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

Disused archival material

Uncovering hidden histories: the secret archive

Posted Posted in museums, libraries, archives, collections

Uncovering hidden histories: the secret archive

Disused archival material
Disused archival material

Many companies and businesses in the area are old, possibly even centuries old. They have a history of which they are justifiably proud. They have stories to tell. They have objects and papers to illustrate the story. So, how are they telling this story? Where is this story? Who sees it?

The answer is usually that they don’t tell it, it’s boxed up, it’s on a shelf, nobody sees it. Often, on asking a company about the visual representation of their history, I’m told: ‘We aren’t telling it – it’s gathering dust in a cupboard’ or ‘I think there’s some stuff in the attic, I’ve no idea what’, or ‘There are a few bits in reception which have been there for ages and there’s loads upstairs’.

Companies hold onto documents and objects which are important to them and their histories, yet don’t allocate time, money or effort to preserving and using those histories to inform the future. Why, then, are they hanging onto it? Can’t they throw it out? No, they can’t, and they don’t, because it’s old, it’s the company history and it’s important. So, paradoxically, it’s too old and important throw away and it’s not important or old enough to bother about.

Barriers to responsibility

Who takes responsibility for this stuff? Usually, in a company, if anyone is allocated ‘the archive’ they also have another role, the main and important one, the one which on they are appraised and for which they receive wages. The archive isn’t doing anything, it’s not part of the company strategy, it’s not mission critical – I’m busy; it’s on my list; when I have a minute – maybe the next postholder will deal with it.
Additionally, it costs money to look after an archive. Even documenting what’s there might take weeks or months depending on the size of it, let alone digitising, packing, monitoring etc. Who can afford that?
As we noted before, the company history is not usually a mission-critical element of the company strategy – it’s viewed as just being there, in the past, done and forgotten – useless, almost.
Knowledge is another barrier. Imagine, say, a busy secretary – trained, skilled, qualified, experienced and knowledgeable in the role. Yet his or her knowledge of how to prevent leather book bindings falling apart, or the chemical reactions between different materials, or archival systems for document retrieval, or preventing insect infestations , are different matters entirely. The secretary can’t know this; can’t sort out the ‘stuff’, mothballs the project, and the condition of the collection worsens.

What if it could be different?

If a collection has taken many decades to accumulate and has been stored and added to all that time, surely it’s worth a little thought and effort? It might only take a few days to assess and tidy a small archive but the benefits are much greater than the cost of the time taken.
Tidying the archive will result in organised data retrieval – staff will know what’s there and where it is. If the collection has been digitised then it’s even easier, and with the addition of images you can not only see what you’ve got, but sell that information to others, creating a sustainable revenue.
You’ll be able to have simple asset administration – your history is an asset, and if you find valuable oil paintings, rare equipment, specialised documents or useful information, now you’ll know where it is, what condition it’s in and what it’s worth.
In many cases, tidying results in saved space, fewer accidents and breakages and a diminished risk of theft from researchers.
Once it’s done it can be used in many ways but possibly more importantly, those who made the decision to invest in it can be proud of saving it for future generations.

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.

Finding out that my role is quite unusual

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

woman-42009_1280I 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…

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.

radiator

Autumn’s here: Why turning on your radiators could be turning off your revenue stream

Posted Posted in Care, Environmental monitoring, Storage, Temperature
old radiator with peeling paint
Turn off radiators under artwork

