Curator of Collections Ontario Agricultural Museum Milton, Ontario, Canada
There are likely as many definitions of the term 'museum' as there are museums in North America, each definition modified by its author according to his environment, his perceptions and his experiences with these institutions. In 1895, George Brown Goode defined 'museum' as 'an institution for the preservation of those objects which best illustrate the phenomena of nature and the works of man, and the utilization of these for the increase of knowledge and for the culture and enlightenment of the people.'
More recently, Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary specifies that a museum is 'an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study and display of objects of lasting interest or of value.' A much more involved definition, drafted by the American Association of Museums states that a museum is 'an organized and permanent non-profit institution, essentially educational or aesthetic in purpose, with professional staff, which owns or utilizes tangible objects, cares for them, and exhibits them to the public on some regular schedule.'
Although there are several common threads linking not only these three, but most acceptable definitions of a museum, there are two aspects which perhaps have more importance than any others the acquisition and care of collections. Museums can survive, perhaps even prosper, without organizing the other important museum functions of research, education or even exhibition, yet they cannot truly exist without a collection.
20 HP Waterloo traction engine after receiving mechanical restoration. Procedure and repairs/replacement parts were recorded for future information.
One of the most necessary components of the collecting function of a museum is the creation and maintenance of records concerning the objects they protect. Many museums struggle with this task, their collections perhaps having been assembled by well-meaning staff, boards or volunteers with no professional training in museum procedures, or developed by the acquisition of private collections, for which no records usually exist. It is this latter group of individuals to which the following comments are addressed.
Private collections are assembled for many reasons, and with many final goals in mind. For most, it is for the joy of searching for, obtaining and learning about objects relating to particular subjects. For others, the goal is monetary to buy and eventually sell at a profit, or to hold as a hedge against inflation. Regardless of the reasons for either acquiring or parting with collections, the key element of documentation is unfortunately usually neglected by private collectors. However, when the time comes that collectors wish to part with their belongings, suitable records may prove to be of great value. More and more, enlightened collectors are favoring documented objects in their search for new pieces to add to their collections, and museums frequently stipulate within their collection policies that objects with a recorded past will be acquired before items which do not.
Just what is involved in maintaining records is a mystery to many. Documentation should outline the two separate lives of an object its life before being acquired by the collector, and its life after this point. The former should involve a record of previous owners, at the very least the person from whom it was purchased, and their address. Hopefully, a long list of earlier owners can be discovered and recorded to add more life to the object. How it was used, where, when and by whom are other valuable questions to future collectors or researchers, and many of these queries will remain unanswered forever if they are not asked for at the time of acquisition by the collector.
Harvesting wheat at the museum using a 20-30 Rumely and McCormick binder. All restoration work on these machines was fully documented.
6 HP Gilson engine prior to restoration. Detailed information regarding current condition and previous owners was recorded and placed on file.
Life after being collected is of importance to all objects, but of particular consequence to certain types of collector's items. Antique machinery farm, industrial or commercial requiring restoration is a prime example of the need to record the current activities surrounding an object. It is vital to keep records when an object is altered in order to make it operative, when repairs are made or replacement parts added to a piece, and when it is repainted or finished in any way. Documentation of changes over time is certainly not limited to mechanical objects however, and should be considered for all objects in any collection including antique automobiles, furniture and so on.
These records need not be exhaustive or overwhelming. Simple point-form lists of previous ownership and brief, written explanations of its history and use would suffice. Photographs taken before, during and after restoration or treatment are most valuable, as well as simple descriptions of alterations, additions or changes to the object. All records and information can be kept in individual files, or in loose-leaf form in a binder. A card system, filed like a recipe file box is another simple and convenient method to store this documentation (see sample card).
To a historian, objects themselves do not provide a complete picture of the past. It is important to know their background, use and meaning to the society they served. By maintaining records of his collections, the collector is not only ensuring the preservation of his objects, but of their history as well, and by so doing, performing a much greater service to future generations.