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Antarctic Cataloguing Project

One year down, one year to go

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015
A very colourful collection of Antarctic trousers.

A very colourful collection of Antarctic trousers which have been studied, condition assessed and photographed for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project.

It’s Antarctica Day! Having passed the halfway mark in the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, I thought it was a good time to share what I’ve been up to over the last twelve months and report back on the progress I’ve made.

Most of my time is spent doing one of three things: 1) working in the object stores studying the Antarctic collections alongside Sophie and Christina; 2) sitting at my desk trying to translate my pages of scrawled notes into neat and tidy object descriptions; 3) reformatting the object records and populating them with as much detail as I can, including giving detailed descriptions and adding in classifications, associations, and any references I have come across (be they objects, archives, photographs or library material). And every now and then, I spend a rather frantic but quite fun day with the photographers (and whoever else I can rope in to help, including Sophie and Christina, work experience students and interns) photographing objects.

object photography

It can be exhausting work doing object photograpy – frantically trying to get objects out, remove labels, position them for photography, put labels back on, put them away, and keep track of which objects have been photographed and in what order… And the lighting means it gets rather hot! Not to mention the reindeer hair – which gets EVERYWHERE.

It’s always nice to have a few stats (who doesn’t like stats?) so to date:

  • 1050 objects studied (and condition-assessed by Sophie and Christina)
  • 982 records reformatted into our standardised template (including records for 917 of the objects studied so far, and 65 records for other objects such as those that have been deaccessioned)
  • 961 objects photographed
  • Images for 434 objects processed for the web

It’s quite a satisfying process working category by category through the collections. So far, we’ve managed to get through goggles, medals, clothing (including handwear and headwear), footwear, skis/crampons, geology, natural history, animal equipment, foodstuffs and bags. We’re currently working on domestic equipment and scientific equipment.

This process is really helping us to get a much better idea of what our ‘Antarctic collection’ comprises. I’d initially identified approximately 1850 objects as relating to the Antarctic, but as we work through the collections we discover that which previously had no Antarctic attribution in the database are found to have one, or things that were assumed to be Antarctic-related are found not to be – so I think the final tally will be nearer 2000 objects.

I've currently got seven notebooks of scrawled object notes... I wonder how many I'll get through by the end of the project?

I’ve currently got seven notebooks of scrawled object notes… I wonder how many I’ll get through by the end of the project?

To help place our collections in their historical and cultural contexts, a dedicated team of volunteers have been helping to create biographical records for members of Antarctic expeditions, many of whom are connected to the objects we hold in the collections – and have created over 240 records so far. Volunteers have also been carrying out research into the expeditions themselves so that we can create biographical records for expeditions as well – and we’ve started a series of ‘Spotlight on Antarctic Expeditions’ blog posts to highlight some of them (see the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949-52 and the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58). We’re hoping that these records about people and expeditions will ultimately be available online to complement the Antarctic catalogue.

The next big push is to put is to put this first tranche of objects into our online catalogue – and we’ll be sure to let you know as soon as it’s available! Until then, I’ll be down in the basement studying and photographing more objects, or at my desk creating beautiful catalogue records.

Greta

Spotlight on Antarctic Expeditions: The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015
Z: 358. Perhaps the dullest object photo ever? But this sledging box from the CTAE contains medical supplies for the expedition, including: medical supplies, including: a roll of a 'Major Set of surgical instruments for Services Afloat' and a smaller roll 'Artery Forceps for Services Afloat'; two bottles of dried human plasma, chloroform; two bottles di-sodium citrate solution; vitamins; bandages and plasters, including six tins of plaster of paris bandages; reagent tablets; sunburn oil; two tins of sulphathiazole, two blood transfusion units (in tins); codeine tablets; tin of surgeon rubber gloves; two tins of glycerine and blackcurrant pastilles; box of crystalline penicillin, safety pins, box of 25 dry ampoules xylocaine hydrochlor 100mg; two small drawstring bags of dentistry implements; two cardboard leg braces; breathing tube

Z: 358. Perhaps the dullest object photo ever? But this sledging box from the CTAE contains medical supplies for the expedition, including: surgical instruments and artery forceps, bottles of dried human plasma, bandages and plasters, reagent tablets, blood transfusion units, surgeon’s rubber gloves, cardboard leg braces, and a breathing tube, amongst many other things.

