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.
Hoarder, accumulator, collector: a collective obsession
‘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.
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 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.
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.
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!
Recently an article in Cotswold Life caught my eye. Adam Edwards was asking what five things you’d save from your home in a fire, assuming that children, pets and photographs had been saved.
Easy, I thought, I’d take the…the…hmm. After the children, pets and photographs? Nothing else would seem of that much importance. You start to think about what’s significant to you, don’t you?
So, assuming that this fire was terribly slow and that we had all the time we needed and could access every room, the children’s memory boxes are very significant, if financially valueless. I could take them if they aren’t too much in the photo category; they are a collection of bits and pieces from their lives – artwork, baby shoes, clothes, hospital bracelets, cards – the little important things I treasure from the time when they were small (and cute, but that’s another story). So they could count as one.
Next, I thought, my Victorian tables? We have a lovely breakfast table and a pretty dressing table. They’d come next. I’ve worked hard to do them up and make them just so and I love their aesthetically pleasing shapes and lines. Can they be a job lot and count as one?
Then I’d take the African artefacts that we’ve collected – can I squeeze them in as one? Some were inherited from my grandfather when he was out in Colonial Africa; others are ours; rugs, bowls, mirrors, art from the places we’ve visited. Am I cheating badly if I say that’s one?
Next thing; my jewellery collection. It’s not much, just pieces I’ve been given or bought that have special significance to me. Nobody else would make much of it but each piece is important to me and I love it as a collection too (which is why it keeps quietly growing).
One more. Tricky, but I think it would have to be my rock, fossil and mineral collection. I’ve been adding to this for over 20 years and it comprises finds from my Grandfather’s garden, finds from our various gardens and items I’ve bought and been given.; again, nothing spectacular but important to me.
And then it dawned on me: they are all either collections or they are old, or they are collections of old stuff. I couldn’t separate them and just take one item from each, for as Aristotle said ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. Is this just because I love collections and collecting? Or is it because a single item might have little value but when in a collection, it becomes so much more when connected to other items? Even the children’s memory boxes (just junk to other people) are, unwittingly, a carefully curated collection of items which provoke memories of ideas, moods, times, places and people.
It appears that I also practice what I preach – the art of collecting, sorting and caring for collected items – and even though I don’t think of myself as a collector (surely that’s best left to the Gettys, Rothschilds and stamp collectors?) I clearly am. I’ve had various collections in my lifetime – lists of the charts in the 80s, candles, shells, books, shoes and handbags – none of them exceptional to anyone else but important to me because I collected them. That’s the nature of collecting, and it’s important because we can define ourselves through it and create memories through it. Come on then, what five things would you take?
Museums, archives, libraries – the traditional repositories and exhibitors of history. Now, though, are company archives beginning to fill in the gaps?
In previous years, a company might maintain an archive, strictly for its own use. It might or it might not have used the archive. Whichever way, if the company shut down, or if it wanted to share knowledge, the collection would be either binned or offered to the local museum. For instance, the Lynn Museum, King’s Lynn, has representative collections from Campbell’s soup, Taylor’s seeds, and the local glassmaking, fishing and salt industries.
Lately though, there has been bad news for museums. Councils are cutting budgets to the bone for museums that are already struggling; Walsall’s New Art Gallery is under threat; The Museum of Lancashire and the Fleetwood Museum have closed while The Tolson Museum, Dewsbury Museum and the Red House Museum are all set to close after withdrawal of funding. Many museums can’t afford to maintain their buildings, conserve their items, change their displays or conduct academic research into the collections.
At the same time, companies are getting wise to the fact that in their collections lies a diverse range of material which offers opportunities to academic, genealogy and materials researchers, display, design, marketing and publicity teams and educators, which can be used to help with the company’s CSR policy. These companies are investing in their collections and often, crucially, opening them to the public both for research and as exhibitions. When a profit can be turned, they can afford to do the things that museums increasingly cannot.
Where, then is the difference? If a company has an archivist to curate the collections, hires a display team to put them on display, employs someone to lead and teach education groups and offers public ticketed access, where does that leave museums? Will companies be able to move forward in a way that museums will not? Will companies be the new museums? Is this a positive or negative thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I recently attended the British Archive Council’s annual conference at the HSBC building in Canary Wharf. The theme was diversity – not of people, but of archives – diversifying, really.
Each speaker discussed the new challenge of getting one’s archive ‘out there’; of getting it to work for its owners; of justifying its existence; of how to exploit it for company benefit. Historically there has been a feeling that if a company owns an archive it is a) strictly private b) nothing more than a repository of ‘stuff we can’t get rid of’ and c) too difficult, too expensive, too risky and too time-consuming to either use it or open it to the public.
Happily, more forward thinking companies have changed and are continuing to change this view. Most of the big hitters – think Mitsubishi, Honda, Wells Fargo, M&S, Boots, Ikea, HSBC, Rothschilds, Guinness, Thomas Cook, Harley Davidson, Coca Cola – already have not only archives and archivists but museums too, to explore their collections, open them up to academics, provide inspiration and leverage their brand.
So I was surprised, when networking with the attendee archivists, to find out that the majority of them a) don’t already diversify as it’s a new field for them, b) are usually not trained in caring for a collection comprising three-dimensional items and c) are not used to putting on exhibitions. It seems that my role – being an archivist and museum curator for companies; somebody able to not only care for two-dimensional and three-dimensional items but to put on exhibitions and then leverage the collection for profit – is rarer than I’d thought. Maybe I should be called Archivist Plus or Archivist Extra instead of The Company Curator…
Meet Fred, who sits on my desk next to my mouse. Fred is a trilobite. He lived a while back; sometime about 400 million years ago he was living in what would now be Morocco, with volcanoes above him and a warm coral sea below. At this time life had exploded in the seas: arthropods ruled the oceans, fish and sharks were becoming prolific and plants and trees were taking hold on land.
Trilobites are first seen in the fossil record about 521 million years ago, and were the most successful of all early creatures, living for over 270 million years, during the Cambrian, Devonian, Ordovician periods before dying out in the mass extinctions of the Permian period about 250 million years ago.
I like to have Fred on my desk, next to my computer mouse, to remind me of several things.
- However successful a species is, however long that species lives or rules for, it can all end suddenly in circumstances beyond that species’ control. We will all go the way of the trilobite one day. This is humbling.
- Humans did not exist when Fred did, yet we know so much about him thanks to constantly changing theories, emerging science ideas, our need for knowledge and understanding and the fossil record which provides this. By having a piece of the past to hand, we can seek to be reminded of and to understand our history, the history of the world and our place in it.
- What was once a tangible, fleshy, living part of a wider ecosystem is now a tangible item of art, geology and history. It can be seen as a geological specimen of rocks and minerals; as an artistic item and a representation of the fossil-finder’s skill; and also as a historical specimen and representation of the Linnaean system (Kingdom: Animalia, Phylum: Arthropoda, Class: Trilobita, Order: Phacopidae, Suborder: Phacopina, Superfamily: Acastoidea, Family: Acastidae, Subfamily: Asteropyginae, Genus: Greenops, Species: Widderensis)
- To compare old and new and to see how they mix together (I do occasionally reach for my mouse and find a trilobite in my hand) and inform each other. Together they can create new stories.
- That history is emotive. This is where companies can benefit from showing off their histories. People are interested in history because it’s about other people; other lives; other times. Just as I like to see Fred, and feel humbled at the passage of time even as it is kaleidoscoped down and the past and the present sit together on my desk, so customers and clients like to feel this when they see the history of their companies.
Ultimately, companies can be inspired by their histories in the way I’m inspired by Fred – to tell a story, to learn more, to be reminded of the past and therefore of our futures, to mix old and new and to create emotions.
Most companies have undertaken emergency planning involving staff and visitor evacuation, IT and furniture removal – depending on the threat – but how many of you include your historic company collections and archives in your plan? For instance, how many of you would even consider the unique antique oil painting of the company’s founder in the rush to remove the easily-replaceable-backed-up-centrally-overnight laptop?
If your plan does include your company’s irreplaceable history, bravo and well done – you’re on the right track not only to keeping your own history, but a history that will have impacted on the town and society around it and upon the business world too. What of those who don’t?
Emergency planning is often seen as a theoretical exercise carried out only for insurance or policy purposes. This is fine until it’s needed. At that point you realise how important it is.
Years ago, as a museum curator, I created an emergency plan. It featured a description of the museum and collections, the evaluation, access and salvage procedures and the correct post-emergency process. It had an appendix of emergency contacts and detailed where to find useful items like the disaster boxes, ladders and torches (by all the doors – elementary. Are yours?)
This was an interesting theoretical exercise until I was contacted at 4am one dark, windy, winter morning to be told that ‘the highest ever storm surge will hit our area in four hours’. I had to persuade the police to let me through a total road block ‘You understand that if you die it’s nothing to do with us?’ in order to get to the museum. On arrival, my fab local team were there already assessing the situation, disaster boxes open and waiting. The boxes included lists of the most important items to remove, in what order, and what tools were needed to remove them. All the necessary tools, equipment and clothing to save the collections was in the boxes. We moved the most important items upstairs while the flood waters rose and the police and fire engines kept vigil, along with camera helicopters overhead.
In the event, the flood waters missed the building by only 30 feet. Businesses down the road were not so lucky. Another museum was watching the advancing flood from the front door when they realised that water was bubbling up through the floorboards. They had their own emergency plan which had enabled them to save their collections and demonstrate their survival skills. Can your company demonstrate that?
If you have an emergency plan, do check that your historical assets are included. Tables, chairs, PCs etc can be replaced – the physical record of your company’s history cannot.
Are 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.
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.