It’s the challenge of everyone who works with collections: how to preserve objects while at the same time increasing their accessibility? The imperative of accessibility is too powerful to ignore. Surrounding yourself with the right tools and technologies can be the answer.
One of the most powerful tools for object preservation is an integrated Collections Management System (CMS). When your object data and conservation information are consolidated in one secure database and accessible to your staff, management, conservation, and sharing becomes much easier.
1. Reducing Light Exposure and Object Handling
When it comes to archival material such as letters, diaries, photographs, documents, or objects too fragile to display, digitization plays a key role in supporting accessibility while preserving the original. Many of these objects can provide some of the greatest insights into a research subject, but each time they are removed from storage and handled they risk sustaining damage. Taking high-resolution scans of the objects and saving them to an easily searchable CMS goes a long way to solving the problem. A CMS with Digital Asset Management (DAM) functionality to handle various media file formats is central to the success of a digitization project.
“Increasing accessibility to the collection, while at the same time reducing handling and light exposure of the objects, couldn’t have been achieved without these new technologies….”
– Rachel Tassone, Associate Registrar, Williams College Museum of Art.
Once object data has been digitally captured, a CMS will enable an institution to publish the collection information online. Researchers, students and members of the public will be able to easily access and learn from the objects without ever having to handle them. This not only preserves the object and expands its audience, but also helps raise the profile of the institution. With online access, visitors can view the collection remotely, select the objects they wish to study, and then visit the institution to further examine those selected objects. While reducing the number of artifacts being moved and handled, this also makes staff more efficient as they assist visitors and researchers.
Another area where a CMS can help in object preservation is when planning an exhibition. The most up-to-date object checklist is available to all exhibition staff in the CMS, so only those objects being used in the exhibition will be disturbed. If there is a change to the checklist, it is automatically shared with the staff. Everyone can see instantly if an object is considered too fragile to display. Each object’s status, its treatment notes, records, reports and related emails are all available in one central location and can be used to verify that environmental requirements are being met when setting up the exhibition.
2. Accurate and Accessible Object Data
Without an enterprise CMS, staff may be left to create their own independent lists and spreadsheets, each person making up their own idiosyncratic workflow. But what happens when the collections manager, curator, or registrar is away? Does their specialized knowledge disappear with them? What happens to all the collection information when a curator retires? How will the remaining staff access the collection information? In these situations, it can take the institution a long time to recover, and object information may be lost or objects not properly handled in the interim.
With a CMS, everything related to an object — images, location, storage needs, conservation treatments, exhibition history, future loans, condition checklists — is linked to that object and referenced across the entire database. The appropriate staff has access to the same information, and the institution’s streamlined workflow processes are centered on the CMS. Information on an object’s location, and the best conditions for storage and proper care are never lost in the staffing shuffle, ensuring that objects are always well looked after.
3. Better Conservation Processes
A good CMS will have applications that specifically support conservators, helping them in their work to better preserve their collection. A CMS consolidates project management and treatment data, conservation reports, images, and media. Conservators are able to capture before, during, and after photos of object treatments and access conservation reports directly from the CMS. The information can be shared with other staff members and is always up to date and accessible from anywhere.
4. Improved Object and Data Security
In the event of a fire, flood, or some other disruption in business continuity, your collection information may be at risk of being lost. Having collection information centrally managed in a CMS and protected by a reliable IT backup plan is essential. If objects are damaged in a disaster, having that database information is critical in accounting for all objects and identifying the recovery work that needs to be done.
When objects are moved between institutions on loan or for exhibitions, knowing the exact location of the object, its valuation, and whether it is properly insured at all times during the trip is part of good object care. A CMS can help with this by managing information on shipping dates, courier details, and the shipment’s value, along with object and exhibition or loan details. A CMS can also manage insurance policies for objects, even when in transit. You can set up automatic policy renewal alerts and cross reference the insurance details with object records and documents.
When objects are in transit, even if it is only to another storage facility or new building on site, technologies such as barcoding and RFID can help with precise object tracking. An enterprise CMS will support barcode technology, and the barcode or RFID tag placed on the objects will link to object information in the CMS. It’s another level of assurance that valuable objects on the move will reach their destination, minimizing loss and damage.
Collections stewards have unique and exciting careers, and these are exciting times. Never before has it been possible to share collections with so large an audience, while providing improved protection for these objects with new technologies. Entrusted with the preservation of objects of cultural and historical significance, those who work with collections help this generation understand the objects’ value, while preserving the collection so future generations can also learn from them. An enterprise CMS is one indispensable component in helping support this goal.