British Museum Knowledge Exchange: part four

Copyright: Matthijs

Background

During November 2021, Caroline Brick, who co-ordinates the Hebridean Connections digital community archive at Museum & 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:

After my previous day at the British Museum’s storage facility at Olympia, the penultimate day of my programme found me back at the main museum site in Bloomsbury.

Day with the Research Projects and Resources team

As an introduction to the day’s consultations, I met with Maryam Philpott, Programme Manager for Research Projects and Resources; Maryam filled me in on the recent history of the team, its structure and its remits. The current structure is relatively new, just a couple of years old: collections management having been divided between two new departments, Collections Care and Collections Projects and Resources. The first of these includes conservation, collection documentation and loans administration; the second, which includes the central archives, research management, and library provision, would be my focus for the day. Staff with these functional responsibilities had previously worked at a devolved level, attached to individual curatorial departments; their centralisation is informed by a drive for professionalism, consistency of practice, and enhancement of the British Museum’s research reputation. New remits and strategies are informed by the Museum’s overarching long-term masterplan, the Rosetta Project, which aims to redisplay, reinterpret, and decolonise collections.

Archives

The project that I look after, Hebridean Connections, is based within the archive department of my local Heritage Service, so I was delighted that a whole morning had been scheduled for me to compare notes with the British Museum’s archives team: I met with Senior Archivist Francesca Hillier, Archivist Angela Grimshaw, and Assistant Archivist Fiona Callaghan. As an long-term interim measure, the archives are housed in the Museum’s iconic Round Reading Room (which was formerly home to the British Library prior to 1997). They will eventually be rehoused in the Museum’s White Wing, which has fairly recently undergone refurbishment to provide environmental control (a crucial aspect of archival storage).

Historically, the holdings of archives had devolved to curatorial departments – with only records relating to core governance being held in the centralised archives. The aggregation of museum-wide archives is being achieved not only by their physical arrangement, but via consistency of administration and application of professional standards. This involves employing the General International Standard Archival Description for cataloguing, and further down the line, adopting ArchiveIndex+ , which, being made by the same software supplier, will be interoperable with the Museum’s collections management system, MuseumIndex+. I was surprised to learn that the inherited curatorial archives had not previously been catalogued – instead they had been organised by local finding lists. However, an impressive 600 linear metres of holdings have now been catalogued, using spreadsheets which will later be uploaded in to ArchiveIndex+. A flexible function-based hierarchical cataloguing structure has been devised, which includes concepts such as research and exhibitions. A consultant from The National Archives has provided encouragement to the British Museum archives team: the lack of inherited curatorial catalogues means that there are no problematic data legacies. Instead there is a clean slate for the development of consistent practices and policies on, for example, acquisitions and disposals, as well as allied functions within the Museum such as records management. Eventual accreditation is aspired to; the archive catalogue will eventually be publicly accessible via the Museum’s public interface.

As well as the ongoing professional development of the archive service, Francesca and Angela also filled me in on day-to-day activities. Although, due to accommodation issues, there is currently no designated public archive reading room, the team deal with an enormous number of enquiries per year: approximately two and a half to three thousand. These are enormously wide-ranging, including queries on the history of the Museum itself, and its collections and staff. Francesca gives some fascinating insights into how she and her team enable research in this video – including reference to a particularly thorny giraffe-related query! Other activities which were super to hear about were the department’s recruitment of, and collaboration with, volunteers. These engagements have led to many success stories, in terms of skills learnt and horizons widened: they include work experience placements for teenagers and supported placements for clients of Mencap. They provide excellent examples of inclusive practice, as had been explained to me earlier in the week by the Museum’s Head of Volunteers.

My morning in the archives ended with treats: being shown highlights of the collection by Angela. These included minutes for the first meeting of the Museum’s trustees in 1753 – attendees included the Archbishop of Canterbury, and as the physical museum did not yet exist, the meeting was held at the Cockpit pub in Whitehall. Other treasures included Bram Stocker’s application to use the famous reading room, the diary and scrapbook of Basil Brown (the excavator of the Sutton Hoo burial), and this warning notice about Museum cats (apparently nowadays hawks rather than cats are used for pest control):

Francesca’s own selection of archival gems can be enjoyed here.

British Museum research

I regretfully left the archives behind – but my next appointment was to be equally interesting: I met with Research Managers Tiago Domingues and Ivan Polancec. On the first day of my programme I had met with the Museum’s Senior Editorial Manager for research publications. Sarah had touched upon aspects such as the British Museum research repository, into which publications are deposited, Tiago and Ivan explained the processes and systems which enable research in the first place.

