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?

Museums, Libraries, Archives…and Companies?

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

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.