The Food Museum is accredited, which means that we are regularly assessed by external specialists to ensure that we meet a set of standards for museums. One of our main responsibilities is to care for and develop a collection of objects.
We began a project to improve our collections standards in 2017 with an initial goal of digitising our card catalogue and photographing the collection so that we could make it available online. Collections photography is ongoing (if you would like to be involved, you can learn more here). The digitisation of our card catalogue took us 6 years to achieve. To learn more about how we reached this milestone, see our Search for the Stars case study. We are now entering the next phase of our collections review: a collections audit.
The Food Museum has a collection of over 40,000 objects which it has assembled over 60 years. Many of these were donated in the early years when the museum was entirely run by volunteers, and they didn’t have the capacity to keep pace with donations – it has taken us several decades to clear the backlog.
In among the objects that were collected were many significant and fascinating items. However, our collection also contains duplicate objects, objects that have little or no provenance (i.e. we don’t know who they belonged to, who made them and what their story is, and have no way of finding this out), and others that have suffered in previously poor or outdoor storage conditions and now require major conservation to be of display standard.
We are therefore auditing our collection to work out what might not be sustainable or sensible for us to keep. We need to balance the needs of our existing objects and future collecting against the resources that we have, such as staffing and space.
We have policies and procedures which guide staff in how to approach these tasks and recognise that we need to take a sustainable approach to collections (for example, we cannot collect more than we have the space to display and store). Best practice industry guidance (from the Museums Association, Arts Council England and the Collections Trust amongst others) informs the approach we take.
This is the first time that it has been possible to review the collection as a whole. The process will give us a better understanding of what we have and the ways that we can use our objects.
This work is an ongoing task for many museums. External funding has enabled us to accelerate it. We are grateful for support from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund through the Museums Association, the Headley Trust and SHARE Museums East Museum Development Programme, supported using public funding from Arts Council England.
Does this mean that the museum wants to get rid of its collection?
No – the collection is still very much at the heart of the museum. Our focus is on objects which are duplicates, in very poor condition, or have little or no provenance. This will enable us to free up space for future collecting and ensure that what we have is of good quality. We see the audit as a positive process which will improve our understanding of the collection and enable us to collect more strategically in future.
How do we audit our collection?
Our approach is informed by the Museums Association’s guidance: ‘Off the Shelf: A Toolkit for Ethical Transfer, Reuse and Disposal guidance’.
We use a decision tree to help us assess each object we look at. We draw on the knowledge and experience of our Collections staff, volunteer team and subject specialists. We will also consult other institutions, individuals and the public where it is appropriate to do so.
In a small number of cases, staff may conclude that we should dispose of an object. They will compile background information about these objects which will be discussed at a Collections Committee comprised of staff and volunteers. The recommendations the Committee makes will be presented to the Board of Trustees for a final decision.
What happens to an object that has been approved for removal from the collection?
We follow structured industry guidelines provided by the Museums Association to ensure that we transfer, reuse or dispose of collections in an ethical manner. This document, including the recommended methods for disposal, is available to read here.
What if I donated an object? Can I have it back?
This would depend on the terms under which the object was gifted to the museum and would need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Why aren’t all your objects on display? What is the point of having them if they are hidden?
It is normal practice for museums to own more than they have on display (for comparison, the British Museum has 8 million objects of which 1% are on public display).
There are a number of reasons why this might be so, such as:
- We hold duplicates or very similar objects which might be useful for research but less interesting for display. For example, we hold a collection of field drainage pipes at the museum which look visually very similar to each other and would make a repetitive display but which are of interest to a specialist.
- Having a collection enables us to rotate objects – for example, to put on themed temporary exhibitions which tell different stories and make a museum visit more interesting for repeat visitors.
- Some items in our collection are more sensitive than others and need to be rested from light and environmental conditions to ensure that they survive for future generations.
- Some objects are on loan to other institutions for their exhibitions.
- Some objects are undergoing conservation or cataloguing.
We recognise that it is frustrating if you want to see a particular object. Our aim is to photograph the whole collection so that it will be viewable online even when objects are not on display. We also facilitate research visits to see the real thing where possible.
Will any of your objects go up for sale?
There are many other options to consider prior to this – for example giving an object to another museum. If this does occur, any money received from the disposal of items will be applied strictly for the benefit of the collection, its long-term sustainability, use and development: for example, for further acquisitions or collections care.
I have an object on loan to the Food Museum, is this affected by this project?
Not all the objects on display belong to the Food Museum. Some are on loan from private individuals or organisations. We are getting in touch with lenders to update loan agreements where required. If you have an object on loan with us but might have changed your contact details, please get in touch.
Are you doing this because of the rebrand as the Food Museum?
We would do an audit regardless of our rebrand. All museums need to review and look at their collections periodically. We will not be disposing of objects because they do not fit our current focus as the Food Museum. However we will be rotating what we have on display to enable more of our food-related objects to come out of storage and have their turn in the limelight.
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