Written by Esther Green and Ian Channell, Epping Forest District Museum
A community-centred institution, Epping Forest District Museum’s (EFDM) collection consists of over 100,000 objects, from prehistoric stone tools to 20th century computers, all stored in four storage locations.
However, as a result of variable collecting policies over the years, we know little about some objects in the collection, with some objects not relevant or suitable for the Museum and its audiences. And like many museums, the collections have begun to exceed the space available for storage, leading to concerns for:
- Collections care and obtaining appropriate environmental conditions for objects;
- Collections documentation and the thorough recording of objects within the stores;
- And safe public and staff access.
Limited space means that our capacity for future collecting is minimal which could lead to an imbalance of the historical periods represented and ignores the present local community.
The Relevance, Rationalise and Recycle Project aims to address this inaccessibility through an assessment of the relevance of objects to the Museum’s ‘Collections Development Policy,’ rationalising objects and disposing of objects deemed inappropriate.
Guided by the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics and practical advice in the Disposal Toolkit, we aim to keep rationalised objects within the public domain, actively seek out accredited museums to transfer objects to and thoroughly record rationale and decision-making throughout the process.
Significance Matrix Spreadsheet
The project began in September 2020 and uses a Significance Matrix Spreadsheet to evaluate the significance and importance of each object to the Museum’s collection. The spreadsheet includes:
- Basic object information (accession number, location, material, object description);
- Object condition;
- Provenance (the documentation consulted, previous owners, loaning institution, manufacturer or supplier’s addresses);
- Rarity and Uniqueness (mass produced or handmade and if it is duplicated in collection);
- Historical importance (linked to a significant person, events or ideas or social and technological developments);
- Public engagement history and potential (whether the object has been displayed before or used for a project);
- Social/Societal Importance (whether the object fulfils a function for a particular group or community and whether the objects tells a story linked to the protected characteristic groups, for example does the object tell a story related to young people, individuals living with a disability or is it linked to a specific ethnic or national group?)
The spreadsheet is used to formulate the basis of our rationale of whether an object should be retained or considered for disposal.
For ease, the project is split into three phases.
The first phase, performed by volunteers, involves recording basic object information, photographing and condition checking objects within the collection. Both the Collections Officer and Project Officer provide introductory training and encourage volunteers to, for example, use standardised terminology when considering an object’s condition to ensure uniformity and to reduce the subjectivity involved in the condition checking process.
Working on stage 1 of the rationalisation project is giving me the opportunity to look closely at objects that I have not previously looked at in the museum collectionHelen Wilson, museum volunteer
The second phase involves researching the objects in the collection, condensing all disparate information retained in accession registers, entry forms, computer databases, and MDA cards into a single, useable spreadsheet. Due to the passing of time, collections information exists in both a paper and digital format and is found in different locations throughout the Museum. The information about the collections is important to help understand how and why collections have been acquired and how they are linked to the district and its people.
Using websites (such as Grace’s Guide for social and industrial objects- Graces Guide) and books, individuals determine the rarity/uniqueness, historical importance, public engagement potential and social/societal importance of objects.
When working on stage 2, I believe that I have developed research skills and improved problem solving to help with object identificationHelen Wilson, museum volunteer
Following phases 1 and 2, each object is scored 1-5 (phase 3), with one equalling full documentation or information present and five equalling little or no information or documentation available. From the numerical value given, objects are either retained or put forward to the steering group for potential disposal.
The steering group, formed of councillors, external project consultants, community stakeholders, subject specialists and the museum team, including curatorial, learning, front of house and marketing, make the final decision on items for rationalisation. The steering group interrogates the data, ask questions and takes on board the comments and scoring from the team and decides the best course of action for each object, or group of objects, in line with the Museum’s collecting policy, mission statement and project outcomes.
Following steering group approval, the Museum, using guidance from the Museum Association’s disposal procedures, will:
- Dispose of hazardous materials;
- Return loaned objects;
- Offer objects to other accredited museums via the Museum Association’s Find an Object site;
- Offer to non-accredited museums and other community organisations/groups; and/or
- Dispose (return to original owner, gift to charity, etc.) or destroy the object as a last resort.
Since we have undertaken the project, some of our rationalised objects, such as a wooden wheelbarrow, have gone on to have a new lease at life with Epping Forest District Council’s community gardening project.
Unsurprisingly, the project has had to adapt to changing lockdowns and restriction.
In the height of lockdown, teams (or COVID-19 ‘bubbles’) were assigned to workstations and communicated with each other through walkie-talkies, allowing each team to be able to proceed with the ‘COVID secure’ auditing of the collections.
Due to tier changes, the Museum has had to continually adapt. Wider council staff who were unable to continue with the day-to-day job were provided training and assisted with the project. Following the 2021 lockdown, the volunteer programme was suspended with the team composed of four Museum staff, each working separately in designated workstations, adding more staff and volunteers gradually as restrictions have eased on May 17th.
EFDM has a small volunteer cohort, some of whom have been shielding, leading to increased isolation and feelings of loneliness. The rationalisation project has provided remote workshops for volunteers along with newsletters and email updates, allowing volunteers to continue to engage with the Museum and its collection, improving their own confidence in utilising video conferencing, Excel and email platforms in day-to-day life. Weekly emails, such as those highlighting Museum staff’s ‘favourite objects,’ has spurred information sharing, personal stories and moving memories.
The rationalisation programme is an opportunity for me to develop new Excel skills and more easily navigate the information recorded. It is also a chance to get a broader view of the collection and see some of the materials that through necessity, have had to be stored at a variety of locations, limiting their accessibilityMary Salton, museum volunteer
This project has also allowed Museum staff to improve their knowledge of the object’s we care for. Some objects we uncovered we knew little about and with further research, were able to determine interesting provenance information, links to significant historic events or touching, personal stories.
Significant objects and moments have been shared on the Museum’s social media platforms, council wide press releases and in local newspapers.
Looking to the Future
Although in the early stages, this project has increased volunteer, staff and public engagement and will continue to provide public benefit by creating a more manageable and accessible collection, leading to a legacy of increased exhibitions, behind the scene tours, research visits, object handling and educational opportunities. We look forward to updating you further over the coming year!
If you would like to find out more about this project or discuss rationalising your own museum’s collections, please contact:
Esther Green, Project Officer- Review and Rationalisation: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ian Channell, Collections Officer: email@example.com