In our second instalment of lesser known Antarctic expeditions, I want to take a look at the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955­­–58 (CTAE). The CTAE completed the first successful overland crossing of the Antarctic continent from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole, a feat first attempted by Ernest Shackleton on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17.

Vivian Fuchs and Ray Adie were credited with coming up with the idea for a crossing whilst tent-bound in a blizzard in 1949. The idea was initially turned down when it was first put to the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey scientific committee in 1950 but, the successful first ascent of Mount Everest in May 1953 put heroic deeds in the public eye, and the proposal garnered greater interest when put before the government’s Polar Committee in the autumn of that year. The idea was not without its detractors, who criticised its lack of scientific credibility, but the expedition went ahead, sponsored and supported by the governments of the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and the United States.

The expedition was divided into two parties: the Main Party (consisting of an Advance Party, which arrived in Antarctica in January 1956, and a Trans-Polar Party), led by Fuchs, operating from Shackleton Base in Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea and with a secondary base further inland called South Ice; and the Support Party (which was tasked with establishing a route and laying depots), led by Edmund Hillary, operating from Scott Base at McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea. Both parties made use of motorised vehicles (including Snow-Cats, Weasel tractors, and specially adapted Muskeg and Massey Ferguson tractors), air transport and dog teams in route-finding and depot-laying.

The 12-man Trans-Polar Party set out from Shackleton Base on 24 November 1957, and completed their journey of 2158 miles in 99 days, arriving at Scott Base on 2 March 1958. The first non-stop trans-Antarctic single-engine plane crossing was also made during the expedition on 6 January 1958 in a de Havilland Canada Otter. The crossing from South Ice to Scott Base, flying over the South Pole, covering a distance of 1430 miles, took 11 hours.

The expedition’s associated scientific programme consisted of meteorology, seismic sounding and a gravity traverse on the crossing of the ice cap, and various studies in glaciology and geology. The New Zealand team also undertook extensive survey work, and physiological research and engineering studies into human and machine behaviour and performance in extremes of cold.

Like many an Antarctic expedition, the CTAE was not without mishap, although in this case no life was lost. The Advance Party, which arrived at Vahsel Bay in January 1956, lost many supplies and equipment from the ice during unloading as a result of a storm, and were ultimately left to spend the winter living in a 21 x 9 x 8 foot wooden Snow-Cat crate and two-man tents.

We have a large collection of clothing donated by Allan Rogers, the expedition’s medical officer and, rather surprisingly, his electric blanket! We also have five sledging boxes containing field equipment, scientific equipment and medical supplies – I’m yet to look at these, but their contents sound very intriguing… Further information about the CTAE and the objects from the expedition will be made available on the museum’s online catalogue through the Antarctic Cataloguing Project. With thanks to Barbara for doing the research into the expedition from which this very potted summary has been produced.

Greta

Where science and society meet

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

23

Last week I attended the University Museums Group and University Museums in Scotland joint conference in Durham with the theme ‘Where science and society meet’. As well as being a university museum, The Polar Museum is embedded within an institute with an emphasis on scientific research (especially in the fields of snow and ice), and while many of the objects in the collections reflect the history of inhabitation or exploration in the polar regions, they also document the history of polar science, so this conference seemed particularly pertinent (especially as I’m currently looking through the scientific equipment for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project). The conference was centred around three key themes: 1. engaging with science research, 2. communicating the controversial, and 3. contemporary science in museums.

In the first session, discussions focused on two main challenges. Firstly, the way in which scientists and museums collaborate – and the need to understand the motivations of each, to develop a shared vision for communicating science, and to plan together in the long term so that things like exhibitions and other methods of public engagement are written into research bids. The second challenge is how to present museum collections alongside new discoveries and current research – museums are experts in objects so it is logical for exhibitions to be object-led but, at the same time, we need to recognise that collections are not always the best way to communicate research, especially if the connections between objects and research are forced.

