Keeping the records straight

I came to National Museums Scotland with the hope of getting specific experience working within the busy Registrar department in the Collections Services department, and was very excited to learn about such a diverse collection. Since joining as a volunteer in July last year I have not been disappointed!

Registrars carry out a crucial logistical role within Collections Services. They manage everything from the details of loans and object records, to meeting couriers and organising the transportation of objects – and many things in between! In the past six months since I graduated with an MA in Fine Art I have spent one day a week working within the Registrars’ office and embarking on a wide range of projects.

Eve at work in the Registrars' office
Eve at work in the Registrars’ office.

My main task involved identifying objects on loan to National Museums Scotland that were coming up for renewal. Each object is assigned to a curator depending on their specialism. I would first contact the appropriate curator to ask whether they wanted to renew the loan on their object. Having done this, I would then get in contact with the owners to begin the renewal process.

Some objects are lent from large institutions and are fairly easy to deal with; others come from private lenders who may only lend a couple of objects. This can make getting in touch with the right person quite tricky, especially when they live on the other side of the world. Although quite a lot of our lenders are based in Scotland, I have sent letters out as far as Hong Kong and Australia. The best thing about this process for me has been getting to know some of the collection, from church silver including chalices and ewers to designer shoes and silver necklaces.

It was important that I maintained and updated object records accurately; this involved anything from insurance paperwork to the details of lenders. National Museums Scotland keeps both paper and electronic records and my job involved a lot of rifling through paper records to ensure our details were correct and to check for any unusual requirements regarding the object or the lender. As the collection is extremely varied each object is dealt with on an individual basis and unusual requirements are more usual than not!

A lot of the records for objects date back to before the formation of National Museums Scotland and there are a series of written loan registers that detail when objects were originally loaned and their original owners. Some of the digital records relating to historic loans were incomplete and my second task involved reading through the old registers to locate the original object entry and collect any details that we were missing. The history of the national collection is fascinating and it’s amazing to think that the public are still benefiting from objects lent well over 100 years ago.

In November the Bonnie Prince Charlie and Jacobites exhibition came to an end. I was asked to assist two of the Registrars with the de-installation of the exhibition. I helped to prepare for and then meet the couriers from other institutions who had come to collect pieces that they had lent. These were more often than not curators who wanted to check the condition of their objects before a member of the conservation team helped to pack them up for transportation. Some objects were very small and the curators could take them away in a small padded case, others were much more cumbersome, including paintings and pieces of armour. These went into specially designed crates to be flown abroad or transported by vans. My favourite object was an ornate chalice that had been lent by the Vatican, which a conservator was carefully repacking for its return flight to Rome.

The Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland
The Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.

Most recently I helped the conservation team with their annual clean of the Window to the World exhibit. Most of the objects are open to the elements across the five floors of the Museum and require a dust, a hoover and a polish. In particular I enjoyed buffing a Buddha, returning him to his former glory.

Bronze Buddha before (left) and after (right) cleaning
Bronze Buddha before (left) and after (right) cleaning.

I have very much enjoyed my volunteering time at National Museums Scotland. I have been made to feel part of the team and I have benefited from the range of projects that have given me work experience. I am lucky enough to be starting a job as Collections and Engagement Assistant working at the Abbotsford Trust in early spring and I look forward to putting everything I have learnt in this role into practice.

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