Collection Move: Using technology to overcome challenges - by Edward Purvis
Major moves of collection material are more commonplace than ever in the sector, as the cost of storage rises. Museums meet this challenge in a variety of ways; from moving to out-of-town locations to the digitisation of selected material in order to widen public access. But what happens when a national museum closes for redevelopment and has to decant its entire collection to another location? Edward Purvis - Registrar at the National Army Museum in London - on using technology to overcome the challenges of moving collections
This article examines the move of over 500,000 items at the National Army Museum (NAM), London, between September 2013 and August 2014, part of NAM’s successful £22.75m Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) bid. It explores the extensive use of iPads and barcodes to efficiently document and locate the Collection. Items moved included over 55,000 prints and drawings, over 1,700 firearms and over 100,000 archives.
The majority of artefacts, ranging in size from campaign medals to field guns, were rehoused at NAM’s state-of-the-art, climate-controlled Hertfordshire warehouse. The project’s success was down to the efficient use of staff, contractors and volunteers as well as new technology to move a Collection in a short period of time.
It is hoped this paper will provide some guidance to other institutions who maybe planning similar moves.
The NAM’s redevelopment journey began back in 2012 when Round One of its HLF submission was submitted. At that time NAM needed to build upon its rapidly increasing visitor numbers and meet the clamor for more outreach activities and events around the UK.
NAM leases a large industrial warehouse in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, where its Collection is stored. NAM had moved over 40,000 items from over 38 stores at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst to Stevenage between 2010-12, but the redevelopment presented greater challenges. Key questions included, what could we move before the outcome of the HLF bid was known and how best could the Stevenage site be prepared?
Staff first looked at the Stevenage site itself to work out the best use of space. Each store’s current use was evaluated. A number of changes were required to make the most efficient use of space. This planning stage was vital to ensure that all of the Collection could fit in its new location. The Stevenage store had started out primarily as a facility to hold the NAM’s historic military vehicles. NAM had rationalised this part of its Collection in recent years with the remainder considered a core part of NAM’s collecting remit.
The first immediate challenge was creating the space for over c3,500 linear metres of archives arriving from Chelsea. The vehicles were put on long-term loan to another museum so that an archive mezzanine floor in the warehouse could be built. The space underneath was then earmarked for large items coming off display from the Chelsea site.
Smaller items from stores and display were destined for the other main hanger. Over 4,000 items had to be moved to other stores to make way for bespoke areas for specific items in the Collection. This included brand new sword storage, new roller racking for boxed items and repurposed storage for NAM’s collection of badges and medals.
However other collections management infrastructure had to be considered. This included the building of a new Conservation and Photographic studio on the site, as well as a curatorial office and temporary research centre for visitors during the closure of NAM’s Chelsea site.
The preparation of any site before a move is vital and should not be underestimated. Collection items can obviously take up more space when packed and considerations for different types of objects are needed.
The Museum's stores and displays
An audit of existing stores at Chelsea was undertaken to assess the challenges ahead. NAM’s 17 storage areas were diverse, housed in a building which first opened to the public in 1971, with artefacts arranged and stored by type. The time spent preparing the audit presented a great opportunity to assess every store’s purpose for the first time, and to assess the Collection in its entirety.
The Museum commissioned external specialists to devise a ten year Collections Conservation Management Plan to assist with the audit. Much of the storage furniture was a mix of old and new – from wooden units to bespoke roller racking. Some parts of the collection were also densely packed in less than ideal conditions, which both exposed the artefacts to potential damage and limited public access. The displays were naturally a product of their time, and had been designed and installed at various stages between 1982 and 2013.
It became apparent that there were discrepancies in the collections management records for some items on display, and the use of technology greatly assisted in quantifying and resolving the issues. This also helped when dealing with unaccessioned material in the stores.
The project was managed throughout by a steering group made up of key representatives from across NAM, including staff and senior management.
It was decided from the outset to use a defined team to carry out the project, rather than asking for volunteers from across NAM to assist with the packing. This would make the project more manageable given the time frames.
Each curator, known throughout the project, as a Store Team Leader, managed the move of each individual store. Each store was supported by a detailed project plan which outlined timescales and resources. Each store had a team of volunteers supporting the curator in carrying out the work to the set standard. Display areas were also managed in a similar way.
A move of this scale also obviously included help from outside contractors. Each specific type of item was arranged into discreet work packages before going out to tender. This included firearms and items on display, including large paintings and heavy objects.
The move itself
Collections began to move in earnest in September 2013. In anticipation of a successful outcome to the bid, as many items were moved as possible. Over 100,000 items were moved between September and April 2014 when the Chelsea site closed.
The move of the Collection was communicated effectively to members of the public and key stakeholders through notices on the website, in person and on the telephone.
The first items to be moved included over 55,000 prints and drawings, 4,500 pieces of equipment and over 10,000 books and archives. The prints and drawings collection are housed in around 20 large plan presses. It was not feasible to decant the material before travel, so all items were carefully wrapped in situ before travel. The drawers also required careful dismantling and reassembling before travel. The presses were mapped to specific locations already identified at Stevenage.
At the same time, 1,700 firearms began to be crated before their move to secure off-site storage. This project required careful planning; firearms were measured to ascertain the number of crates needed. Each weapon was also photographed prior to removal.
Following the Museum’s successful HLF bid, NAM closed to the public on the 30 April 2014. The decant of the remaining stores and all the displays now began with specific curators tasked to lead on each area.
This of course had its challenges. The movement of large objects required careful planning in regards to their routes out of the building. Some of the scenics had to be taken down beforehand. However contractor involvement was kept to a minimum – many items were transported by in-house teams themselves using hired vans.
It was a wonderful opportunity to also support the over 136-strong regimental and corps museums community. Mannequins, display cases and other valuable case dressing items were offered to various museums, a lot of which could be reused up and down the country. Over 50 institutions directly benefited from this service.
How were items tracked?
The NAM’s collections management database is known as CABAL, a FileMaker Pro product which can be modified by our in-house Computer & Technical Services team. This allows greater flexibility for making changes to the system.
The database was then modified into an iPad layout which allowed basic data entry and record retrieval. This was coupled with a scanner which could be used by the curator or volunteer to scan either the object barcode or box barcodes. Each item was given a small plastic barcode which also contained its accession number printed on it. Items could then be scanned to a much larger box which also had a barcode. Each shelf also had a barcoded location. Therefore 25 items in a box, for example, could be located in a matter of seconds to a shelf. Any unaccessioned material was recorded at group level and assigned to a box barcode. Each box or crate was scanned or listed upon exit from Chelsea to ensure an adequate audit trail.
The use of barcodes to move the Collection was the key to the project’s success. It allowed items to be tracked efficiently and quickly, given the timescales required to evacuate the building.
This was backed up using teams of dedicated staff and volunteers to move and pack the Collection. Planning and preparation of the Stevenage was key and should not be underestimated when doing similar projects. What was most gratifying was the creation of new storage and making the Collection more accessible in new and innovative ways.
Furthermore many of the items moved were then immediately selected for redisplay in the new Museum or were required by researchers. Content was needed for the new galleries and the Museum’s temporary research centre opened. This shows the intrinsic value of technology and collections management systems to help maximise the public benefit and value of our nation’s collections.
Registrar, National Army Museum