Wednesday, 21 October 2015

AGM Event: Registrars 2.0 – Report on the talk: Accessing Collections through Crowdsourcing: lessons from the Orchid Observers project.

Lucy Robinson (Citizen Science Manager, NHM) began by introducing the Darwin Centre and the Citizen Science Programme, which supports volunteer research projects. A Digital Collections Programme is also underway at NHM, a cross-museum programme to transcribe labels and interpret specimens, the goal being 20 million specimens accessible online within 5 years…! So research was undertaken on crowdsourcing, which is the enlisting of an online community to provide direct creation and interpretation of digital data. Many crowdsourcing platforms exist and two were piloted, Herbaria@home - for a ‘Take notes from Nature’ project focusing on accession register transcription, and Zooniverse - which was chosen for the Orchid Observers project.

The opportunities of crowdsourcing were summed up as the potential to showcase collections; the expertise of the crowd; and potential to keep visitors engaged beyond a site visit. The challenges were the choice of platform; the need to scale up for  volume of data whilst still providing a quality experience for crowd visitors; and the additional work involved in integrating sourced data back to the database.

 Kath Castillo (Project Officer (Scientific Communities), NHM) went into detail about the AHRC-funded Orchid Observers project. She explained how a 2011 journal article had explored the effects of global warming by mapping one species of spider orchid over 100 years using historic specimens, showing flowering now 6 days earlier. Inspired by this, Orchid Observers aimed to map 29 species using  140 years of historic museum specimens, 45 years of field records/photographs and new 2015 data – all created and collated via crowdsourcing. At the same time, the communication and collaboration potential of crowdsourcing for citizen scientists was to be assessed.

The project was launched in April 2015 and over a 5-month flowering season, with over 1,000 registered users, they obtained: 31,253 online classifications, 2,250 uploaded images and 1800 field records including 200 new. A talk forum also proved very successful, with users communicating and interacting independently.

Initial data analysis confirms earlier flowering in two species, with much still to explore including temperature data mapping. In terms of process, crowdsourcing was key and a great success, but intensive for staff. 

The talk concluded with confirmation that the project was also great fun for all concerned – with a beautiful smiling bee orchid image to prove it.

In the question session, integration of data back into the main database was confirmed as a significant task but the Zooniverse metadata should be downloadable directly into EMu. However, the Smithsonian’s system has been recently redesigned to include a direct interface with EMu, and so may in fact prove a better platform long term, with this specific feature.

Lucy and Kath also expanded on data quality control. In this case, a mainly known pool of users allowed for a high level of trust, but the process can be tailored, for example running data through checkers as well as the initial transcriber, with disagreement resulting in a flag to a curator.

All in all fascinating and informative! With thanks to the UKRG and sponsors for the travel bursary that made my attendance possible. Fi Hitchcock, Exhibitions Coordinator, Norfolk Museums Service.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Thoughts on Mark Pajak's 'Create once, publish everywhere' talk at Registrars 2.0, 8 October 2015

I've not yet spoken to anyone working in museums and galleries who has said 'yeah, it's pretty quiet at the moment, budgets are plentiful and we've got so many staff'', so was looking forward to hearing Mark Pajak speak about the 'create once, publish everywhere' approach that he is working on at Bristol Museums and Galleries.

Firstly I was stunned by the size of the collection, 1.75 million objects, did I hear that right? It brings home the volume of items that we are all working with and why efficient approaches are required!

Mark spoke about the different digital platforms that provide collections information, which all stem from the Collection Management System, such as the online Collection Search and interactives within the display space.

To explore the narrative based structure that Bristol use I delved into the Fine Art collection online and was presented with two narratives: 'Places of Desire' or 'Reality Questioned'. Both tempting, I opted for 'Reality Questioned' which provided me with some interesting exhibition text followed by individual images to click on which contained object information and a gallery label. I really like this after-life of exhibition text and labels as so much time goes into exhibitions and interpretation, to achieve something permanent from them seems a great idea both for institutions and visitors. Another feature that I like is the current location information about the item.

Mark spoke about some of the challenges of the one size fits all approach, such as a notebook that would benefit from a digital page turning rather than a succession of thumb nails. There are also currently no loans online. The next steps in the project are making sure that google is optimised and that social media can be used to share object information.

