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Collections blog

Location, Location, Location – the importance of place for our collections

User AvatarPosted by Penelope Lovesy at 29/01/2021 14:29:22

Hello once again and Happy New Year to you all! I hope Christmas was enjoyable despite the very different nature of celebrating this year; mine certainly was.

We have quite a year ahead of us in the collections team, I can tell you. The most exciting thing is that we can now truthfully call ourselves a team, rather than a dastardly duo, as we have gained a new colleague. Our team of three will conquer the collections world! Well, probably not, but we can have a damn good stab at it.

To begin this year’s Collections Blogs, I am going to talk about locations: locations associated with objects, locations for archaeological deposits and locations in museums themselves.

Currently, the only location any of us are spending much time in is our homes - the best place for us to stay safe and to keep others safe. Everything we have in our homes has its own place, and there will be a reason behind its placement. The same goes for museum objects. When we display items, we must consider the environment it will be in, such as light, humidity and temperature levels. While it is great to display objects in the most beautiful way, it is imperative to do so within strict parameters that ensure the survival of that object. A painting or textile sampler will need to be out of high intensity light, but this can make it difficult to see all the details. Other objects might contain mixed materials making it difficult to provide conditions that suit all the parts. Marine iron, for example, requires a relative humidity level of 15% but any wood it may be attached to requires a higher level. If the humidity is too high, the iron will corrode but the wood should remain stable. If the humidity is low, at the required 15%, the iron should remain stable but the wood might dry out and split. These issues are just part of the trials and tribulations of planning an exhibition or display and an aspect of collections work that is often unnoticed by visitors enjoying spectacular visuals.

If that wasn’t enough, we also have huge numbers of objects you don’t see: only 5-10% of a museum’s collection will be on display at any one time. So, how do we know where everything is? Good documentation and record keeping, that’s how. All object locations must have a specific code or name that ensures they are quickly identifiable. This doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, the more complex the system the more likely locations of objects could be incorrectly recorded. It’s important to have a universal system and not one that changes from display areas to storage areas. Over the last year we have been going through the laborious task of relabelling the locations within the store. Over the years, the method used to record each area was ever so slightly altered and racks have been moved and reused. The collections database had many old locations listed that probably went out with the arc! Thankfully, we have completed this task and all our location codes are once again easy to understand, which is a good job considering we have a new colleague! And I can’t highlight the importance of updating records enough. If an object is moved, its location must be updated.

But what about the importance of location in relation to interpretation or even collecting? At Poole Museum we collect items significant to the history of Poole as a town and historic borough. In the past, just like most other museums, collecting wasn’t so specific and that’s how we have managed to accumulate such a large and varied collection. It would be wonderful to be able to accept every object that was offered to us, regardless of its Poole links. However, space is limited and the care and conservation of objects is the most important thing to consider. If we took in everything, we simply wouldn’t have the space to take in that unique Poole object when it gets discovered in Aunty Doreen’s cupboard. All museums have collecting policies and this is how they all get to be different and interesting to the public. We all have stories to tell and those stories will be different in one or many ways.

Within archaeology, the location an item is found at can make or break a site. However, it is important to remember that archaeological interpretation is always open to debate. After all, we weren’t there! Last year I introduced you to a Ballan Cross as part of our featured object series. To me, the pharyngeal teeth of a ballan wrasse says far more about the historic marine environment or medieval subsistence practices than it does about the folklore attached to such things. But, being found on a medieval boat building yard, it could represent something different entirely: a token of good luck on voyages, rather than a leftover of fish processing. Do flint nodules delicately placed in a tree root bowl mean anything or were they simply used to fill in an annoying space? Of course, items in the wrong place can be just as interesting. A pound coin in an otherwise undisturbed roman deposit could be signs of time travel, or that a rodent has interfered with the layers while burrowing.

I got thinking about the importance of locations after reading a post on social media. It wasn’t even a post in a museum or archaeology group but a conservation group relating to my beloved sawfish. Someone posted that the presence of sawfish saws and vertebrae in Aztec ritual deposits was evidence of whole sawfish being transported hundreds of miles from the sea. This was really exciting to everyone in the group…until I piped up and said that without evidence of other parts there was only evidence of the saws and vertebrae being transported. The entire carcass may well have been transported, but it would be impossible to categorically say so without other parts being present. It is just as likely they were processed off site, especially considering the effort needed to carry a huge fish thousands of miles. Locations associated to discoveries can mean so many things and we only select one or two from a multitude of possibilities. Interpretation styles and opinions differ but that doesn’t mean one is less valid than another.

So, how important are locations to our collections? Quite simply, very important. Everything has, had, and will continue to have a location and those locations are all part of the stories that capture imagination and generate intrigue. That is part of the wonder of museums and their collections. They are not the final resting place of stories but a springboard for discussion, the start of the next chapter in which locations and themes intertwine to produce something entirely new.

So, that’s the end of the first ramble of the year. Keep your eyes peeled for future blogs on Poole Pottery, cannons and animal bones. Until then, I hope you’ve all booked on to our Sawfish talk, one of several talks coming up as part of the Wessex Museum Partnership’s Wildlife in the Red exhibition. You can find details and book here: https://www.wessexmuseums.org.uk/book-online/

Until next time, stay safe, well and in your correctly recorded home location! 


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