Geology Curators’ Group AGM: Leeds Discovery Centre & City Museum

I travelled up to Leeds for two days in early December to attend the annual general meeting of the Geology Curators’ Group (GCG). In addition the meeting, they also had a selection of talks centred around the theme of “Managing Geology Collections and Data – current developments for future uses”. The concepts discussed can be applied to natural history (as well as other) collections in general. Some of the highlights are discussed below.

Mel Whewell, head of collections at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, gave an interesting talk on the implementation of a new collections management system and how this opportunity can be used to develop a new approach to public (and researcher) participation. Collections management systems are vital for museums and changing them is a very big step and needs careful consideration. Working at a local authority museum, I am all too aware of the complications involved in trying to get IT departments on side, for example.

The next presentation was given by Jo Anderson, the storage project coordinator of the Great North Museum project, about using Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tagging in collections management in a pilot experiment. The results were negative on the whole.  There are a host of problems associated with this method for tagging objects, drawers and whole cabinets with location and specimen information. If you are interested in using this sort of technology, I urge you to check out this document: Reviewing Machine Readable Labelling Systems for Collections Management and Access, by Julian Tomlin. Go to page 33 for the Great North Museum case study.

Jane McDonald, the TOTeM (Tales of Things and Electronic Memory) project coordinator from Edinburgh University discussed some interesting ideas in “Talking Objects: Tales of Things at the Museum”. See their website for more information: it really is fascinating. Jane told us about people donating things to Oxfam and QR tagging their objects with a brief history. The next owner of said object then has an insight into that item and where it has come from. I loved this idea and although I wouldn’t want to know the detailed history of every charity shop purchase I’ve ever made (creepy), I’d enjoy hearing the tales some of them could tell.

A big highlight for me was hearing Daniel Locket, from Ludlow Museum Resource Centre (and my line-manager) discussing “Merging Collections: a Shropshire Example”, detailing hints and tips so as to be better prepared, as well as pitfalls to watch out for.

The next day we were taken around Leeds Museum Discovery Centre as well as the City Museum. The former is described as:

“a unique museum resource. Housing and caring for Leeds’ fantastic collections, the Discovery Centre is a state-of-the-art storage facility.  All are welcome to visit the Discovery Centre for research or to see its unique resources.”

It certainly is unique. Although most of the collections facilities that I’ve visited have visitors in mind (at least in some way), Leeds’ has been designed with the visitor experience as the top priority. This makes for an excellent tour around the objects (it’s the first time I’ve ever seen moose heads amongst rocking horses, or an albatross soaring above fortune-telling machines) and the visitors love it; it almost seems like massive second-hand shop. Ultimately, however, it must be a pain in the neck for curators. When asked, Clare Brown discussed the problems of having the collection mixed up across departments. There’s no intuitive logic behind the system and it can take a while to learn the layout since you can’t rely on any natural order. Previous curators’ experience is also essential, so tacit knowledge can be a problem. Clare also says that once you get used to the order, it’s fine, and that the minor problems associated with such a set-up are nothing compared to the reaction from visitors to the collection.

We also visited the City Museum and had a look at the natural history gallery. It was great to quiz Clare about how she went about designing the space and I picked up some handy pointers for my display in Shrewsbury.

Here are some images from Leeds Museum Discovery Centre (apologies for the quality: they are all phone pictures).

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