Where I work at National Museums Scotland, the team are working to get more of the circa 12.4 million items online. This started in 2011 when items in newly opened galleries were put online. We are currently up to 32,200 online records with this number being refreshed on a monthly basis. The 'create once' model has been used in our Photography: A Victorian Sensation exhibition which contains images within gallery interactives, on the online catalogue and in our first ever Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)


1/6 plate heavily tinted ambrotype, depicting a seated man, in a Union case with eight-sided decorated geometric design, unsigned, late 1850s - 1860s
From the Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Image © National Museums Scotland
I think the use of social media and digital is extremely exciting but more importantly vital to keep our collections and institutions ever present. The do once, use again approach is one I'll be trying to apply to other areas of my work wherever I can as the quiet moment hasn't arrived yet!

Katie Robson, Assistant Registrar, National Museums Scotland


Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Exhibition Review: Savage Beauty at the V&A

Welcome to the first UKRG Culture Club! Every month we will be looking at how Registrars, and the issues we face, influence and are portrayed in popular culture. A registrar’s role, as we all know, has many different guises – the issues we face are commonly reported in the news and media, and find their way into popular culture. This blog will be reviewing exhibitions that catch our eye and reporting on how registration issues are highlighted in pop culture, through literature, film, music and beyond...

Fingers crossed the next Indiana Jones revolves around the documentation issues surrounding the booty he brought back from the Middle East on his adventures...

UKRG Committee would love to hear from you! Please send your own UKRG Culture Club reviews to Becca England, Supporting Officer

To kick things off, Marie Rose, UKRG Events Officer and Project Co-ordinator at the Natural History Museum went and had a look at the V&A's recent retrospective of Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty.

As ever a quick nip over the road from The Natural History Museum to the V&A transports me from a world of taxidermy and glass jars to ornate couture fabulousness. My pilgrimage from the church of natural science to the church of the aesthetic is for the very God-like figure himself: Alexander McQueen and the ‘Savage Beauty’ retrospective exhibition which had previously been on display in New York at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I must admit my knowledge of fashion may be limited - my interests have always sat more within the alt-world having spent much of my youth trawling the markets of Camden in search of baggy jeans and faux-Westwood tartan skirts. However, I have always followed McQueen in awe and fascination for the disturbing and often cruel elements that are so characteristic of his craft.

This exhibition doesn’t disappoint: room after room of collections spanning his career are showcased thematically to give a sense of how his imagination evolved. His gothic influences from Edgar Allen Poe to the Highland Clearances which dominated the Highland Rape collection of 1995 are clear. The Romantic Nationalism room is complete with wooden panels and elaborate chandeliers to create a magical sense of atmosphere. The exhibition therefore makes for a decadent boutique rather than a traditional retrospective, shunning the typical chronological or biographical narrative (the facts we learn about McQueen are confusingly minimal) to bring us back to the superficial; the objects themselves.

This mode of display can be problematic,  particularly when showcased in the central dramatic room ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ with Phillip Treacy headpieces and my particular favourite, the Shaun Leane body armour pieces, crammed from wall to ceiling. This room highlights the tension between the need to showcase his work versus the practicality of the visitor’s viewing experience, you can’t help but feel disassociated from these objects when raised so high you have to crane your neck to see them. This layout, borrowed from the Bowie exhibition, serves to create a physical pedestal for the artist on display - albeit a slightly frustrating experience for the audience. This is echoed again in the minimal interpretation with labels deliberately sparse and tucked away.

Overall this exhibition posits itself as the ultimate decadent couture showroom, highlighting the sheer skill of McQueen’s technique: in always designing from the side, the form’s most awkward angle to make his pieces flattering to all possibilities of the female form and not the a-typical model frame. His work also signifies the female form as haunting, dangerous and romantic with many items embracing natural materials such as feathers and razor clam shells to symbolise woman’s role in nature.

As an exhibition this is nothing short of a success of a summer blockbuster, minimal interpretation and excessive staging aside this does not detract from the focus; the clothes and savage beauty of Alexander McQueen.

How did they do that?

