Documentation Rules OK!

I’ve spent the last two days at the MIMSY UK User Group meeting, a gathering of people from different museums who use the collections management database MIMSY XG, to learn more about the system and how other museums use it to document their collections. It has been very interesting, and has left me thinking a bit about documentation in general…

Firstly, an admission/confesssion: when I started volunteering in a museum, back in 2007, I wanted to be a curator. A natural history curator, because that is my educational background. But also because I didn’t really know what other jobs were available in museums…I knew what a preparator was from my Palaeobiology MSc studies, but I had no idea what a conservator was, and no concept at all of what the term ‘documentation’ meant in a museum context. I think I had some woolly idea that collections were catalogued in a Victorian-style ledger, and that’s all you needed.

Seven years later, and documentation is almost all I do. I haven’t worked with a natural history collection in at least two years. And I do miss it, because zoology is my first love, but the more I learn about documentation, and the more I understand its importance, the more passionate I become about it! I think that’s partly because I have the right sort of pedantic mind that wants everything to be neatly organised, and partly because of my scientific background. In science, as in documentation, data is everything. The quality of your output depends on the quality of your data input. If you do not have data on your objects, then you cannot generate information about them, and you cannot interpret them for your audiences. People in our department are sometimes referred to as ‘OCD’ or ‘anal’, in a vaguely disparaging way, but I don’t think that’s fair. As museum staff, we are the custodians of our collections and the mediator between our objects and our audiences: we present objects, we build narratives around them, we use them to represent histories or ideas. And we can’t do that if we don’t know precisely what they are, where they came from, and how we acquired them. Documentation sits at the heart of everything that museums do: without information, without data, our collections are of little value.

And without this data, we would not be fulfilling our legal obligations to our collections: we need to know the history of our objects to prove their ownership, to know that they were legally collected or imported, to be accountable for our holdings, and to provide for their security. Our database technology now allows us to track everything that happens to an object, including damage and conservation work, where they go (whether that is just a change of location within the stores, or a loan to the other side of the world), and how they are used, be that as part of an exhibition, community event, or academic research project. Long gone are the days of the leather-bound ledger!

Adjusting to Anthropology

It’s been quite an adjustment over the past year, as a zoologist, to suddenly find myself working in an anthropology collection. I’d be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about the various cultures and peoples of this world, and would probably struggle to point to the places that many of our objects are from on a map.

But what I’ve discovered is that I love objects, no matter what they are. I may not always appreciate the anthropological significance of the objects we work with, but I love their artistry and ingenuity, being able to examine their construction and compare them with objects of a similar function from all over the world. Our collections are stored systematically by type rather than geographically, so I get to compare the incredibly varied forms of charms used to ward off sickness, and the striking similarity in the design of mole traps from different countries. It turns out there are many ways to fight disease, but only one way to trap a mole!

And my work is not completely divorced from my subject specialism; a huge proportion of our anthropology collection is made from animal materials, and I am learning a huge amount just from examining them under a hand lens. I can now confidently distinguish bone from ivory or antler, identify worked horn, claws, teeth, sinew and baleen (which I was surprised to learn was historically used quite commonly in North America to make fishing lines!), and I am constantly amazed at the infinite variety of forms these materials can take at the hands of a skilled craftsperson.

Plus, there can’t be many workplaces in which a debate about the best method of trapping a giraffe is considered perfectly normal staffroom conversation!

I love my job.

Showing Off

It seems I’m a glutton for punishment! Despite my general dread and fear of public speaking, I’ve signed myself up for next’s week’s Museums Showoff event in Camden on the 14th May – an evening of comedy and wonder in which 1o people get up on stage and are allowed to talk for 9 minutes each about museum-related things. I will be doing a run-down of some of my favourite things that we’ve found in the Horniman Museum‘s stores so far during the Anthropology collections review.

This time the venue is The Black Heart pub (next to Camden Town station). Doors open at 7pm, show starts at 7.30. I should hopefully be on in the first half. It should be a good night!

The March of Progress

The review of the museum’s Anthropology collections continues apace. We have seen many thousands of objects already, and this week we finished one room of the store!

Ahem. That is, we finished the food-related items in one room of the store. As we are moving through the collections thematically, rather than starting in one place and just doing everything, I think it will be a long time before we actually finish finish any one area. However, this still represents significant progress, as we have done the objects relating to food processing (cutlery, strainers, graters, corers, chopsticks, teapots, frying pans, ovens (yes, we have a couple!))… It was very satisfying to be able to put the last ‘Bay Completed’ label up, having started the room working on spoons several months ago!

Next, the Food & Feasting team will move on to objects relating to hunting, trapping, and fishing, which should be interesting. We have a LOT of beautiful fish hooks. And arrows. Many arrows. Meanwhile, the team exploring Magic & Religion (which I moved back down to yesterday) is working on objects to do with religious and seasonal festivals – easter eggs, christmas decorations, corn dollies and the like. Yesterday I found an adorable Christmas tree decoration made of silver cardboard in the shape of a mouse wearing a dress! And a Polish dough figure of a farmer surrounded by geese, representing the new summer (which you can see on our Tumblr page). I even had a go at making some salt dough figures a little while ago, inspired by the amazing dough animals we found in the collections. Mine weren’t quite as good as these, but it was fun to try out an old craft. It’s amazing the things you learn working in a museum!

