Life as a Project Assistant: Moving a Museum Collection to a New Home

This time last year, I had just started my first museum job as a Project Assistant at the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) in Oxford. After six months of searching, not only had I finally found a full-time, properly paid position in a museum, but I was going to be working in a museum that I had loved since the year before (when I had visited as part of my MA). You can probably imagine how I felt: thrilled and bewildered by my good luck, and ever so slightly terrified that I would somehow muck this up! Anyway, I was extremely excited by this opportunity, particularly as it allowed me to work with a unique ethnographic collection. For those of you who have never been to the museum, the Pitt Rivers Collection is an eclectic, expansive, and extraordinary mixture of objects from across a multitude of different cultures, all of which have their own histories. As with all ethnographic museums with their roots in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of these objects have difficult pasts that are now extremely controversial. However, it was nonetheless fascinating to work in a museum that was actively facing these problems head on.

So, what did I do during my time here? I was employed by PRM to assist with the OPS Move Project by preparing the reserve collection to be moved from its current store, to a new home closer to the actual museum. It sounds simple enough, but when you consider that there were almost 100,000 objects in that store, many of which had no up-to-date location, were not numbered in any way, and were stored in a such a way that made them difficult to sort, it was…well…a little more complicated than you’d think! And on top of this, the objects themselves weren’t the friendliest to handle: a lot of sharp tips, poisonous substances, and one or two explosives.* Therefore, my colleagues and I were all hired to document and pack this collection, so that it could be moved as safely and in as orderly a way as possible. What’s more, we were working to improve the accessability of the collection, to ensure that future generations of museum professionals could actually find and use some of it’s more obscure objects.

My Top Three Responsibilities

Identifying and Categorising

So one of the main things that this project was intended to do was to impose some kind of order on the collection, to make it easier to navigate in future. To do this, you need to know a) what is in your collection b) where in the collection you can find it. Categorising object was (theoretically) easy enough.* The rest of the museum interprets objects in terms of their function rather than the culture they originated from (to show the variety way different cultures respond to pretty universal problems or situations) , and so we followed a similar scheme, sorting into categories based on what the object was or what it was used for (e.g. Weaving), and then by the continent it originated from. Identifying the objects could be somewhat trickier, as a few of the objects had no  number that we could use to locate it on the collections database. Whenever we found these objects we had to think up ways of finding its record, taking into account any information we could find with the object, and in some cases cross-referencing with records found at the museum to find out what it could be. When the object was identified, we then numbered it, either by using paraloid to create a removable layer on the object itself, and writing the number onto that, or just writing out a label (so much easier to do although also more likely to get lost).

Assessing and Packing

Another goal was to pack the collection so that as little damage (if any) would be sustained by the objects as possible. This involved assessing the object to identify any hazards intrinsic to the object, but also looking at its condition. This was to predict whether any special measures needed to be taken to protect both this object, and the objects it was packed with. For example, if we thought that an object was riddled with pests, it would be packed in a sealed bag and sent to conservation to be frozen. It definitely wouldn’t be packed with anything made of wood, fur, feathers or textiles! We then had to pack these objects using materials that wouldn’t cause the objects to deteriorate, such as acid free tissue and plasterzote, and would act as a buffer in the case of an accident. Each of these tasks required careful handling to minimise the amount of pressure applied to weaker areas (wearing nitrile gloves of course).

Measuring and Documenting

Throughout all of this, each object was being documented on the collections database in as much detail as we could possible manage. Each object was measured and described, each of the hazards and vulnerabilities found during handling noted, new locations were allocated, objects with multiple parts were part-numbered (had a record created for each part). And, importantly, all of the historical information we found with and often written on the objects was recorded fully and with as few omissions as possible (for example, if the hand written labels were illegible). As a result, we left the collection far more thoroughly documented than we found it, with the wealth of information we found with the objects available on the database, which will hopefully make the collection easier to search.

To Bear In Mind

There are a few things to bear in mind when considering this kind of work:

  • Generally speaking, this kind of work is structured and repetitive, and you may end up working consistantly on a number of objects that look almost exactly the same for months.* This kind of job is better suited to someone who is patient, thorough, with an ability to focus on the hundredth object with the same attention to detail as they showed the first.
  • You need a steady hand. Regardless of the type of collections work being undertaken, all museum objects need to be handled with considerable care and having a steady hand is always useful. However, it is particularly important for this kind of work, not only because of the sheer number of objects we were handling, but also because we needed to mark objects with their accession numbersplace on the object. We did this by adding a layer of paraloid (which is removable) in a discrete place on the object and then writing the number on that with a rotring pen- which was ridiculously difficult. If you didn’t have a temperamental pen, you had the problem of writing on an uneven surface, or the paraloid bubbled when you added a second coat. (You can probably tell that this was not my favourite part of the job!)
  • It is a very physical job, involving climbing ladders, carrying heavy objects, and more generally crouching or kneeling to measure and number some of the more awkwardly shaped objects. If this kind of work doesn’t really appeal, then this kind of job may not be a good fit.

 

*The poisons we inherited not only from the original makers of the objects, but also from former curators and conservators, who we know to have used toxic substances such as arsenic and fomaldehyde as pesticides and preservatives, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

*I should clarify – it was easy enough for me! I wasn’t involved in deciding how the objects were going to be sorted (before my time).

*For example, can you have too many Fire-Steels? Henry Balfour (the first curator of PRM) didn’t think so! He, like so many of his contemporaries, collected as many variations of the fire-steel (and other methods of starting a fire) in an attempt to create an almost encyclopaedic representation of the subject of fire-making. Obviously, it is amazing to have such a comprehensive collection, but documenting and packing them was a mountain of a task. 

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