. . . Jenny, Knowledge & Information Manager
A key part of my role at Brighton & Hove Museums is to ensure the careful organisation of vital information about the objects and archives in our care. In our exciting digital age, this means working with a huge database and many, many digital images and documents. The flexibility of digital information management makes the process of recording and retrieving information relatively quick and easy but the whole thing can be a little inhuman at times!
Back when Brighton Museum was established, in the far-from-digital year of 1873, the recording of information was a much more painstaking business with every donation, purchase and excavation find recorded by hand with pen on paper. These records can be found in the museum’s archives which contain around thirty handwritten, leather bound ledgers known as accession registers. To me, the registers are objects of beauty in themselves and to give you an idea of how much information is contained within them, each ledger has around 300 pages and each page has roughly eight donations listed on it. This makes a total of 72,000 separate donations over the course of a century and many donations consist of more than one object! What I also find intriguing is that the ledgers can illustrate, to a certain extent, the personalities of the staff who wrote so carefully in them for over 100 years until computers were introduced in the 1980s.
In this image you can see the first page of the first accession register which began in 1890. Amongst the list of entries has to be my most favourite labelled simply and humorously, in retrospect, as ‘a section of wood with curious stain’! The entry is numbered ‘9’ in the system implemented by one of the museum’s most influential curators Herbert S Toms. Toms was a dedicated archaeologist who managed the museum between 1897 and 1939. A later account of him by his protégé Ralph Merrifield describes Toms’ approach to keeping records:
“Detailed accessioning was an innovation introduced by Toms to the museum and was gradually extended by him to cover the earlier collections, which had often been catalogued with such unhelpful entries as “one long article, probably ceremonial”. Tom’s care in recording was undoubtedly instilled in him by [Lt-General] Pitt Rivers, whose words he was fond of quoting: “If it has lost its register number throw it into the first ditch you come to” – a dictum that should not be taken quite literally by archaeologists or curators.”
We maybe quick on the digital draw these days but you cannot fault a good numbering system to help with the organisation of electronic records! At Brighton Museum we have just returned to using the ever reliable R numbers devised by Toms, thereby bringing a brilliant record keeper, born almost 140 years ago, into the 21st century.