The speakers in the second session all agreed that museums should be places to engage with controversial subjects in science, and discussion concentrated on where the museum should sit between ‘objective authority’ and ‘partisan lobbyist’. Museums are often perceived as an authority on certain subjects but it would be wrong to think that they can ever be entirely neutral – so perhaps we need to be transparent about the views that we present? The example of climate change was cited several times – both a key area of research at SPRI, and a subject we consider in the galleries at The Polar Museum.

In the third session, we explored the idea that contemporary science in the museum is not just about presenting the results of current scientific research in an exhibition context, but can also be about conducting the process of scientific research within the museum space, by carrying out data collection or data analysis with, or in front of, visitors (possibly somewhat challenging given that a lot of the research at SPRI is conducted a long long long way away from Cambridge!). And it’s not only about presenting the research, but also about presenting the researchers – through talks, workshops and events in the museum space and beyond.

Taking observations on the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13.

Taking observations on the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13.

Still being relatively new to The Polar Museum, the conference really helped me to understand and think about the museum in new ways (as well as having the added bonus of meeting people from a variety of museums who said ‘I think we’ve got some Antarctic material in our collections…’ – always good news for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project) . The Polar Museum is incredibly lucky to have a fantastic team of researchers working across a range of disciplines right on our doorstep, many of whom are really keen to get involved with the museum and its activities. We’re also lucky in that there are often quite simple connections to be made between our collections and the research that takes place within the Institute, especially relating to the historic roots of contemporary scientific research. However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t face many of the challenges raised at the conference and there are plenty of things for both the museum and the researchers at SPRI to think about in terms of engaging the public with current research in the sciences and beyond.

Greta

 

Spotlight on Antarctic Expeditions: The Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949–52

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015
SPRI P55/15/44/3b. Alan Reece (assistant geologist) and Fred Roots (chief geologist) sit on a rock by a stone cairn.

SPRI P55/15/44/3b. Alan Reece (assistant geologist) and Fred Roots (chief geologist) sit on a rock by a stone cairn.

While many people are aware of the very famous expeditions of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton during the ‘Heroic Age’ of exploration, there have been many other subsequent expeditions to the Antarctic which loom far smaller (if they register at all) in the public consciousness. Bob Headland’s book, A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration, lists every single expedition to the Antarctic (British and international), from the earliest forays into sub-Antarctic waters in the seventeenth century and the commercial whaling and sealing expeditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the expeditions undertaken as part of the International Polar Year 2007–08. Needless to say, it’s a very long list.

It turns out that we have quite a lot of objects from some of these lesser known and more recent expeditions in the museum’s collection so I want to try to shine a spotlight on some of them through the blog, especially as very few of the objects relating to these expeditions are on permanent display in the museum. And the Antarctic Cataloguing Project isn’t just about cataloguing the objects themselves, but is also about researching the expeditions they were used on and the people they were used by and sharing this information. So I’m going to start with the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949–52 (NBSAE). We’ve got approximately 100 objects from this expedition, including a large selection of clothing, dog driving equipment and skiing equipment.

The NBSAE was the first expedition in Antarctica involving an international team of scientists. Their main objective was to explore whether the climatic fluctuations observed in the Arctic where also occurring in Antarctica. The expedition was led by the Norwegian Captain John Giaever, with each country in charge of a different aspect of the expedition: Britain geology, Sweden glaciology and Norway meteorology and surveying – and each country was also responsible for supplying different parts of the expedition equipment.

Y: 49/13/1-2. Low-temperature ski boots made by A/S Kolbjorn Knutsen & Co., who supplied a variety of clothing and equipment to the NBSAE.

Y: 49/13/1-2. Low-temperature ski boots made by A/S Kolbjorn Knutsen & Co., who supplied a variety of clothing and equipment to the NBSAE.