In 2017 the British Museum had instigated a review of collections and administrative processes. Aims had included the breaking down of curatorial silos, and the professionalisation and streamlining of processes. With these objectives in mind, Tiago and Ivan had devised a checklist for the end-to-end grant process. This documents the preparation and submission of research proposals, funding approval and acceptance, funder and partner contracts, project management and closures, and outcomes and outputs. This documentation is necessarily complex, and has required a change management approach to encourage uptake, including delivery of training sessions. Feedback from staff has been good – as the thoroughness of the approach has increased funding application success. The documentation is currently housed in macro-driven spreadsheets – funding and cost details are uploaded into the Museum’s finance system, Agresso.

Data is also shared with other Museum departments. For instance, human resources are informed of research programme outcomes (this aids tracking of career progression, and can inform staff retention), and in cases where exhibitions constitute a research outcome, exhibition files are forwarded to the Museum archives.  All in all, these new processes seem to be very successful: thorough checklists enable successful grant applications, streamlined information sharing aids interdepartmental liaison, and respect for the professionalism of non-curatorial departments has increased.

Although staff at Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean do not currently publish their research (such as that undertaken for special exhibitions and in response to public enquiries), should future opportunities arise for them to do so, this overview will provide some very useful pointers.

Incidentally, I thoroughly recommend an exploration of the British Museum’s research repository – as it contains a wealth of free publications covering the Museum’s activities.

British Museum library

As a librarian by profession, and having previously worked as a museum librarian, I was bound to find the final session of the day exciting: getting to visit the British Museum’s Library. To clarify, there are still popular misconceptions regarding this and the British Library itself. The founding collection of the British Museum had included a substantial element of books and manuscripts; in 1973 this eventually became a separate legal institution, the British Library – this relocated to new premises at St Pancras in 1997. However, significant research libraries were retained by the British Museum. Historically, these departmental libraries had been devolved to curatorial departments. As part of the British Museum’s long-term masterplan to reimagine and better co-ordinate its holdings and processes, nine departmental libraries have been administratively merged.

To provide an example of a departmental library, I was initially shown around by Gaetano Ardito, Subject Librarian with responsibility for the Britain, Europe and Prehistory, Coins and Medals, and Prints and Drawings collections. I visited the beautiful Prints and Drawings study room, by way of an example of a specialist collection:

The study room is a lovely space and its overhead windows aid viewing of the artworks that it stores in addition to library holdings. It is also home to iconic 19th century trolleys (one can just be seen in the bottom right of the above photograph)! The library is the most extensive in the United Kingdom relating to the history of prints and drawings, containing approximately 50,000 books, periodicals and auction catalogues. The collection was established in the very early 19th century; new works relating to graphic arts continue to be acquired.

Gaetano then passed me over to Dianne Shepherd, Senior Librarian, who filled me in on background details of the Library service. Although now administratively merged, each of the Museum’s curatorial and research departments retains physical public facilities including study rooms and, in most cases, a library. These can all be accessed for research enquiries by appointment only, apart from the Anthropology library and research centre. The nine curatorial demarcations are: Anthropology; Africa, Oceania and the Americas; Asia; Britain, Europe and Prehistory; Coins and Medals; Conservation and Scientific Research; Egypt and Sudan; Greece and Rome; Middle East; and Prints and Drawings. All told, the libraries hold over 350,000 volumes and specialised holdings, dating back to the 16th century; they aim to support the study of worldwide human culture and acquire stock in line with collecting and research activities of curatorial departments.

The Library is open to the general public via prior registration and appointment. Its catalogue can be explored online; loans are made to Museum staff but not to external readers. The catalogue is accommodated via Koha library software; most classifications are according to the Dewey decimal system, but some holdings use inhouse schemes or alternatives (for instance, anthropology resources are classified with the Bliss scheme). Catalogue data is exported into the Library Hub Discover national bibliographic database; the British Museum Library also contributes to the wider library profession via membership of the M25 Consortium of Academic Libraries (which operates within the southeast of England, providing services to learners and researchers, and mutual professional support to librarians). The Library subscribes to e-resources via Ebsco and ProQuest, and is also responsible for administrative updates of the British Museum’s research repository. Because Library service administration has only been streamlined relatively recently, revision of policies such as its collection development policy and disposals policy has still to be undertaken.

My exploration of the British Museum Library and its collection, and how they support Museum staff and researchers, was a really illuminating and interesting end to my day. My sadness at this being the penultimate day of my Knowledge Exchange was alleviated by seeing how beautiful the Museum looked after dark in the winter dusk:

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