Saturday, 3 November 2012

Thoughts on Collection Management

A few weeks ago, I listened to the BBC's Global Business program (about 13min 25secs into the program) that mentioned a new development in medical records management in the UK. It's called Patients Know Best. It's a patient-centred IT solution to what has always been a doctor's or hospital's prerogative - controlling access to medical records. With this innovation, the patient controls who accesses their records - including family members and clinicians. Patients can also revoke those privileges as they see fit. One benefit of the software is that it allows for online consultation which would cut down the cost of visiting a doctor in person. Patients can update their own records and keep the doctor notified of changes. With DHBs and PHOs facing increasing cuts from the government, this software may be a cost-saving measure worth exploring, but that is a digression.

To juxtapose museum records with medical records is like comparing apples and oranges. Medical records have patient names, unique numbers and birth information that can pinpoint who the record is for. The hospital doesn't own the patient but does own the record. In a museum, an object might have a unique number, but no information on where it came from. The museum will own both the object and its records with no relationship necessarily kept intact with the donor. I've heard many stories of people who had loaned or given something to a museum, only to find out years later that the museum had no record of the loan or donor, and this enabled the museum by default to claim ownership. This is a frustrating and disempowering position for donors to be in, and yet if it weren't for donors, there would be no collections at all.

Bear with my digressions. There is a collection records management system roughly similar to the one at Patients Know Best but not quite. It's called eHive. Vernon Systems Ltd created a web-based collection system for collectors around the world. You can upload collection information and make it accessible to other eHive users for free. The great thing in my mind is that it is open to individuals as well as museums. For example, our current display is a privately owned collection of beautiful cloth figurines. The owner of that collection could upload her information and people interested in the collection could connect with her. Private or niche collections are perhaps the best part of eHive.

The not-so-great thing about any collection management software is that it takes time and technology to digitise each record - something many volunteer museums and private collectors don't have.

But what got me about Patients Know Best is its emphasis on restoring the patient's control over his/her medical information. The parallel in a museum context might be this: though an object is given or loaned to a museum, the donor/family/whānau may still have ties to it. But giving an object to a museum is a legal transaction - kind of like relinquishing a child for adoption. And like in adoption, our record management systems arent designed to maintain a relationship between the donor and the object; they are designed to sever it. In fact in some cases, the only way to get acknowledgement for that relationship is to take the issue to the media.

And so it makes me wonder, is there a way to keep objects/taonga connected to donors by somehow creating a 'Donors Know Best' solution? This might create a fundamental shift in museums from owners to guardians. But it might also create an opening to learn more about the object and its value to its owners, deepening its 'significance' in the collection. From the donor's perspective, if their relationship to the object is more fully documented, it is a foot in the door to maintaining a verifyable connection to the object, a form of ahi kā.

In museum collection management software, there are places to write all of this down, it's just that it is not always seen as a priority. We are more focused on describing the object's appearance than its relationship to the donor.

In the end, it may not come down to a bright, shiny software solution like Patients Know Best but to creating the policy and defining the values the museum places on donors and their relationship with the object. Perhaps object receipt and deed of gift forms could affirm relationship while giving up guardianship and no mention of transfer of ownership rights at all.

But such a policy must also consider previously accessioned objects with unknown donors where people living today claim a relationship to the object. It may also deal with the issue of no known donor but a community, e.g. Otautau, that has objects in other museums that it rightfully has a relationship to.

Every museum has to face these issues at some point and so it's good to take a new perspective and perhaps think outside of the 'Museums Know Best' model. Hearing what's happening in the UK with patient records is refreshing and could be useful in our own sector. I know for me as a Collection Manager, it's made me think about our own collection and the deeper issues involved.

We're open Wednesdays and Sundays, 2pm-4pm, and by request. Your comments are always welcome!


Paul Landry said...


This is the first time I've read your blog, but I found several things that you mentioned interesting.

In the interest of full disclosure I will say that I work for a company out of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada that designs collections management software called Selago Design. Doing research for them actually led me to your blog, which is a happy accident.

First off, you note that verifying or fully documenting a donor's information isn't always seen as a priority, even though the methods to do that are typically built into the software. You are absolutely right on both counts! Obviously the level of commitment from an institution to log donor info means that you have a wide range of info being collected. In our software, for example, you can put as much info for a donor as you could for an object, but that is because we use inter-connected modules that can be updated dynamically and linked back and forth.

I also like your idea of allowing users/donors access to input their own information regarding objects. It would definitely create an enhanced sense of ownership and interaction between institutions and people (although it would have to be moderated). One unanticipated benefit might be that people could input information about a piece that might be somewhat unknown. Especially with items pre-1800s there can be problems identifying characteristics of objects.

All this to say, very interesting read and if you would like to continue this conversation further please feel free to contact me at plandry @


Cathy said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for your comment. I do like the idea of donors adding comments. At present, NZ's online collection management software (eHive) lets people add tag words. But I think it's done anonymously though I'm not sure. I've never used it. Tagging doesn't address the real needs of donors to stay connected with their donated or loaned object.

It's good to know folks like you are out there working on such things and improving them. Thanks again for your comments.

Paul Landry said...

Another problem with open ended tagging is that it is difficult to organize because you can't enforce a set lexicon.

And thanks! We work hard (most of the time).