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Museum Documentation

Documentation Manager Rupert introduces us to #MuseumDocumentation and the important role it plays at the Horniman.

Documentation is one of the less visible aspects of what we do at the Horniman.

In museums, 'documentation' has quite a specific meaning: looking after the information about our objects (some of which finds its way online), and making sure that we can account properly for them – being able to say what we own and where it is, and making sure that nothing happens to the collections without being properly considered and authorised.

Without that information, our objects are effectively meaningless: we need to know what they are, where they came from and when, how they're used, who made them, and so on, before we can understand them.

So documentation is fundamental to everything we do, but few people realise how vital it is and how much of it goes on behind the scenes (for example, large parts of our projects Collections People Stories and Bioblitz are about finding out and recording more about the objects).

This was brought home to me before Christmas, on a visit to the National Maritime Museum, where I saw a collecting box asking people to choose to contribute either to education or to conservation work – but not to documentation, which so often seems to be invisible.

  • Collections Assistant Laura Cronin at work reconciling one of our mummies with its paperwork, Photo by Helen Merrett
    , Photo by Helen Merrett

So to try and raise its profile, I've encouraged my fellow documentalists (yes, that is what we seem to call ourselves) to tweet about they're doing, and why it's important, using the hashtag #MuseumDocumentation:

Tweets about "#MuseumDocumentation"

I also started a thread in the Collections Management group on LinkedIn, asking for people's suggestions for bite-sized definitions of why documentation is important. The discussion showed that opinion was divided between those of us who, like me, think we should try and raise the profile of documentation, and those who think we should just focus on the end results.

I’d be interested to hear what you think:

  • Would you be interested in hearing more about the documentation work we do, and why we do it?
  • Would you like to find out about our documentation work during activities like visits to our stores or exhibitions?
  • And of course, would you put money in the slot marked ‘documentation’ in a museum collecting box?

Let us know your answers in the comments or on Twitter with the hashtag #MuseumDocumentation.