They expedition left London on 23 November 1949 on board the Norwegian ship the Norsel, taking with them dogs, amphibious tracked vehicles known as weasels, aircraft and two small boats. They established a base at Maudheim on the coast of Dronning Maud Land, with a second base (known as Advance Base) 200 miles away. The expedition maintained regular radio contact with Norway and South Africa, between Maudheim and Advance Base, and with the teams during their journeys into the interior. Numerous journeys were undertaken throughout the expedition, including a topographical-geological journey (19 December 1950–30 May 1951) to extensively survey the area and study the geology; a glaciological journey (18 December 1950–5 April 1951) to evaluate glacier movement, snow build-up and temperature levels, and to take ice cores to investigate ice formation and temperature; and a seismological journey (18 October 1951–6 January 1952) to take measurements to determine ice and rock thickness and ice accumulation.

The expedition was struck by tragedy in February 1951 when three of the expedition (Bertil Ekström, Leslie Quar, John Jelbart) died. Poor weather had caused their party to misjudge their position and they plunged their weasel tractor over an ice cliff into the sea. Only Stig Hallgren was able to swim to safety, reaching an ice-flow from which he was rescued thirteen hours later. The following month, geologist Alan Reece lost the sight in his right eye after getting struck by a chip of rock. Specialists in Stockholm advised that the eye would need to be removed in order to preserve the sight of the other. Ove Wilson, the expedition doctor, had never performed the operation but prepared himself and a team of assistants from among the camp personnel, and fashioned the necessary instruments by hand. The operation was performed in July with a full and uneventful recovery.

Y: 2004/2/3-4. Maudheim Medal and Polar Medal awarded posthumously to Leslie Quar, who lost his life on the NBSAE.

Y: 2004/2/3-4. Maudheim Medal and Polar Medal awarded posthumously to Leslie Quar, who lost his life on the NBSAE.

The NBSAE left their base on 15 January 1952, landing in Southampton on 18 February. They managed to survey a huge area of Antarctica: 6,000 square km was mapped by ground survey, and in using aerial photography this area can be extended to 10,000 square km in total. Significantly the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition paved the way for internationally run efforts, showing scientific cooperation was possible between nations.

You can read more about the NBSAE and see photos from the expedition on the SPRI Picture Library webpages. All of the objects from the NBSAE will be eventually be available on the museum’s online catalogue (complete with new images) through the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, hopefully alongside biographies of every member of the expedition (researched by my brilliant volunteer, Barbara).

Greta

All things Shackleton…

Friday, August 14th, 2015
SPRI P66/18/36. Frank Wild (left) and Ernest Shackleton (right).

SPRI P66/18/36. Frank Wild (left) and Ernest Shackleton (right).

This year we are in the midst of commemorating the centenary of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914–17 (Endurance and Aurora), led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. It’s a tale that hardly needs retelling: Shackleton and his men survived one of the worst disasters in Antarctic history – their ship was crushed and sank, and they were forced to make an open boat journey to Elephant Island where they lived for over four months before they were rescued.

With just under six weeks to go until the opening of our new exhibition, By Endurance We Conquer: Shackleton and his Men, we’ve got Shackleton very much on our minds. The exhibition will commemorate all the men that sailed with Shackleton aboard the Endurance, and will also honour the Ross Sea Party (three of whom lost their lives), which laid the supply depots for the planned crossing of the Antarctic continent. This week saw the arrival of some of the objects we’re borrowing for the exhibition, including a pannikin which belonged to Shackleton himself and is marked with his initials, ‘E.H.S.’, and a yachtsman’s cap belonging to James Mann Wordie, expedition geologist.

New arrivals for By Endurance We Conquer: Shackleton and his Men

New arrivals for By Endurance We Conquer: Shackleton and his Men

We’ve spent several months drawing together information about all of the men from the Endurance expedition to create biographies for use in the exhibition and in touch-screens in the galleries. And we’ve just launched a volunteer project to put these biographies (and others) into our database, which has proved highly popular and has had an impressive sign-up.

However, we’re not just concerned with the Endurance expedition – our Shackleton focus extends to his other expeditions: the British National Antarctic Expedition 1901–04 (Discovery), led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott; the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–09 (Nimrod); and the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition 1921–22 (Quest), on which Shackleton died.

