Documenting relational collections

For hundreds of years scholars and humanists have understood the importance of connected collections. Yet much of our documentation for archives and museums has become disconnected, this separation exacerbated by different technologies and distinct professional identities. Drawing on research for the recently-published “From catalogues to contextual networks: reconfiguring collection documentation in museums,” this article moves through the history of collections to the present day, and argues for the development of more relational, connected practice into the future.

In the late sixteenth century Francis Bacon wrote of the ideal tools for learning: a library, a botanical and zoological garden, a laboratory, and a large collection of natural and man-made items (Bacon, 1688, pp. 34–35). Similarly, American collector James Smithson understood knowledge as a whole, “each portion of which throws light on all the other” – an idea now engraved on the façade of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Today these ideas have been combined with contemporary understandings of complexity, postcolonial theory, participatory practice, and the contextual nature of knowledge, to produce the ‘relational museum.’

Our documentation and systems are often quite different. The focus has been more on classification, inventory management, and the creation of distinct disciplines and professions. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the numbers of museums exploded around the world, scholarship and research was becoming more specialised. Meanwhile, librarians were developing their practice, as were archivists and museum staff. Associations were formed and specialist training was developed, with distinctions between libraries, archives, museums, and galleries reinforced by the physical separation of collections and exhibition spaces.

Technology contributed to the split. Automation developed in libraries, museums, and for manuscript collections evolved into distinct systems and standards. Cataloguing rules and classification structures were tailored to particular formats and specialised areas of research. By the end of the twentieth century many large collecting institutions have implemented separate systems for documenting and managing artefacts, specimens, publications, and archival records. Some have separate systems for different departments within the same institution. The result is that the archival material related to a particular artefact, or the publication produced following analysis of a specimen, are held and managed quite separately. While some may know there is a connection, the majority of users will need to work hard to discover the link.

In contrast, over the same period theorists of collections and material culture have become increasingly interested in exploring the complex systems within which all things exist. Linguists, anthropologists, ethnographers, archaeologists, sociologists, feminists theorists, and physicists have developed theories ‘relationality.’ The term is used to mean more than a simple relationship between two things. Instead, the identity and meaning of things is seen as emerging from their entanglement with each other and with the world.

Though archival theorists and museologists have started to incorporate some of these ideas in their work, there is more to do if we are to effectively capture the evolving, complex meanings of our interconnected collections. We need to develop our standards, systems, and processes in ways which better support rich, complex linking between collection materials and the contextual entities (people, organisations, places, events) which help us to understand those collections. Museums needs to learn from archivists by developing layers of aggregate description, while archivists need to better understand the value of item-level documentation and access as part of cross-institutional discovery systems.

As for collection description more broadly, a relational approach requires several developments in practice. Embedded, hierarchical classification structures should be replaced by related, non-hierarchical networks of time-specific terminology. The connections between things should be expanded from thin links to rich relationships containing descriptive information, dates, source material, and more. Descriptive data and fielded information needs to be contextualised by information on authors, times, places, and events rather than being treated as anonymous, unchanging, or universal. And communities, researchers, and other user groups need to be involved as part of capturing different perspectives and knowledge systems in, around, and between our collection items.

The ideas presented here are undoubtedly aspirational; but they are also the direct result of engagement with contemporary thinking about material culture, museology and archival theory. True relational description undoubtedly raises challenges. More complex information structures will have significant consequences for internal and public interfaces, for resourcing, and for the ongoing maintenance and storage of the knowledge our institutions hold. But without change we are only giving our communities part of the story.

Early descriptive practice, combined with a focus on professionalisation and the development of separate technologies and standards has meant that collectiondescription has failed to keep pace with the disciplines it is designed to support. Change is required. While it takes effort to trace, capture and make visible the relationships between artefacts, people, documentation and other things, by failing to do so we are failing to capture the significance and meaning of our collections. More effective, relational documentation of collections (including archives) will benefit our institutions, develop the value of our collections, engage visitors in new and interesting ways, and better support future research.

To see the extended article: Jones, Michael. ‘From Catalogues to Contextual Networks: Reconfiguring Collection Documentation in Museums’. Archives and Records 39, no. 1 (24 April 2018): 4–20.