British Museum Knowledge Exchange: part one

Copyright: British Museum


During November 2021, Caroline Brick, who co-ordinates the Hebridean Connections digital community archive at Museum and Tasglann nan Eilean, spent a week at the British Museum in London as part of its Knowledge Exchange programme. This professional programme is funded by the Vivmar Foundation and forms part of British Museum’s National Programmes activities, which brings together collections, best practice and expertise. The Knowledge Exchange programme aims to develop skills, relationships and insights across the heritage sector.

Caroline writes:

I was so excited to learn that I’d been awarded a place on the British Museum’s Knowledge Exchange Programme – a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit the home of internationally renowned collections and meet experts in their fields. My application had involved explaining which of the Museum’s departments I’d like to visit, what I hoped to learn, and what experience I might share with British Museum staff. As a librarian co-ordinating a digital archive, within a museum setting, I’m interested in cross-sector practices and technologies and how they impact on an institutions communications, professional practices and culture. Georgia Mallin, the Knowledge Share Programme Manager, had put together an amazing schedule for me, including visits to the British Museum’s archives, inhouse libraries, and curatorial and publishing departments, to name but a few. Over the next few days I’ll share highlights of my amazing visit to the British Museum and reflections on what I learnt.

Day One:

My home workplace, Museum nan Eilean, is a local gem, showcasing the heritage of the Western Isles – but is on a very different scale from the British Museum. My rendezvous point for meeting different members of staff was usually the Great Court, the heart of the museum which incorporates the famous 1857 domed Reading Room – it was enclosed in 2000 by a design by Lord Norman Foster. The resulting space is breathtaking – and sets the tone of wonderment which infused my week-long residency.

Introductory gallery tour
To provide context about the British Museum and its history, Knowledge Exchange participants from Museums Worcestershire and myself were treated to a personal galleries tour by Chris Weston, a volunteer with the Interpretation and Volunteers team. Chris shared his wealth of knowledge by starting off with a visit to the Enlightenment Gallery:

This space reflects how the founders of the British Museum attempted to understand and interpret their mid-eighteenth century universe by direct observation and study. This informed their collection practices – the Enlightenment gallery takes a look at contemporary understanding of the natural world, the birth of archaeology, art and civilisation, ancient scripts, religion and ritual, and trade and discovery, and classifying the world. As a librarian I was especially interested in the early classifications – for example, object cataloguing by type, material, date or purpose. Chris explained that the Enlightenment Gallery contrasts historical ways of thinking with the British Museum’s vision for the future – a revolutionary plan to depart from its previous Eurocentrism. The Rosetta Project strategises the redisplay, re-interpretation and revision of collection practices of British Museum objects; its concepts informed all aspects of my Knowledge Exchange programme.

Also included on our tour was this stunning Rapa Nui ancestor figure – evoking histories of ecological collapse, its message about sustainability seemed very timely for the second day of COP26 – a good example of how stories told by museum artefacts can remain relevant.

This moai, or statue of a deified ancestor figure, was created by the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island, whose civilisation collapsed due to deforestation and climate change during the seventeenth century.

I can’t leave out an image of a personal favourite of mine from Chris’s tour: a wall painting from about 1350 BCE from the the tomb chapel of a wealthy Egyptian official called Nebamun. The painting depicts Nebamun and his family hunting in the marshes, and includes his cat catching birds:

The gold leaf on the cat’s eye is the only known example of gilding on wall paintings in Theban tomb chapels – indicative that the cat is not just a hunter but a representation of the sun god Ra. I loved this image not only because it gave a glimpse of how Egyptian theology merged with everyday activities, but because it reminded me of my own two moggies back home in the Hebrides – cats have been part of human family life for millennia!

Museum information systems
On a more serious note, my first day at the British Museum also included a really useful consultation with its Research Services Product Manager, Julia Stribblehill. She explained some of the functionality and uses of the museum’s collections management system, MuseumIndex+ , which is used for cataloguing artefacts. Julia mentioned the adaptability of the system: how it can be tailored for differing levels of expertise (data is input by both volunteers and professional staff), and how she consults with different groups of specialist staff (for example, coin curators have needed a special Denomination database field, whilst ceramics curators need one for Wares). The system also provides digital “fingerprints”, indicating who has been creating or editing data – this is really useful for an institution with hundreds of staff who need to be able to keep track of each other’s work. Julia also explained how the British Museum uses Collections Information Integration Middleware to harvest the data from MuseumIndex+ for output via the public Collection Online interface. This lets anyone explore the British Museum objects – for example, its iconic Sutton Hoo helmet:

Museum and Tasglann nan Eilean, and Hebridean Connections, aspire to improve the systems we use to catalogue and describe our collections, whether they are objects or digital archives – this helps us to do things like monitor the physical care of objects, respond to research enquiries, and allow virtual exploration of Western Isles heritage for anyone who can’t actually visit the Outer Hebrides. So it was really exciting to see under the bonnet of the British Museum’s information systems and how technology can bring heritage to life.

Museum publications
My final consultation of my first day at the British Museum was with Sarah Faulks, Senior Editorial Manager for research publications. The British Museum publishes both popular and scholarly books, and also uploads digitisations of research such as journal articles into its new online research repository.

Sarah took time to explain lots about the British Museum’s publication processes, such as commissioning authors and harmonising design aspects to match the museum’s distinctive branding. As a librarian, I obviously found all these planning aspects fascinating. It was also potentially useful, as Museum nan Eilean might have future ambitions to publish books such as catalogues or guides for special exhibitions. Sarah explained how text written for exhibition displays can be augmented and reused in museum publications; in these times of sustainability and print-on-demand, it was useful to confirm the feasibility of integrating such projects.

My first day of Knowledge Exchange at the British Museum was full of wonder, fun, and useful facts. Look out for further blog posts about the rest of my visit and other treasures uncovered!

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