different. A good collection can illustrate the founding beliefs of the company and show that these principles are still maintained, show a clear line of object  production or innovation, instil trust and remind staff and clients of the company’s longevity and ethos.

 

Some collections are more important than the company. One charitable company has a collection of items relating to Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson: visitors from all over the world are interested in them. Poor care has led to the breakage of one of these hugely important items. The intrinsic value remains; the financial value is much diminished.

 

Companies who understand Social Responsibility, who embrace PRIDE or who are Investor In People will also understand that a company is more than its balance sheet alone – it comprises people, populated by people and kept afloat by people, and all of those people have emotions and feelings which can be evoked. The collection can be used to inspire, surprise, enhance empathy, trust, brand awareness and positive emotions – it’s touchy feely; it’s the human side of the company. An archive, collection or exhibition of company history provides a personal reaction in a way that any amount of soulless strategic branding, marketing and promotions can’t.

Using company archives to aid change management

Posted Posted in museums, libraries, archives, collections, Opinion, planning, Using archives and collections

Companies going through a period of change – perhaps new leadership, redundancies, reshuffling, mergers or buyouts – might find that a historical exhibition of the company’s collections and archives can help to effect good change management for its staff and clients.

 

Change is inevitable in any dynamic, forward-facing organisation but it can lead to low staff morale and unfavourable customer opinions. It is therefore beneficial to be able to show that change is positive and leads to better things.

 

Any company that has a good, varied collection of items can display them. A change display can be used in three ways – firstly as a cost effective way of showing how historical challenges within the company were overcome, secondly to show the longevity of the company and its strategies for implementing, accepting and embracing change and thirdly to show the company the natural progression from the past to the future.

 

A cost-effective way of showing that change is positive is to use the company’s own archives and collections to let the past inform the future. By seeing what’s been done, similar mistakes need not be made. Equally, as times change, it could be the case that something that did not work a while ago could be revisited and would work well now. Previous changes can be looked at in the light of the benefits that arose – and some companies might be brave enough to showcase their mistakes and say ‘here’s what we learned from that’. By showing what worked well, companies can show their improvements.

 

Often, merely having a historical exhibition – particularly if the company is impressively old – brings about a feeling of trust, of calm, of the link between longevity and wisdom, of safety in the knowledge that change has occurred before and will occur again, and that it will all be OK. A good set of photos, documents, machines or products can make a snappy statement about change and our ingrained worry about new. Exhibitions can be used to get people over the concept that ‘we’ve always done it like that’, as they prove that actually, it was done this way before that, and another way before that.

 

Exhibitions can also be used to show the change that’s about to happen. For instance, a new CEO could have an exhibition of portraits of previous CEOs shown alongside their aims and achievements with the new CEO’s portait, a personal introduction and an outline of future aims and goals. A manufacturing or production company could show previous techniques and use the exhibition to introduce new techniques and innovations and explain the reasons for the change.

 

Successful companies will cost-effectively use their historical archives and collections as change management; they are a powerful tool and should be seen as such.

Should a company display its assets?

Posted Posted in Exhibit, museums, libraries, archives, collections, Other, planning, Using archives and collections

I asked my husband what his employer’s company does about its history. ‘It’s all in an archive, it’s not on display’. I asked why not, and he said that the company was very forward facing and had designed all its branches and head office to all look identically modern, with the same branding, the same carpets, curtains, paint – even the prints had all been selected to be identical across the nation, so that when customers walked into any branch they felt recognition; it was the same as the one they usually used.
I know that when I walk into one of the branches I feel recognition. I recognise that I could be in any part of the country – it’s faceless; it’s soulless; it’s a cultural and historical desert – and for me, somebody with a historical background, that’s a shame. By being identical they are without identity, which is a pity as that company has traded since 1840s – that’s 175 years of people, products, innovation, change, which is all hidden under the bland face of modernity.
I know I’d perceive that company as more interesting, more engaging, more trustworthy, if I could see its origins, see the work that’s gone into it, see how politics and world events have changed its aims and outlook, or even just see a painting or lithograph of some of the leaders who’ve gone before. But that’s not modern. Modern seems to be about forgetting history, smoothing over everything into one-size-fits-all blandness. I don’t know that this helps anybody, companies least of all.
By displaying the origins of a company, the company is saying that it has a history to be proud of. It boasts longevity and staying power. It shows that it can weather storms, that its leadership has worked well for decades – centuries possibly – and that it will go on working. Thoughtfully chosen items bring a little of this history to customers and clients and show the human, unidentical side of a business and this is what those customers and clients respond to – for we are all human and we are not identical.