by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)
You may have noticed that since my last blog around 850 objects from the Wilkinson Collection have been added to our online catalogue. These are the objects that I have been cataloguing in the past months; however, these are not the full extent of the collection. In the case of the Wilkinson collection we thought that the sheer size of the collection meant that it was unlikely we would catalogue every single object. Moreover, as I have stressed throughout my blogs, the collection is very diverse and contains things that were often not directly relevant to our collecting policy. For this reason we decided to catalogue what we saw as the core of the Wilkinson collection, the model letter boxes and vehicles, which could also include some of the more ‘popular’ items such as the Postman Pat objects. Which begs the question, what have we done with the rest?
Over 1000 objects have been kept at what we are calling a ‘Secondary Collection’ level. These are objects which we do not consider are the ‘core’ of the collection, things that Ian Wilkinson began to collect later on in his life, rather than those objects that were the original inspiration for the collection. These include items such as mugs, plates, books, badges, key-rings, and ephemera such as birthday and greeting cards. All of these objects have some reference to the postal world on them, even if it was sometimes a challenge to find them!
Information is still recorded about these objects, such as a description of the object (including any defining features), measurements and their present location. However, instead of cataloguing them on the database, this material is kept in the object history file and electronically on our computer system. As a result, if anyone does want to see any of the objects in the secondary collection we can initially provide them with information about the object and, if they want to, arrange for them to view the object itself. This system gives us as a museum much more flexibility. Whilst we will obviously still care for the objects to the same standard as if they were catalogued, we can be a little freer with their use. They can, and hopefully will, be used as a handling collection, and in education sessions, to give people a wider experience of museum objects without them or us worrying as much about damage or breakages.
As a result, the Secondary Collection not only includes those items that are less relevant but also some objects that fall into the core groups but are not in quite as good condition. Condition of an object is an important issue to consider when cataloguing objects. Some materials can deteriorate quickly and actually affect the condition of other objects as they do so. As a result, some objects, if they were severely damaged, or deteriorating and would continue to do so at a rapid pace, would not be catalogued and would instead be disposed of.
Throughout the museum sector there is a strong presumption against disposal. However, it is recognised that in some circumstances disposal is the sensible option for the benefit of the museum collection as a whole, as well as the individual object. In the past museums have often collected anything and everything without any clear idea of why or how they can benefit the museum. This has often led to problems of space and stretched resources. Nowadays, museums are much more aware of these problems and put in place measures to ensure that nothing is collected or kept that cannot be properly cared for, or might damage other objects in the collection.
The BPMA’s ‘Acquisition and Disposal’ policy states that ‘Material will not usually be acquired if identical, or significantly similar, items already exist in the Collections’ and that ‘Existing collections [eg. Wilkinson collection] will be subject to regular professional reviews to ensure they are in line with [this] current collecting policy.’
It is this review process that I have been carrying out as I have catalogued the Wilkinson Collection. Many of the objects in the collection were duplicated either within the Wilkinson Collection itself, or occasionally in the wider BPMA collection. When I found a duplicated object I would get both objects out of the store to compare their condition. If one was in a worse condition than the other, for example, in the case of the model letter boxes, if one was more scratched or the paint work was peeling, then I would put that object to one side to consult with the curator what the next step should be.
Once a decision had been made as to whether an object should be disposed of, all relevant information about the item is recorded: this includes a description of the object, whether copyright is known; measurements are taken and the object is photographed. All of this information is stored physically in the Wilkinson collection’s history file, and electronically on our computers, like the Secondary Collection. As you can see, the disposal process is very similar to the cataloguing one. This way, we still have a lot of the information about the object but the condition and/or material of the object is not a threat to the collection.