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Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Documenting vintage documentation - A guest post from Nick Poole

One of the secret joys of working in a museum is that moment when you find yourself all alone in a room full of old museum stuff. The smell of camphor and old wood. Paper labels peeling away, bearing barely-legible single words, usually handwritten. Seized-up thermo-hygrographs and endless, endless card-index drawers, plan chests and boxes on shelves. To me, there’s a sense of magic, stillness and mystery – the feeling that somewhere in those drawers are secrets, passed down from single-minded, learned curator to curator, waiting to be unlocked.

It was to capture that sense of mystery and potential that I started to collect examples of old record cards from museum collections. Some were donated, some I found via museum blogs and tweets, others I photographed while visiting behind the scenes in museums around the world. And eventually I decided to put them together in a collection at

It is often said that the front-of-house experience of a museum is like a piece of theatre. And like in a theatre, it is backstage in the museum where the real story is told, where we care for and learn about the collections and help them reveal their stories for the public to enjoy. This is why museum documentation has always held a particular fascination for me – it is a combination of the mysterious and the mundane, an insane, ongoing effort to capture all of the possible knowledge about a thing on a piece of card and an assertion of order in a chaotic and changeable world.

Museum documentation serves both an administrative purpose – helping museums to be accountable to the public they exist to serve – and a creative one, helping to unlock and narrate the emergence of cultures, identities and histories at a tangible human scale. Like any other professional practice, the way we document collections has changed enormously over the past 100 years. And from these changes in practice, I think we can learn a lot about changes in society, technology and attitudes towards heritage and identity.

Some of my favourite cards include the example below from the Pitt Rivers, partly because it is a classic design, showing so much about how museums record information about objects and partly because of the fields left unfilled, details that can be fleshed out over the next 100 years of research and scholarship.

My other current favourite from the collection is this one which records the transfer of the collections of the US Patent Office to the United States National Museum in 1884, effectively laying the foundations of the Smithsonian, arguably the world’s largest national museum.

Reflecting on an innovative digitisation project, a long-standing museum colleague recently said to me, “of course, this is the 4th time I have digitised this collection. I did it first when I wrote the record card by hand. Then when I had to type it out. Then when we transferred it to microfiche and now this, databases and 2D photography”. Looking ahead to the shift some museums are making to capturing their collections in 3D, makes you realise that documenting a collection is not a finite project with a defined beginning and end. It is an ongoing process of assertion, research, discovery and refinement.

I am really excited about some of the more recent developments with documentation too. There is always the risk of reinforcing cultural bias or exclusion when deciding what information to record (and who gets to record it!). I have been really encouraged by recent efforts to open up the process of interpretation and collections management to the wider public through crowdsourcing and community engagement. I hope that this will bring a new dimension to documentation practice and I am glad that through the work of the Collections Trust and the SPECTRUM standard, we have been able to bring some of these innovations into everyday practice.

It is a sad fact that documentation in UK museums is in a pretty poor state. After nearly 2 decades of significant under-investment, there remain huge gaps in our knowledge about and custodianship of museum collections. Large quantities of material sit in museum stores around the country with missing or inadequate documentation, which essentially robs them of their cultural value and their potential to benefit the public. I hope in some small way that Vintage Documentation will help more people understand not only the beauty of these old records as artefacts in their own right, but the vast investment of human effort that goes into documenting our heritage and sharing it with the public. The effort of recording and sharing knowledge about collections continues to this day and while it is often one of the least visible aspects of museum life, it is also in some senses one of the most important.

I am having a great time adding new finds to and am enjoying meeting professional colleagues and learning about their experiences with documentation. I’d like to thank my contacts around the world including the fabulous Ministry of Curiosity for your enthusiasm and support. If you’re reading this and you have a record card or a register entry you’d like to share, please do post it to Tumblr at, tweet me @NickPoole1 or email it to me at All submissions welcome!

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