Talking about collections

Last week, a group of us from the Museum of Science (MOS) went over to the Boston Children’s Museum (BCM) to have an informal chat with our colleagues. Loren Stolow from BCM wrote me a few weeks back asking if any of us were interesting in coming over to talk about collections. Jennifer Jensen, their Curator was leaving and they wanted to have a chance to talk about her work while she was still there. Since I’ve been writing a lot about collections, Loren pinged me and we had an engaging talk about collections and some high quality/low impact professional development.

I know some of you are doubtless thinking, “Science museum and children’s museum staff talking about collections?” Read on…

A bit of history on both sides. The BCM is almost 100 years old, and is one of the few (I think four) children’s museums in the country with a sizable collection. If I recall correctly, their holdings run to around 70,000 objects, with extensive ethnographic collections as well as toys and other objects associated with childhood. The MOS started in 1830 as the Boston Society of Natural History and operated as a natural history museum for the first century of its existence. Even with the shift from natural history to science education, and massive deaccessioning campaigns (you’re welcome, Harvard et al), MOS still has a remnant collection of about 30,000 objects, with substantial holdings in New England flora and fauna, a live collection (AZA accredited, no less!) and the usual technological bits and pieces. Both BCM and MOS are are a bit odd amongst their peer institutions in this regard. It turns out that current practice at both is still influenced by our collections.

About a dozen of us had a lively talk about collections and collecting and how our institutions do (or don’t) make the most out of the collections we possess. Aside from a brief digression/rant about the definition of “curation” and its appropriation and misuse, we pretty much stayed on topic the whole time. What did we talk about?

Making the invisible visible
A major theme of our talk was about raising the profile of collections in institutions that don’t “see” themselves as collecting museums. One thing BCM struggles with is how easy it is to not know they have a collection. I had no idea their collection was as broad or as deep as it is and I reckon I’m more attuned to this than their audience. Jen detailed some of the efforts they’d made during her tenure to make the public more aware of the collection and how hard it is. Even in exhibitions like their “Native Voices” which is full of objects, they’re so well integrated into the design of the space that its easy to not to think of them as collections objects. We discussed the dialectical relationship between preservation and access, and I tried out some of the ideas on continuum of transparency from exhibit to collection which will hopefully find their way into the next installment in the Making a museum from scratch series.

New England Habitats by Flickr user mos.engineers

MOS has a slightly easier time of it because our natural history lineage is literally written in stone. The MOS has your classic diorama hall “New England Habitats”, a large permanent exhibition/open collections storage area on classification called “Natural Mysteries”, and teaching collections of specimens that are in heavy rotation among our educators. Getting the collection in front of visitors as “the collection” seems to work for us.  The other thing that works is that our curator has a dedicated case in a high traffic hallway that features the personal collections of staff and members. Seeing someone’s collection Girl Scout memorabilia in the Museum makes a strong point about our instinct to collect. And it draws the parallel between our collection, what museums do and what “normal people” do.

Natural Mysteries, by Flickr user mos.engineers

Is it real or is it virtual?
Our one major segue started with us talking about collections data and how putting it online did or did not help increase audience use/awareness/appreciation of the collection and what an online audience was.  Should online efforts exist to “drive traffic” to the physical museum, or is there value in providing a service to an audience who will never set foot in the building? Comfortingly, we all agreed that online audiences counted, provided the museum had something of value to give. We’ve both tried giving visitors access to subsets of the data in our collections databases, and found that they aren’t very successful. Those systems were designed around the needs of a specialist audience (the staff) and are full of shorthand, cryptic references, and little in the way of visuals. Both institutions are working to improve on the work our predecessors have done, but it’s hard when the institution doesn’t see the collection as a core part of the soul of the museum.

The cycle
It was very revealing to hear Jen and others discuss the history of the collection at BCM and how it has risen and fallen in importance over the decades.  The same thing has happened to us during my tenure at MOS and I imagine it’s pretty universal. Directors come and go, initiatives appear, staff and institutional memory are constantly leaving, and through it all (hopefully) the collection remains.

When I was a wee bairn, I can recall visiting the Children’s Museum at it’s old home in Jamaica Plain in an old mansion. And there were tons of objects to encounter, as well as things to do. During Mike Spock’s tenure, they were busy inventing hands on learning, and the collection took a back seat for awhile. Now, they’re on the far side of major expansion, and given my experience watching others go through this cycle they’re due for a period of retrenchment. And opportunity to find new uses for existing assets like collections.

Doubtless we’ll pick up some of the topic again at the July Drinking About Museums. Are you coming?

Don’t plan it, just do it
One of the most important learning about the event was that it required very little organization and planning. Loren sent an email with enough of a topic (collections) to give the event some structure. She held it over lunch so people could actually come. And it was a successful professional event. Everybody met new people and the exchange was enough that we started talking about the next get together before we’d even finished the first one.  If you’ve got more than one museum in your area, you should try it.