Collections Database Manager at Tate
England’s Tate—a family of four museums under the sponsorship of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport—contains one of the United Kingdom’s premier art collections, including holdings in British art, international modern art, and contemporary art. Well known for its celebration of online platforms and sophisticated use of technology, Tate has been a champion of digital access in the museum space.
Gallery Systems had a chance to catch up with Madeline Betts, Collections Database Manager at Tate, about her role in the museum, how technology supports the museum’s interaction and engagement with visitors, and her favorite resources for career development and projects.
What is the biggest challenge your team faces on a daily basis?
Without a doubt, the biggest challenge we face is supporting more than 500 TMS users with only a two person team. We receive, on average, 180 TMS-related support requests per month, ranging from the typical minutes-to-resolve query to the complex request. Most requests are brought to us as “urgent” – a term I’ve come to take with a pinch of salt during my 4-plus years supporting users. Dealing with these multiple and varied requests in a timely fashion can be extremely challenging. Even more challenging is maintaining a rapport with the colleagues we support, whilst potentially never meeting them face to face. With 500 users scattered across five sites from Liverpool, through London and down to Cornwall, our small TMS “office” works hard to remain approachable and, above all else, reachable.
How do you see the use of technology evolving at your institution?
There is an increasing emphasis on automation as a means of managing the collection. Our ideal scenario would be to use a streamlined process that harnesses new and existing technologies (e.g. RFID tagging, workflow systems) to track and manage our artworks as they travel around the world, and we would like to move in that direction in the future. Which brings me to…
If you were given $100,000 to spend on management of your collection or department, how would you use it?
Collection automation! Ideally a workflow system that fully integrates with TMS, requiring minimal data input from users. As a starting point, we would like to replace our current paper-based process for managing job requests (e.g. a job request to move, install, de-install etc. an artwork). If not that, then money for additional staff would always be high up on the agenda!
Do you have a favorite book, event or training resource that has helped or motivated you in your career?
The biggest help in my career was when I undertook my Masters Degree in Museum and Artefact Studies at Durham University. The course involved 12 months of full time study and gave me the best start to my career in the Museums and Galleries sector I could have hoped for. Prior to the course, my work experience in the sector was minimal and my understanding of what it meant to work in the sector was, admittedly, rather naïve. However, the course equipped me with a diverse set of professional skills across the broad range of museum disciplines which has since opened many doors and helped me to excel in my current role.
What is one of the most interesting projects or exhibitions organized by your institution and why?
One of the most interesting projects that I’ve been fortunate enough to work on during my time at Tate has been Transforming Tate Britain: Archives and Access. A £1.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund made it possible to take archive material from Tate’s vast collection and make it accessible to national and international online audiences. This was achieved through an ambitious cross-departmental programme of learning, outreach and the digitisation of 20,000 archive items. Since 2015, 52,000 items from such artist archives as Francis Bacon, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Kurt Schwitters, and Eileen Agar have been published on our website with the final few artist collections poised for publication in 2017. It has been an exciting time to see archive items fully integrated with the art collection online, with our audiences now able to search across art and archive material for selected artists and able to ‘turn the pages’ for entire sketchbooks!
If you were allowed to take home one item from your collection, what would it be and why?
Just one? As predictable as it might be, it would have to be Ophelia by John Everett Millais. For me, this artwork epitomizes Tate’s heritage in addition to being the first artwork I made a beeline to see when starting to work for the gallery. Seeing it ‘in the flesh’ hanging in the gallery on my first day was a moment I remember well and I was blown away by the sheer level of detail in Millais’ depiction of foliage and nature. Both beautiful and moving, I would happily take that home!