This bemusement goes to the wonderfully hypnotic ghostly apparition of Kate Moss. Her ethereal image is suspended in a glass pyramid using the wonderfully inventive ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ technique - pioneered in the 19th century. This highlights McQueen’s appreciation for the avant-garde. I did wonder how the registrar for the exhibition arranged to borrow this – was the image loaned or the entire technical prop. I also wondered if there were issues with copyright when using Kate Moss’s famous image and if this was leased rather than a straightforward loan given that it comprises of the object, the film and the projection. Overall, I’m amazed at the capabilities of the registrars who brought this wealth of objects together within the exhibition’s highly decorative and engaging set design. For me, the staging was just as important as the objects themselves in presenting the absolute tour de force that was Alexander McQueen.


Aisha Burtenshaw
Registrar, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford

I have been in the Registrars’ Office at the Ashmolean for over 10 years now and if there is one thing that is certain, it is that there is no such thing as a typical day! Each day is hugely varied as I also head up the Touring Exhibitions Department as well as the Registrar’s Office, so I never quite know what to expect. This is probably the reason why I love my job so much!

Today is a prime example of how varied things can be. I started the day with a to-do list mostly comprised of loan agreements to draw up for inward and outward loans, transport quotes to analyse and indemnity applications to complete. I make a cup of tea and settle down to work. After around ten minutes I get a phone call from our events team to say that they have a life-size plastic camel in one of the galleries and can I help to get it out of the loading bay? So I leave my tea to go cold and go and assist with the removal of the camel. Back to the office thirty minutes later and I am ready to get cracking with the loan agreements. An e-mail pings – a new venue would like to display one of our touring exhibitions. Great news, but this means looking at object lists and facilities reports, getting in touch with various colleagues and beginning the arrangements to get this programmed in. This takes much of the morning.

As lunch time approaches, I start to think about maybe leaving the Museum for a bit to take in the dreaming spires of Oxford but at 12:30 another phone call comes in. Christina Gernon, our Assistant Registrar is undertaking a site visit at one of the colleges where we have a number of works on long-term loan. It appears that they had forgotten that a framed textile did not belong to them and they have decided to take it down and leave it propped up against the wall in their dining room. So, lunch forgotten, I make a hasty call to our technicians and a few minutes later I am sat in our van en route to the college on an emergency rescue mission. The textile is quite large and at the top of a narrow, winding staircase. It is immediately apparent that it is too large for our van and will need to be unframed and rolled before returning it to the Museum. Unfortunately, the textiles conservator is on holiday for the next three weeks. So, a quick scout around the college is undertaken and we find an unoccupied office where the textile can be stored until it can be unframed. We manage to get it down the staircase and safely stored away.

Back to the office again, and I try for the third time to get started on the loan agreements. I manage to get half way through the first on my pile and I get another urgent e-mail, this time from an international venue that is due to open one of our touring exhibitions the next day. Their Director has decided he doesn’t like the colour of one of the walls – might we agree to works being deinstalled to allow the wall to be repainted and then reinstalled ready for the private view the next night? I don’t even know where to start with this can of worms, maybe the loan agreements, indemnity applications and transport quotes will have to wait for tomorrow….

 Aisha in action: packing works for loan in Ashmolean’s Transit Store

Aisha’s favourite objects:


Namikawa Yasuyuki Vase with Waterfall over Rocks, metal with cloisonnĂ© enamel (EA2002.177) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

“This is one of the very first objects that I handled when I started at the Ashmolean. I love the colours and the simplistic beauty of it”.


Samuel Palmer Self-portrait Black chalk on paper (WA1932.211) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

I find this piece absolutely mesmerizing and I could stare at it for hours. It was one of a number of loans made in my first year here at Ashmolean”.


Shrine of Taharqa Sandstone (AN1936.661) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

“This is the ultimate transport project! This is the largest intact Egyptian building in this country and it was brought to the UK in the 1930s block by block (236 sandstone blocks!), with each block individually wrapped in palm fibres and crated. It was then rebuilt in our galleries”.

Would you like to share a ‘typical’ Day in your Life? We’re always looking for new contributors, so do get in touch with any of the Committee