It’s always a joy to see your work pay off, and last week saw the launch of the website for the University Museums in Scotland (UMIS) project Revealing The Hidden Collections, on which I worked last year at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum. The wesbite is here, and it looks great. Much nicer than the first draft version I saw months ago which had a very scary clown on the front page!
My job (with one other person) was to create very short (we had roughly 250 characters to play with) descriptions of the contents of each and every box/shelf/drawer/cupboard in the museum, which equates to a huge number of objects – there were half a million insects alone! Describing the vast and hugely varied collections in such a brief manner is tricky, but we arrived at a system in consultation with the curators that involved the use of prefixes and standard terms to try and cover everything, with our apprach changing a little in each department to try and accurately describe each collection in its own terms. The records mostly ended up being brief lists of much of the contents of each storage location as we could fit within the word count. We were usually able to be quite specific, but where there were a lot of very different items the descriptions had to be more general.
We were forced to use this rough and ready approach to cataloguing the collections because of the short length of the project (it was scheduled to take only a year), and the large size of the Hunterian’s collections – the other museums involved were all producing object-level records because on the whole they had considerably smaller collections to describe. This wasn’t going to be possible in our case, so it was decided to use short Collections Level Descriptions instead.
There were huge challenges in carrying out this survey, as some parts of the collection were not easy to access (due to boxes that were incredibly heavy or were stored very high up (or sometimes both), lack of lighting in some areas, narrow aisles, etc), and we had issues with winter temperatures in one of the remote stores, but I can proudly say that I am one of only two people who have ever seen the Hunterian’s collections in their entirety. Or maybe more like 99.9% – some of the palaeo material was being moved into new storage while we were working on the project and we weren’t able to access quite all of it, and we missed a few areas of the art collection due to time and access issues.
But it is great to finally see the website up and running, and to be able to see all of our amazingly hard work out there in the public domain. And, of course, to search through it and find favourite objects. One of the records of which I am most proud reads: ‘Zoology: Mammal skins collection: Stoat (inside-out), New World monkeys (including capuchin with terrifying expression due to poor taxidermy), mongoose, coati‘. Which was quite an impressive cupboard, I can tell you!