Radiators – oil filled heaters – storage heaters – under-floor heating – at this time of year, the chances are that your office has some form of heating (and I do hope so!) and that you’ll be discussing whether or not to put it on. Perhaps it will go on for a few hours in the morning and a few more in the afternoon, if you work in a small cost or environmentally-conscious office, or perhaps you work in a space where your office becomes a blast furnace, with the windows open and the staff in t-shirts, from October 1st until March 31st.
No matter which heating style you live with, it probably won’t suit your company collections unless they’re in a dedicated climate controlled location. Most offices with historical collections fail to prioritize them and so store them wherever there’s room – the attic, the basement, cupboards, open shelving in offices.
So why is heating a problem? How on earth can being warm entirely ruin collections? Well, I’ll explain, and as it’s nearly my lunchtime I’ll use a few food analogies. Imagine putting two litre bottles into the freezer. One contains water, one contains alcohol. They’d both freeze, but one would expand more than the other. As they melted, they’d contract back to their original sizes. Now, think of the way in which pasta absorbs water, and how it dries out again when the water is removed. This happens, to a greater or lesser degree, to everything in a collection.
Take a traditional oil painting as an example. Usually, oils are painted in many layers of differing paints over a canvas, which is usually made from cotton, linen or hemp. The canvas will have been initially treated with a layer of gesso, comprised of linseed oil and calcium carbonate, applied over a rabbitskin glue ground (called a ‘size’). The whole is stretched over a wooden frame. The painting might be varnished after completion, before being inserted into a plaster and gilt frame. On average, you therefore have at least nine different mediums – canvas, linseed oil, calcium carbonate, size, wood, varnish, plaster and gilt, not to mention the paint and everything that it’s made from. ALL of these things will absorb and lose heat and moisture and, crucially, this happens at different rates, like the frozen bottles and the pasta. As they do this, they expand and contract, again, crucially, at different times. Back to the food analogies – imagine a flaky pastry, with different layers becoming larger and smaller at different times – a smaller bottom layer rucks up the larger top layer; a larger bottom layer stretches and cracks the smaller top layer. The end result is an oil painting with cracked, flaked paint, shrunken or loose canvas, warped canvas frame and lost chunks of gilt plaster – I’m sure you’ve all seen one somewhere. The paintings in the worst condition are usually those still hanging over the Victorian fireplace, which expanded and contracted hugely every day in the fierce heat generated.
Every single thing in a collection is susceptible in one way or another. Some items take decades to show degradation while others have visible damage fairly quickly. All the time that your heaters are cycling on and off, causing wide temperature fluctuations, they are causing damage. Moving items away from fluctuating heat sources can help, as can creating micro climates by boxing – best of all is a temperature controlled room, or one which has no heating or windows and so has a more even, less spiky temperature chart.
Once your items are damaged they are less useable for advertising campaigns, merchandising, corporate gifts, inspiration, research, image licensing and heritage strategies. Do take steps to protect your company’s valuable history – moving collected items away from heat sources is a simple, easy thing for you to do.

Dust: eating into your company archives

Posted Posted in Care, Dust, Environmental monitoring, museums, libraries, archives, collections, Storage

I read a humourous line recently: ‘Dust is a protective coating for fine furniture’. Obviously that’s a joke, but the joke is more about perceived standards of housekeeping than the realisation that dust is anything but protective.

 

Preservation specialists have known for a long time that it is actually harmful, so much so that the very image of a museum curator is bound up with dustiness. That’s why, upon telling people I was a curator, often the response was ‘Do you do a lot of dusting?’ A good collection won’t be like this – a good collection excludes it in the first place.

 

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s unsightly, it’s acidic, it’s abrasive, it’s allergenic and it’s hygroscopic. Dust comprises particles of soil, sand, volcanic eruptions, pollution, pollen, exhaust fumes, mould and fungi spores, of dead skin and hair, fabric and paper fibres and house dust mites, which eat the organic matter contained within and leave their faeces behind them.

 

The overall composition is acidic, and if left, will eat away and etch into items if left lying upon them. It will discolour and stain fabrics. Dust is mainly organic and as it decomposes it rots, leaving the products of decay in its wake.

 

Fibrous dust only contributes about 3% to the total but as it’s larger, it is unsightly; it is the fibres in the dust that often alert us to its presence. Skin and hair also don’t contribute much, but in homes and offices, they create enough particles to ensure the presence of house dust mites. Microscopic louse-like creatures, these cosmopolitan pyroglyphids flourish in these stable environments. Particularly fond of warm, humid bedding, they also do well in carpets and soft furnishings in similar office environments.

 

Dust sticks to surfaces because of the presence of exopolymers, made of the waste products of microbes. As dust gathers it provides more food for the colony-forming microbes which produce waste (called ‘biofilm’) on the surface of your object. Warm humid rooms are perfect for this breeding to take place.

 

To avoid the heavy consequences of ruining a collection with this problem, exclude it. Gently vacuum items before boxing or covering them. Don’t use a duster as this just moves and unsettles it – use a conservation vacuum. Items which don’t need boxing can be protected with archival tissues but not all items need this protection. These can be shelved as long as the doors and any windows are sealed or have excluders. Ideally a store wouldn’t have windows at all – if it does, they should be boarded over and sealed up – this helps with security, excludes dust, stabilises temperature and humidity and maintains low light levels.

 

If stringent precautions are taken and a regular cleaning programme implemented then your collections should be an asset to your company for many years to come.

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.