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

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.

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.