In 2014 SPRI received a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for By Endurance We Conquer: The Shackleton Project, which will unite the collections at SPRI (Archive, Museum, Library and Picture Library) through new acquisitions and interpretation of material relating to Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Photographing objects from the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09 (Nimrod) for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project.

Photographing objects from the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09 (Nimrod) for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project.

The museum collection contains material from all of Shackleton’s expeditions, including foodstuffs, goggles, medals and a thermometer from Nimrod; and crampon shoes, a sledging flag and a clock from Quest; as well as boots, Shackleton’s goggles, and the sextant used by Worsley during his extraordinary feat of navigation on the crossing from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Over the past few weeks as part of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, we’ve been looking carefully at all of these objects and getting them photographed in order to produce detailed records for our forthcoming online catalogue. We’ve also been condition assessing them to highlight any future conservation needs. In addition, the education and outreach team have been working to create new Shackleton-related educational resources and a programme of events.

The Archives contain Shackleton’s diaries from all of his expeditions, as well as correspondence, lecture notes, poetry and papers written by Shackleton himself and his wife Emily. The collection also includes the diaries and papers of members of Nimrod, Endurance and Quest expeditions. These are currently being added to the database so that they will be a searchable resource in the future.

By Endurance We Conquer: Shackleton and his Men will open on Tuesday 22 September 2015 and run until 18 June 2016. To find out more about events commemorating the centenary of the Endurance expedition at SPRI and across the world, take a look at the Shackleton 100 website.

Greta

Volunteers Wanted: Biographical Records Project

Monday, August 3rd, 2015
Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-17 (SPRI P66/18/77)

Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-17 (SPRI P66/18/77)

We’re looking for volunteers to help with our Biographical Records Project to support the work of the Shackleton Project in the Archives and the Antarctic Cataloguing Project in the Museum. This is a great opportunity for anyone interested in learning more about the people associated with polar exploration.

Project Aim: The project brings together existing research into people and expeditions and places the information on Modes, our collections database.

Background: Our biographical records provide a rich source of information on the people who have lived and worked in the polar regions, and the people contacted to them. From explorers to families, to newspaper editors and manufacturers, the biographies provide a wonderful insight into the lives of these people. Over the years we have amassed a wealth of knowledge, and the time has come to bring this together on our collections database. This will enable us to enhance vistor experience in the museum and online via our website, and will assist in collections management in the Archives, Museum and Picture Library.

The Work: This is a computer-based project, with some additional research in the Library collections. The work will involve transferring information from a variety of mediums, predominantly Microsoft Word or Excel documents, plus some paper records, into a template on our Modes database. Full training on completing the template will be provided. Volunteers will be given a set of people connected to a particular expedition.

Please contact Naomi Boneham (archives@spri.cam.ac.uk) or Greta Bertram (museum@spri.cam.ac.uk) if you’re interested in taking part in this project or want to find out more.

 

Rocks rock for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project

Monday, July 6th, 2015

Z75a-i

Work is continuing apace on the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, with over 600 objects examined, described and condition assessed. Working by object type (which makes life much easier in terms of accessing the objects in the store, and facilitates description and condition assessment as you know what to look out for), Sophie, Christina and I have now worked our way through all of the goggles, medals, boots, clothing, snowshoes, crampons and skis housed in our main store (this excludes those items in the auxiliary store and in the gallery, which we will deal with at a later date).

Having spent two-three months working on the clothing, which included socks and slippers, mittens and gloves, hats and scarves, trousers, jumpers and endless numbers of anoraks, it made a very pleasant change this week to whizz through the entire collection of geological specimens in a single day. Not being a geologist, there’s very little I can say about a rock, so describing them was really rather easy and all I had to do was take a few measurements! Thankfully, many of the geological specimens had already been identified and this was recorded in the catalogue, but there were still quite a few with the really helpful description of ‘rock’ – although occasionally there was a bit more detail, like ‘small rock’.

