MUSEUMS, COLLECTORS & RECORDS

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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.

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