Welcome to part two of the driest museum blog series ever, getting into the nitty gritty of how we ‘document’ natural history specimens from start to finish. Last time around we’d set up our spreadsheet and set off to the stores to start recording information and observations about specimens. Unlike works on paper, machinery or archival documents natural history specimens don’t readily come with information embedded, inscribed or machine stamped into them to aid with identifying the who, how, what, where and when associated with specimens. They’re also incredibly inconvenient in that many don’t even have an easy place to write information on so a lot of specimen information is written on labels, on, attached to or otherwise associated with specimens.
Label information is really key to the information management of natural history specimens and alongside other pieces of documentation, provide sometimes, primary, often times secondary information evidence pertaining to what the thing is, how old it is, when and where it was collected as well as the internal museum information such as publications on the specimen, questions over the identity, anatomical labels, marks, scribbles and scrawls. As a golden rule and one I impress upon visiting researchers using the Oxford University Museum of Natural History zoology collections is never trust a label. As we will see in this instalment they can be outdated, inaccurate or just plain wrong.
Interested in museum documentation? Having trouble sleeping? Then read on. Continue reading
Well, it started with a list actually, well before that it started with months of familiarisation with the collections at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the Collections Manager (Life Collections) at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I manage the zoological collections (excepting the huge entomology sensu latu collections) and I’ve been in post for nearly two years now. My role at the museum as I see it is to facilitate access and use of the amazing collections at the museum but in order to do this, we need to get a handle on what material is in these collections.
This multi-part series will take you through the process from start to nearly finish, I suspect the pace of these blog posts will outstrip the pace of the work, in documenting the cephalopod collections at the museum. I have taught collections management in the past and (sadly) am very interested in how documentation works but in my work across the sector and wider, when discussing the problems with managing natural history collections, people not familiar with the work will ask “Why don’t you crowd source it” or “Just get volunteers to do it”. I’m afraid in many cases it isn’t that simple so these posts will take us through the whole process which is frustrating and laborious at times but ultimately satisfying when done right. It’ll be cathartic for me and scratch that teaching itch and who knows, it may be of some interest to others at the very least the nerdy museum documenters out there (shout outs to @RussellShepherd and @RegistrarTrek and the #MuseumDocumentation no offense intended).
Series introduced, let’s get on to documenting cephalopods. Continue reading
I maintain what I hope is a healthy scepticism towards the use of ‘digital’ when it comes to museums and heritage which mostly involves being a snarky bastard on the Internet and probing platitudes about digitisation in museums. This has led some to believe that I’m some sort of Luddite or just anti technology because it takes us away from the 300 year old unique selling point of museums which is people come to look at and experience things and only use the Internet for shopping and boobies.
Which couldn’t be further from the truth (ish)! I’ve been a keen gamer my whole life and a denizen of the Internet for a little less than that, cutting my digital teeth trolling the witchcraft forums, surviving the great LiveJournal wars of the early 2000s and arguing the finer points of the Colony Wars lore. I’ve written book chapters and lectured on the virtual museum, colour laser scanning, museum websites and the use of technology in museum spaces.
I’m not against ‘the digital’ in general, I’m more for a holistic view and use of digital technologies in resource poor museums and as a user as well as a creator, against implementing costly projects because of the ‘machine that goes bing factor‘ or without evidence of need, use or longevity that continues to plague many museum digital projects. Continue reading