Collections Work

I have to admit that I am somewhat biased in favour of collections work – in my own humble opinion, collections are at least one of the two most (if not the most) important aspects of museum work. Years of indoctrination while studying history,  museum studies, and then a year of working in two seperate collections teams have really paid off…I am now smitten with museum objects (or primary sources as I once called them). And if you are obsessed with museum objects, collections work is for you!

This area of museum work can again be divided into several sections, all of which have rather bland names – conservation, research, collections management and care, collections development and rationalisation, documentation (which sort of comes under collections management, but is important in its own right), and collections access.

This is an embroidered banner for the East Bradford Socialist Sunday School, which can be seen at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. Their collection has been developed to explore different political beliefs that have been, and, in some cases, are still cherished by ordinary people.

It all sounds a bit dry doesn’t it? Well, think about it this way. If primary sources allow you to create a vision of what the past might have been like, or shed new light upon contemporary world as we know it, then the objects, documents and knowledge that museums and archives accumulate and preserve heavily influence the stories that can be told (if they are evidence based that is). Arguably, this gives a considerable amount of power the people who decide what is collected and what is discarded, and the people who make sure that they are well cared for and well managed. To some extent, they can control whose stories are told (and how), and whose are buried.

Okay, there’s an end to my ramblings on that subject…for now! Here are just a couple of the job titles you could look for in this area of work:

Conservator (Entry level: Conservation Assistant) – Conservators are the people who are responsible for ‘stabilising’ an object’s condition by making sure that it is pest free, in some cases repairing the object, and deciding on the conditions that an object can be stored or displayed in – for example, many objects are light sensitive, and so Conservators give decide what level of light an object can be exposed to, and sometimes create light budgets. This can have a big impact on exhibitions and galleries, as it could mean that objects cannot be displayed for prolonged periods, or that specific types of lighting needs to be purchased. Essentially, they ensure that these objects survive for posterity.

Collections Manager (Entry level: Collections Assistant) – These are the people who care for and manage the collection on a daily basis, making sure that objects are kept in the right conditions, that the objects are not being damaged, and that the locations on the collections database are all correct.  Often they are also responsible for finding missing objects,and identifying unknown objects, identifying possible hazards, and promoting access to the collection by enabling researchers and visitors to visit the collections store. Essentially they are responsible for ensuring that the collection is accessable and protected. My first museum job  was very similar to this kind of role, although it was focussed on one project – the movement of the entire reserve collection to a new store – no easy task I can tell you!

Registrar and Documentation Officer (Entry level: Assistant Registrar, Documentation Assistant, Cataloguer) – At the same time as controlling how physical objects are cared for, museums also need to consider how they preserve their knowledge about those objects, to ensure that those objects can continue to be used by future generations. There are a variety of roles that are specifically dedicated to ensuring that these records are as complete and legible as possible. Registrars make sure that all objects that enter the museum (e.g. as a new acquisition or loan) are fully documented, are responsible for making sure that any legislation relevent to the collections is complied with, and also managing any objects that leave the museum, whether as disposals or as loans out. In some museums, these reponsibilities   are absorbed by other members of staff with different job titles, such as Documentation Officers, who are more generally reponsible that the collection is well documented. This could also involve, for example, cateloging the backlog of often ‘mystery’ objects (which most museums have) and archiving any material relevant to the individual objects in the collection.

Curator (Entry level: Assistant Curator) – Now this is the job that I’ve been working towards for the past five years. No matter how many times I heard how difficult it would be to get a foot in the door, I knew that this was the job for me.* This is because curators, often in charge of a particular collection, seem have much more creative responsibilities – as one of my colleagues put it, conservators and collections managers are concerned with the object itself, curators are more focussed on the stories that these objects embody. They are often involved in the more obvious ways of making a collection accessable, such as developing exhibitions and galleries that explore what these objects are, who owned them, how they were used, and why they are significant. Please don’t get me wrong however – curators are also deeply involved with the practical side of looking after their collections, with  a vested interest in making sure they are well cared for and well documented. The difference is that these practical concerns are balanced with the responsibility for researching and interpretting these objects and developing the collection further.


* So you can probably guess how elated I felt when I was offered the position of Assistant Curator at the Science Museum! Apparently, I didn’t stop smiling…to the extent that my colleague jokingly told me off for grinning too much.

* The featured image for this post is of a number of advertisments that can be found within the collection of the Pen Museum in Birmingham, where I volunteered as part of the collections team for several months.


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