The great thing about SPRI is that you are surrounded by people who know about polar things, so there’s usually someone in the building with the required knowledge. So we turned to SPRI’s resident geologist, Dr Peter Clarkson, who spent 22 years working as a geologist with the British Antarctic Survey, to help us out. Unfortunately, with such small samples and so little contextual information for the rocks identified as needing the ‘PCT’ (Peter Clarkson Treatment), we weren’t able to get an identification for everything. However, Peter was extremely helpful and filled in a lot of gaps, even if it did mean pointing out that some of the samples were of very doubtful Antarctic provenance and that others were really nothing special and it wasn’t quite clear why they were even in the collection! And, having run everything by a geologist, we’re almost certain that we’ve got identifications for all the things that we’re ever likely to be able to identify.

Z79a-n

We then moved onto to natural history specimens, which largely consists of eggs (also pleasingly quick to examine). But it’s not just penguin eggs! I always forget that, for the purposes of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, ‘the Antarctic’ doesn’t just refer to the continent of Antarctica, but also includes Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands, where wildlife is more diverse. However, I think that many of these eggs may also be of doubtful Antarctic provenance (for example, a group thirteen eggs collected by Edward Adrian Wilson, doctor and artist on Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 which may well have been collected in the UK), but unfortunately we don’t currently have a resident ornithological expert – so if anyone’s good at identifying birds’ eggs, we’ve got a good selection!

sperm whale ear drum

And I really shouldn’t forget to mention that we have a bone from a sperm whale’s ear – just because.

Greta

A big thank you to all our volunteers!

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015
Martin, one of our front of house volunteers, ready to welcome visitors in to the museum.

Martin, one of our front of house volunteers, ready to welcome visitors in to the museum.

This week is National Volunteers’ Week – an annual celebration of the fantastic contribution of millions of volunteers across the UK – so we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight some of the work that our volunteers at the Polar Museum do and to say an enormous thank you to them! Like many museums, The Polar Museum relies on its team of volunteers to carry out many of its day to day activities.

It’s fair to say that without our front of house volunteers, we wouldn’t have a museum open to the public! The front of house volunteers are the first people visitors encounter when they enter the museum – they welcome visitors to the museum, explain what visitors can see in the galleries, answer any questions visitors may have and help out in the museum shop.

Our education events volunteers are essential to running events at the museum. We run educational events for over 5000 people of all ages each year, and we wouldn’t be able to cater for anywhere near those numbers if we didn’t have volunteers doing everything from stewarding and assisting visitors to running activities themselves.

Volunteers also help out with research into the collections – one of our volunteers is currently researching the relatively unknown Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949-52 in order to create a summary of the exhibition and biographies of the expedition members for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project.

In the past we’ve also had conservation volunteers who have helped to re-house the Inuit and Siberian archaeological and ethnographic material in the museum store.

But it’s not just in the museum where you can find volunteers! Over the years volunteers in the Archives have carried out a number of projects, from transcribing polar diaries to listing hut plans. Current volunteers are assisting in a complete review of the collections, which involves looking at the original documents and comparing them to their catalogue entries ready for our new database. And in the Library, volunteers are sorting the polar press clippings into categories and cataloguing the map collections.

If you would like to find out more about volunteering in the Museum email museum@spri.cam.ac.uk; for volunteering in the Archives email archives@spri.cam.ac.uk; and for volunteering in the Library email library@spri.cam.ac.uk.

I still haven’t had the chance to meet all of our volunteers, but I really do want to say a huge thank you for the brilliant work that you do – we really really really appreciate it!

Greta

Record reformatting is happening

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

The final structure of our template record (field headings only).

It’s been a long time coming but we have finally (or very nearly almost) finalised our standardised record template which will work for all of the objects in the museum’s collections – be they Arctic, Antarctic, polar general or art works. This has been an enormous part of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project so far – and perhaps a much bigger and more-time consuming task than I’d first expected – but I’m absolutely certain that it’s been worthwhile. To accompany the template we’ve also produced some really detailed guidelines on what information should be recorded where and in what format, how and when to repeat individual fields or groups of fields, and when to use termlists.

