Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Condition 'Aint the Thing

I was sitting in a meeting the other day for a historical society that was trying to figure out how to handle their archival and museum collections. This organization has been around for decades, collecting materials as most local organizations do. They have gathered a plethora of materials that tell some of the stories of their town in-depth and provide a good backbone for telling the rest of the stories. They follow museum standards of applying accession numbers, though this has not always been the case. They keep their materials in relatively good conditions, apply climate controls to the extant that their budget allows, and use some preservation supplies. They are ready to take a step forward to administer their collections in a more professional manner.

This is where such organizations generally falter.

In terms of their collecting, they accept what comes to them, from donors who show up and offer fabulous things. They also have taken in materials that anonymous givers drop on their doorsteps. (It is the archival equivalent of ringing a doorbell and running.) Just like most other local organization I encounter,  their collecting has been relatively passive and without clear direction. To me, this is an obvious problem. This is the THING. This is the next step to making your organization a fabulous one.

Then I hear this from someone in the meeting: "We should look at the condition of materials and get rid of things that are in bad shape."

If I could play sound effects within the blog, I would play that noise you would hear on the Price is Right when someone spins the wheel and goes over the limit. The sound of "You failed!" I wanted to yell, "Don't do it!" I didn't do that. I can sometimes be more delicate about things. BUT I AM yelling it here.
Go through your materials and figure out
their focus and informational worth
before discarding.


If an original copy of the Declaration of Independence was in poor condition would you throw it away? I always use the Declaration of Independence as an example for my students because we all understand its importance. Of course you wouldn't throw it away!

That one item sitting at the bottom of a trunk all faded and torn and practically illegible may be the only item in the whole world with that particular information on it. Do not use its condition as the sole means for determining its worth, for goodness sakes!

Only then should you figure out if what you already have falls outside of the scope of what you want. Figure out if you have duplicates. Figure out if you have things in poor condition whose information can be found elsewhere and that do not have any intrinsic value. Appraise!

Do not jump to the last step before you do the others. The THING is knowing who you are, why you exist, and where you are going. Pay attention to the whole package before you focus on the parts. Your institution is a shell waiting to tell a story. Figure out the basic focus of the story and then build a collection to tell it and flesh it out.

Ding, Ding, Ding!!!! Winner!

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