How a general inventory becomes a success

Denny Muller
actori impulse

A digital recording of collection objects opens a range of possibilities for each institution, e.g.

  • worldwide research, networking, and exchange on the holdings/objects of the house (e.g., on provenance and general research situation)
  • "Preservation" of relevant data of cultural objects (e.g., due to natural disasters, war)
  • use in mediation (e.g., participatory, low-threshold learning and mediation formats)
  • expanded possibilities for exhibition design (e.g., with the support of AI software, involvement of the community in choosing which objects are shown)
  • as well as additional sources of income (e.g., via merchandise or NFTs).

Precisely because a digital database offers so many possibilities, it is assumed in times of increasing digitalisation that this is already standard in museums today. However, a survey published in 2021 by the Hessian Museum Association shows a clear need to catch up. According to the survey, two thirds of the museums stated that they currently still use only paper or index cards for object description - cataloguing and that the average inventory rate is around 50%.

A general inventory is a good way to record a museum's collection holdings once - also digitally. During various museum projects, some central aspects for planning a general inventory have emerged. The following points point out which important decisions must be made before starting a general inventory and what should be considered when planning.

Define a goal
The goal of the general inventory should be defined as clearly as possible. For example, it should be determined whether the entire collection or only certain objects or an area of the collection should be recorded, which data should be recorded for each object (e.g. object designation, inventory number, dimensions, location) (the guidelines of the German Museums Association can provide assistance here), whether each object should be photographed or whether, for example, the 3D data of an object should also be recorded for later use in education. Furthermore, it should be determined whether other sub-projects will be carried out in addition to the recording of the objects, e.g., emergency conservation of objects or de-accessioning of selected objects. Likewise, consideration should be given to how permanent loans and new acquisitions to the collection will be handled - will these also be considered in the planning and implementation of the general inventory or will there be a separate process for this. It should be noted that a general inventory does not aim at a complete scientific processing of each individual object, but rather a "basic recording" is carried out. This means that the most central data is recorded for each object, because the more data is to be recorded for each object, the more time-consuming and thus cost-intensive the project is. This is because a complete recording of the collection offers valuable options for the house in the next steps, such as the possibility of transferring this data to an online collection.

Deciding on a database
Following the question of which data should be recorded for each object, the issue is which database should be used to carry out the general inventory - is the database already in use at the house suitable or should a new one be implemented. In addition to the requirements of the institution for the database, interfaces to other databases, such as the German Digital Library, must also be considered. Likewise, the view should also be future-oriented - for example, does the institution want to offer more digital mediation formats and record the objects in 3D in the future and is the database used suitable for this? In addition to the investment costs that a new database entails, the costs for training staff, possibly adaptation costs of the database for a better fit with the house as well as costs for technical support should also be planned for.

Plan the resources (realistically)
Depending on the scope and number of collection objects to be recorded, a general inventory is a larger project that will last several years. This clearly raises the question of how many staff with which competences are needed and how many or which tasks can or must be taken over by the permanent staff of the institution. For the general inventory, it is not necessary to build up many permanent staff, but to fill different project positions (e.g., the team that carries out the inventory, a project manager who controls the general inventory, possibly a team leader who supervises the inventory team). The permanent staff has the task of supporting the project team of the general inventory with their know-how (e.g., by checking the quality of the recorded data records/objects, in case of queries during the recording). Central to the success of the project is an experienced project manager for the general inventory who keeps an eye on both the costs and the time schedule.

Define a time frame
Depending on the objectives and the decision regarding the database and the personnel, the different steps of the project must be put in a temporally reasonable and realisable order. It can be helpful, for example, to define preliminary projects such as the establishment of standards for database entry, the development of process flows, the training of staff as well as the implementation of a pilot phase in which the processes can be practised and optimised before the general inventory then "really" starts. Other sub-projects can be carried out in parallel or after the general inventory, such as the emergency conservation of endangered objects.

The aspects listed above represent only a part of the necessary decisions and measures that should be taken in preparation for a general inventory. Therefore, good strategic planning with a clear vision of goals is elementary for all involved, as it provides the basis for a transparent cost calculation and time planning of the process. It is certainly helpful to learn about the approach of other museums and to exchange ideas. Exciting insights into an ongoing general inventory can be found on the blog of the Historisches Museum Basel.

To conclude the impulse, we would like to emphasise once again the possibilities or, through exciting projects, the ever-evolving opportunities that arise from a (digitally) recorded collection. For example, the project "Training the Archive", which is located at the Ludwig Forum Aachen. It deals with the topic of AI in collection development - in this way, curators can be supported by AI in the development of an exhibition concept and thus also gain new perspectives on a collection.

Digital data also offer the possibility of joint cross-border cooperation and research - which can also open new perspectives on the collections.

An impulse contribution by Jessica Kirchner-Wagner, Consulting.

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