As well as setting up termlists for all the fields where we want to use controlled terminology, we’ve made huge advances in our use of the functionality of Modes (our collections management database) in order to set up termlists which hyperlink to biographical records for people, organisations and expeditions. These records still need populating – an ongoing task that we’ll be working on for quite a while – but everything is now in place. The great thing is that these are resources that can be shared by the museum, archive and picture library catalogues, and we won’t need to repeat biographical information in individual object/archive/photographic records. And ultimately, if all goes according to plan, this biographical information will become available as part of the Antarctic online catalogue, whereby clicking on the name of person or expedition will take you to a page about them.

After a wave of terror (what if it all goes wrong?) and a very deep breath, I’ve now started reformatting the Antarctic records to match the new template. Unfortunately, because of the inconsistencies in the structure of the existing records, it isn’t possible to map records from the old format to the new so it has to be done by hand. However, I don’t mind doing it. In fact, reformatting records makes me very very happy! And it gives me a chance to familiarise myself with the information in the records and to tidy up some of the data where necessary. The plan is that whenever I add a new physical description to an Antarctic object record following the object study/condition assessment, I’ll reformat the record – so this will obviously be an ongoing process throughout the two years of the project. And I really hope that somehow we’ll find a way to reformat all of the other records in the database that are outside the scope of the project (i.e. everything that isn’t Antarctic).

Although it’s going to be a slow process, the benefits will be enormous. A standard record format will make it much easier to search our collections and will help us manage information about the objects and things that happen to them, such as keeping track of research visits, conditions checks, exhibitions and loans. It will also help with the creation of the online catalogue – the current differing structures of records makes writing the code for the web catalogue a challenge. And, although perhaps not so important in the grand scheme of things but nevertheless very important to me, the records will all look the same and will be a thing of beauty! I can’t wait!

Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund networking day

Monday, March 16th, 2015

The Antarctic Cataloguing Project has been very generously funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund (EFCF), in association with the Museums Association. Last week I attended a networking day for people working on EFCF-funded projects – it was a great opportunity to find out more about the range of projects that are happening in museums across the country, and a chance to share our experiences, challenges and solutions.

After introductions from everyone, the morning session consisted of a workshop on how to pitch a project with purpose, delivered by the MA’s Jess Turtle. Jess provided us with a really useful framework which emphasised distilling the project into a simple and compelling message targeted at a specific audience and is structured around outlining what you’re seeking funding for, why it’s important, why it’s different and what’s in it for the advocate. I’ve taken part in a similar workshop in another context (making the case for the support of traditional crafts for the Heritage Crafts Association) so it was a really useful consolidation exercise.

The afternoon session featured presentations about three of the project: Jilly Burns of National Museums Scotland about the Pacific Collections Review project; Matthew Ball of Harris Museum and Art Gallery (Preston) about the Money Matters project; and Carol Christiansen of Shetland Museum and Archives about the Shetland Taatit Rug Project. There were lots of interesting and relevant points from all three, including the need to address the lack of subject specialist curators, the reality of balancing the all-important documentation with everything else, and the sustainability of the activities and outcomes of a project after funding runs out – something anyone who works in an organisation that is driven by and staffed by project funding will understand.

What became very apparent throughout the day is that many projects end up taking longer than originally planned and that Esmée Fairbairn and the Museums Association are very understanding of this (phew – always good to know!). There is also another tendency for projects to grow and expand beyond their original brief which means that they don’t always come to neat and tidy conclusions – again, very reassuring in the context of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the day for me was meeting Nicola Euston of The Atkinson in Southport, which has a collection of objects belonging to Frederick J. Hooper, who took part in Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition 1910–13 (Terra Nova). Hooper originally joined the expedition as a steward with the ship’s party, but was later transferred to the shore party. As well as taking part in the second ascent of Mount Erebus, he was also as a member of the search party that discovered the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers in 1912. The Antarctic Cataloguing Project aims to cross-reference the collections in The Polar Museum with those in other national and international collections – so this was a really good start!