Mutants and Mongrels

On Saturday I spent a sunny morning with the lovely folk of the London Bird Group (part of the LNHS) out at Walthamstow reservoirs, looking at female ducks.


Why female ducks, specifically? Because they are much duller than the showy males, and are often overlooked. They are also sometimes harder to identify due to their drabness, especially from a distance.

The first ducks we saw were pochard. The males have grey bodies and very distinctive bright red heads, while the females are a much more muted grey-brown mottled colour. We also had the privilege to spot teal, goldeneye, goosander, gadwall (at a great distance!), tufted duck, and of course the ubiquitous mallards.

Except that there was something different about some of the mallards at Walthamstow…one of the first birds we saw was very dark brown, with white on its head and breast. This sparked a debate about whether it was a hybrid, or just an odd colour mutation. Later on we also saw another duck with this colouring, as well as one with the normal green head but an unusally dark brown body. I did a little Googling on the subject when I got home (as you do) and it turns out that, while mallards can and do hybridise with a whole range of other duck species, the birds we saw are actually examples of what are often referred to as ‘manky mallards’: the colourful result of wild mallards interbreeding with domestic ducks (which are the same species). This sort of thing seems to go on a lot, and it’s possible to see mallards with all sorts of interesting colouration due to genes introduced from the different breeds of domestics. We speculated that the dark brown ducks with the white bib that we saw were probably females, while the green-headed, brown-bodied bird was clearly a male.

The hybird/colour morph debate continued as we carried on walking and began observing geese. Both greylag and Canada geese can be seen at Walthamstow reservoirs, and there is clearly some interbreeding going on between these two species:


The bird on the left is a standard Canada goose. His friend on the right, however, is brown, with orange legs and an orange-black bill. He has the dark neck of a Canada goose, but clearly owes much of his colouration to a greylag parent.

For comparison, these two chaps are greylags:


But, again, there’s something slightly odd here. The one on the right has some white on the face and a white ring around the eye, which is absent on the normal goose to the left. It’s possible that this is a hybrid greylag x greater white-fronted goose, but then again it could just be an interesting colour morph! Without DNA from the birds it is very hard to tell which is the case.

We also saw other interestingly-coloured geese that were leucistic (reduced pigmentation caused by a recessive allele), including a Canada goose with speckles of white on its head and neck, and another with an entirely white head (but we only saw it from a distance, so it could also have been a hybrid!).

The walk may have begun as a guide to identifying much-ignored female ducks, but the reservoirs’ more unusual feathery residents added some extra interest to the day!

It’s, like, ten thousand spoons…

…OK, 10,000 might be a bit of an exaggeration, but we do have a LOT of spoons in our collection. And over the past several weeks I’ve seen most of them. We are currently reviewing the anthropology collections of the museum (which involves checking the documentation of the objects and photographing them), and doing so thematically – the first two themes that our teams are looking at are Magic and Food. I am currently on the team looking at food, and what did we find in Bay One, Shelf A? Spoons. Lots of spoons, from all over the world.

And I’ve been surprised at how interesting it has been…some of the spoons aren’t much to look at, but some of them look like this! We took many, many photos of this spoon, and still they don’t quite capture the intricacy of the carving or the glory of the whole object. These two little beauties from India are also some of my favourites. They are made of brass, with scorpion-shaped handles! They are both different as well – one has his legs bent under him so that he stands up, and the other has his tail raised to strike!

When we have time, we’ve been trying to put some of our favourite things on the museum’s new(ish) Tumblr page for all the world to see. It’s been quite popular so far, and it’s been fun to see the reaction to our objects.

I feel like I’ve used the word ‘spoon’ too many times in this post. But I’ve lost the ability to talk about anything else now – I am immersed in a world of spoons (at least until we finish the next couple of shelves and get on to knives…).

A World in White

Real snow is something of a rarity in London. So when it does come, it always seems to come as a surprise. It has been snowing steadily all day; small, fine flakes that don’t loook like much, but that, if given enough time, can transform the world into a blanket of white. I decided to go for a walk in the snow this afternoon, so I put on my trainers, walked out the door…and on discovering that I was standing in ankle-deep snow, went back inside and changed into my wellies.

I wandered across Peckham Rye Common, amused by all the giant snowmen that were in the process of being erected – and demolished – and into the park, to see how the birds were faring in this chilly weather. Quite well, as it turns out. The usual contingent of mallards, coots, moorhens, tufted ducks and Canada geese were well fed, and had been joined by a large number of black-headed gulls, a stately grey heron, and an opportunistic robin.



While the birds on the pond are being taken care of by kindly locals with bags of grain and bread (although bread is actually not good for most birds), some other birds are clearly struggling…most sources will tell you that you would be very lucky to ever catch sight of a woodcock on the ground, but yesterday morning there was one in my tiny urban scrap of garden! I’m asuming that it came from Peckham Rye Park, as there is a wooded area there, but it must have been hungry to start foraging in a space as open and dangerous as a garden. Luckily for the woodcock, the cat didn’t even notice it was there, and it soon flew off again (EDIT: I’ve been informed by a bird expert that the woodcock may in fact have flown all the way from Russia before landing in my garden!).

I took lots of photos in the park. Here are just a few of them: