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?

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.

From trilobite to kilobyte

Posted 5 CommentsPosted in Opinion
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Fred, a trilobyte

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.

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Fred looking good at 400 million years old

 

 

  • 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.
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From trilobite to kilobyte

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.

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.