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Tackling the backlog

Sarah Streatfeild uses a tape to measure the height of a case containing a lizard specimen
Registration's Sarah Streatfeild documents a devil lizard or Moloch horridus specimen. Photo: George Serras.

Accessioning and documenting the collection

The National Museum of Australia holds more than 200,000 objects in its National Historical Collection.

It is also responsible for thousands of other objects in archival and educational collections. Accessioning and documentation is crucial for keeping track of such a large body of objects.

This process involves checking the history of an object, describing it in detail, measuring and photographing it and assigning a unique number and a barcode for identification.

Background

The Registration team has expanded as the National Museum has grown, particularly since the opening of the new building in Canberra in 2001.

Previously, limited resources meant that accessioning work concentrated on objects which were going on display. In 2006 a special team was set up to tackle the backlog of accessioning work.

This project included the accessioning of more than 10,000 objects which had not been formally assessed for inclusion in the Museum's collection. It also involved digitising and updating some 40,000 previously accessioned objects which have only partial or paper records.

Issues

The National Museum's collection is a dynamic work in progress. The Documentation and Accessions team is working primarily with objects which have come to the Museum over many years. The Museum has an active collecting program and the team also worked to catalogue any new objects which came into the collection.

At the outset of the project it was thought that there were at least 8500 items to be accessioned. The Accessions team was conscious that more objects would be uncovered as the project progressed and this figure grew to more than 10,000.

One of the limitations to earlier accessioning work was restricted physical access to objects. The collection is stored in several different repositories on the outskirts of Canberra. Finding and accessing individual objects in different stores could be difficult and time consuming.

Six Accessions team members stand behind a pale yellow Japanese-style silk gown, with an embroidered peacock motif, displayed on a mannequin.
Original Accessions team members, from left, Anna Gray, Louise McCann, Jennifer Elton, Lisa McConnell, Tracey Langner and Libby Bright with a Japanese-style gown from the early 1900s. Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Changes in museum practice and technology have also had an impact on the way the National Museum documents its collection. In the past, paper records were kept for each object but the Museum is working to fully digitise the collection to improve access for staff and researchers and to ensure that all records meet the same basic standards.

Approach

A dedicated Accessions backlog team consisting of six staff was formed in early 2006. The team moved into a new work space, specially designed to consolidate the backlog material. In 2007 the Accessions team merged with the Documentation team and work on the backlog project continues.

The Documentation and Accessions team works with specialist curators and conservators. Together, they form recommendations about whether objects should go into the National Historical Collection or elsewhere. They also make recommendations about collection material that could be disposed or de-accessioned.

Existing records were checked to ensure they conformed to new digital data standards and could be accessed via the computerised collections database.

George Main, Noel Lane and Paul Peisley, in white gloves, inspect and make notes about a Smith & Bros typewriter, which belonged to Australian writer Dame Mary Gilmore
Curatorial's George Main, Conservation's Noel Lane and Registration's Paul Peisley assess a typewriter which belonged to Australian writer Dame Mary Gilmore. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

Results

In the first 18 months of the backlog project more than 3500 objects from 105 different collections were formally accessioned. More than 10,000 records have been added to the collections database. This included recently accessioned items and pre-existing paper records which have now been digitised.

These enriched records are now available for staff and researchers.

The Documentation and Accessions team has worked on several key collections:

  • The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs art collection. A rich collection of more than 2000 Indigenous artworks and objects from across Australia.
  • The Lebovic postcard collection. About 8000 postcards acquired from gallery owner Josef Lebovic in the 1980s. About 3000 had been accessioned prior to the backlog project. Now details for more than 3000 additional cards have been recorded and entered into the National Museum's database.
  • The MacKenzie collection of biological wet specimens. One of the National Museum's foundation collections, from the Australian Institute of Anatomy, which included many rare and endangered animal species and the heart of racehorse Phar Lap.