More with Less

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A Word from the Chair – Judy Willcocks, Chair of the LMG,  shares her experiences of the changes to her role as Head of Museum & Study Collection at Central St Martins in this financially squeezed time for museums.

As resources become ever more scarce and institutions try to do more with less I’m sure every museum professional in the country has a story to tell about how they have been asked to take on additional responsibilities or how they have seen multiple specialist roles (curator, conservator, documentation officer) merged into more general roles (such as collections manager).

I work in a university museum which may seem to outsiders a fairly privileged and protected place to be. Sure, our tiny operating budget has been top-sliced year on year but so far we haven’t had to make any redundancies. However, as our permanent staffing structure is represented by me (full time) and a colleague who works two days a week during term time, you could argue that there isn’t much to cut.

And like everyone else, we are trying to do more with less. As we face each financial hurdle (the loss of our teaching grant, reduced research funding, the threat that immigration laws will affect international recruitment) we have to fight harder to prove that the museum is worth its price tag. That means doing more to make our collections accessible, more to reach new audiences and more to support teaching and learning across University of the Arts London.

When I took up the post of Head of Museum & Study Collection in 2008 (the clue is in the title) I assumed that I would be looking after a museum, but as the years progressed it became clear that Central Saint Martins also had ambitions to amass a considerable archive. The museum (like many museums) had always looked after a body of archive material and we’d done it in a museum way. We ordered it, we carried out basic preventative conservation, we listed it (in the most general terms) and made it available to the general public through our searchable online catalogue and the AIM25 website.

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However, when we moved to new premises in Kings Cross in 2011 the archive expanded at a frightening rate. I rescued 45 boxes of records from the old St. Martins School of Art building in Charing Cross Road and as staff moved from individual offices to huge open plan spaces the cupboards were literally laid bare for me to sort out. Technically I was now Head of the College’s museum and its archive.

Initially we found the influx of material overwhelming. It was all we could do to sort through the bin bags dumped at our office door and pack it away safely in acid free boxes and polyester sleeves. However, as time wore on it became clear that we needed to do something more with it.

My first port of call was the Archives and Special Collections Centre at the London College of Communication, where colleagues there were able give me a crash course on archival practice. It seemed to me that the main difference between the museum and archive worlds was in cataloguing – that and the importance of respecting the original order of the documents, which is a very archive way of thinking.   

My next stop was Archiving the Arts, a National Archives initiative to support arts archives in the UK wherever they are. Fleur Soper and her colleagues worked with us to understand archival structures. They also helped us write collection, series and box level descriptions for our archive material which have since been added to a national register. We are now working with volunteers to try to drill down into the archive and provide more detailed box listings and I run an annual project with our MA in Culture, Criticism and Curation where they order and list uncatalogued archive material.  

It’s been an exhausting business trying to get our heads round another profession but (aside from the late nights and stress headaches) I’m really glad we’ve done it. There are so many similarities between the way museums and archives work but the subtle differences are all important. Working with the qualified archivists has helped shape and professionalise the way we approach our collections. It’s also enabled us to make sure that information about our archive is available to the general public in the right place and to industry standard formats.

Given that so many museums hold archive material, and so many archives hold objects, it’s made me ponder whether the two professions should be seen as completely distinct with different training regimes and MA programmes. I definitely feel a more accomplished museum professional for having engaged with the world of archiving and while I would welcome a move from Central Saint Martins to appoint a full time archivist (think of what we could do!) I do feel that by broadening my horizons I have been able to improve both my professional practice and the management of our collections.  

 

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