#AskaCurator: A Step-by-step Journey through the Collections Process
For #Askacurator day, the Skills for the Future Curatorial trainees decided to give you a step-by-step journey through the collections and focus on one of their favourite photographic collections at RCAHMS!
Views of the ‘Maiden Stone’, near Inverurie, (E 72410, E 69751, E 72399), J Romilly Allen, c. 1890-1903.
Step 1: Before an archivist or curator can do anything with collections materials, these materials must first be acquired by the institution for which they work. Each museum, archive or gallery will have an official collections or acquisitions policy in place and such a document should also be freely available for the public to see. Collections policies are in place to ensure that materials end up in the correct institution and aren’t spread out over the country in unexpected places (however this still sometimes happens). For example, although Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) is the repository for archaeological resources for Scotland, we only collect the reports, plans, drawings and photographs of excavations, not the discovered artefacts themselves, such materials should find their way to the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) or an equivalent local museum.
For this blog post we are focussing on a collection of glass plate negative photographs of ‘Early Christian Monuments of Scotland’ (ECMS) which are notorious for their use in Romilly Allen’s book, authored by Joseph Anderson, of the same title published in 1903. These materials were once in the possession of the NMS, they were discovered by Dr Alison Sheridan during a clear-out in the mid-1990s at a time when the National Museum in Edinburgh was moving from Queen Street to its current location on Chambers Street. Although the museum itself has a number of Early Christian monuments on display, it was decided that RCAHMS was a more suitable home for the glass plate negatives used in Allen’s book. Indeed these materials do fit well within our existing collection and satisfy a number of criteria expressed in our official collections policy. The collection itself features over 600 items including glass plate negatives and photographic prints, all shot between 1881 and 1900 by a variety of different photographers such as Reverend James Bannatyne Mackenzie. The majority of the images feature Early Christian Monuments of Scotland; however there are a few images of stones from the Isle of Man as well as some images of treasure discovered in Traprain Law Fort in East Lothian.
Step 2: After the collection had been accessioned John and Holly collaborated with Marta Garcia-Celma, an ICON Conservation Intern here at RCAHMS, to assess the condition of the negatives and re-house the archive. We identified what kind of glass plate negatives were in the collection and if they were in a poor condition for example if the glass was broken, passed them on to conservation to be conserved. The negatives were then surface cleaned on the glass side only to remove any harmful chemicals or grease before being re-housed in folders made from acid free paper and stored in archival boxes lined with plastazote to cushion the glass. The final stage in the re-housing process was to store the boxes of negatives in our negative store room, a humidity and temperature controlled environment that helps prevent the deterioration of negatives. The conservation and appropriate re-housing of material is vital for a collection to be preserved for future generations.
Step 3: In order to catalogue a collection, it is first important to understand what the collection is in terms of the material and subject. The ultimate aim of cataloguing is to allow people to find and understand the material that we hold so cataloguing in as much detail as possible is essential in helping people to do this. Research is a vital part of cataloguing. Most of the images were used in Romilly Allen’s book, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, so this was a good starting point. We were able to search through that book and a few others to identify the stones that appeared in the negatives. Another important aid was the help of researchers themselves such as Dr Iain Fraser and Dr Sally Foster in identifying the stones. This is an example of where collaboration between different organisations and shared knowledge is important to allow collections to be catalogued in the best and most effective way possible.
Step 4: In order to maximise the accessibility of the glass plate negatives, ideally they could all be digitised and made available online through Canmore. The digitisation process is a collaborative process between the conservation, collections and photography departments. The glass plate negatives are an example of a digitisation priority, as not only are they a culturally significant addition to RCAHMS collections, their fragile and easily-degradable condition means that digitisation reduces further damage by public handling. Some researchers are still interested in seeing the physical plates themselves, especially those interested in photography and collections history, where it would be beneficial to their research to see the photographs in their original contexts. Having the collection available online inspires learning and curiosity on a world-wide scale, not only of Early Mediaeval carved stones, but also the RCAHMS collections as a whole.
Step 5: Research is often seen as the primary use of a collection, and whilst undertaking all the steps covered so far, it is essential that we have the needs of the researcher in mind. In many ways, the RCAHMS system and Canmore website help researchers by making them aware of other material related to what they are working on, signposting them as to where to look next. However, it is equally important that both we and the researchers are aware of the limitations of our systems. For example, for the ECMS plates, the locations given on Canmore are unlikely to be the original location of the stone, just the first known one, making the descriptions potentially misleading to the unaware.
Step 6: The final step of the collection journey is to inform potential new researchers and the wider public that we have such a visually engaging and historic collection at RCAHMS, and that is readily accessible for them to access. A further advantage of having this collection fully digitised, and under our own copyright, is that it enables the utilisation of their digital and print form for use in online and print media. RCAHMS regularly produces fantastic publications, talks, tours and exhibitions on a huge range of our archival collections, with these EMS and JB Mackenzie photographs as regular features. The intrigue and amazing detail retained within large scale prints from this collection certainly makes them exhibition/gallery-worthy! [watch out for a future tweet!]
As curatorial skills trainees, we also update the CANMORE ‘browsable’ galleries and regularly provide snapshots from archival collections through @RCAHMS, @SkillsRCAHMS, other twitter feeds and social media platforms. So, you may have heard about this EMS collection and the collaboration with Marta in conservation through the RCAHMS facebook page, seen them crop up in the flickr image of the week, or even heard about ‘the odd masking’ methods on the photographs through @RCAHMSphoto!
So the journey is complete and the collection is now accessioned, conserved, catalogued, digitised, on our online database, and promoted as much as possible! We only hope the public will enjoy the photographs as much as we have and choose to access this collection in the future!
By Tom, Holly, John, Gilly, Philip and Gillian.
If you have any further questions about this collection or our work as Curatorial Skills Trainees then get in touch by tweeting us: @SkillsRCAHMS and make sure to include #askacurator!