On cataloguing my first Museum collection…

(N.B.: I’ll add some more illustrative pictures tomorrow/soon – I forgot to take my camera in to work today!)

At the end of November I went for an interview for a short term contract job in Skipton, North Yorkshire cataloguing the Geological collections of the local museum. I don’t know how many people applied for the post, nor how many were interviewed but somehow I managed to impress the interview panel enough to be offered the post! I’m still somewhat unsure how providence shone on me in this manner as I don’t count myself as being any good at all at interviews what with my shy disposition and often brutal, self deprecating honesty.

I therefore found myself moving into a small room in a shared house on Saturday the 7th of January, and at 10 am on the Monday I appeared at the museum’s back door with no small amount of trepidation as to what exactly lay in store for the next three months. Here I am, one month and one week down the line and I still absolutely love the work, without the slightest trace of boredom – something I wasn’t expecting given the horror stories I’d heard about 9 to 5 working – perhaps these horrors are something that only comes with time, but at present I’m not afflicted by them.

As to the work itself the Museum’s Geological collections are large, especially for the storage space in which they have been kept for the past 30 or more years. These collections are mainly housed in three cupboards within the museum building, each approximately two metres long, half a metre high and two thirds of a metre in depth. Each is packed to bursting with old fashioned wooden banana boxes, tea boxes and other dilapidated storage which can (and has) drawn blood from my hands when handled!

Picture Showing the Geology Cupboards

Craven Museum and Art Gallery's Geological Collections Cupboards... Yeah those under the displays!

There are contained within this multitude of boxes numerous collections made by local people of every stripe over the last hundred and fifty years or so, the crowning contents being the Tiddeman and Raistrick Collections.

A photograph of an uncurated, uncatalogued Geological Cupboard

A photograph of an uncurated, uncatalogued Geological Cupboard - the "Before" Shot, if you will

The former consisting of a great number of Lower Carboniferous fossils excavated and collected in the main from one of the Craven area’s Reef Knolls while the latter collection consists of a wide variety of Geological specimens from across the UK and especially the north of England that were collected by Dr Arthur Raistrick, a man whose Wikipedia article alone is a worthy read and who is to put it in no uncertain terms a local legend. No pressure then…

Reef Knoll Exposure

An example of a Reef Knoll exposure in Downham, Derbyshire (image courtesy of the BBC, click image to go to site))

So far I’ve catalogued three of the smaller collections and the greater part of the Raistrick Collection, but I cannot as yet tell what proportion of the collections this equates to! A feeling to which I suspect many museum professionals who’ve undertaken this kind of work will attest. I would say it’s about 30-35% if I was pushed but that doesn’t include the Tiddeman or Waters Cabinets which are in off-site storage and to which I doubt I will get by the end of this three months!

There are some interesting problems that should be noted at this point, which have if nothing else taught me some lessons that I will take on to any future collection management jobs of this kind upon which I embark.

Firstly and foremostly is the value of having as much paperwork and work-space as possible! The first thing anyone should be able to do when undertaking a collection catalogue of this kind is go through the entire collection and divide it amongst the various collections of which it is supposed to consist. This cuts down the subsequent work-load immensely as not only do you get a feel for the contents of the collection, but you also get a much cleaner catalogue at the end of the endeavour. As it stands I didn’t take advantage of the museum being closed for the first week of my internship, and combined with the lack of any previous curation of the geology collections has meant that parts and pieces of individual collections are turning up in the most unhelpful places and resulting in a rather untidy box numbering system, for example after I finished the first two collections several boxes containing parts of the first collection appeared, and without any list of that I should have had I had no idea they were missing until they appeared. This has meant that the first collection is now split into two runs of boxes with another collection intervening… which is no big thing as I’ll be leaving behind me a list of what’s where, but it is maddening to the logical mind that it’s not a clean result!

The second thing that I have come to appreciate is that while volunteers can be an absolute god-send to anyone undertaking museum work, if they haven’t been given the necessary information (or no-one is there to guide them) then they can be a truly double-edged sword! The collection here has had 34 years since anyone with any geological training was let near them, but equally it has had 34 years of volunteers moving, inspecting and browsing the collections. With the end result that the list of boxes compiled all those years ago no longer corresponds with the boxes in the cupboards, and there are specimens without label or number in boxes that they shouldn’t be! Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got a downer on museum volunteers, I am one myself and know how it goes! And the troupe of volunteers who have been helping me go through the collections these past few weeks have been – as I already said – a godsend!

I’ve only got one thing to add before I begin rambling – as I inevitably do when I’m writing long posts such as this. It is quite possibly the saddest point regarding this whole endeavour. Despite this small museum having an excellent geology collection including in the Tiddeman collection at least one collection of national (or possibly international) importance, almost none of it is on display. Indeed of the entire collection only a grand total of 7 rocks were on display when I arrived… this has now gone up to 15 as they wanted to include some “interesting rocks” in the entry cabinet of the museum. But this is still nothing compared to what could be made available… from the Tiddeman collection to Raistrick’s Lead Mining Minerals and from the many examples of Carboniferous coal measures plants to the small yet fascinating collection of polished agates, marbles and granites hidden forever within these three locked cabinets and the offsite storage building.

Photo showing one of the Geology Cupboards that I've managed to finish!

And Hopefully, when I leave the CM&AG at the end of March... Most of the Geology will look like this...

Anywho… I hope this has been an interesting – if slightly long – post and I’ll see you next time for more on one of the specific collections here at Craven Museum and Art Gallery!

Ben D. Brooks

13.2.2012

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2 thoughts on “On cataloguing my first Museum collection…

  1. Pingback: A Year Since Graduation… | BenjaminDBrooks' Blog

  2. Pingback: We’ve completed another Orbit! | BenjaminDBrooks' Blog

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