Six of Johannesburg’s museums collect and preserve artifacts for posterity. This is how they manage those collections.
ONLY a fraction of what a museum owns is ever on display at any one time, the rest is in storage. But it is there for when required and available to researchers.
Once a museum has a collection it is essential to manage it.
You need good information, all the what, how, why, when and where associated with any artefacts. This information must be accessible to staff and researchers.
In the past our information systems were manual, rather like the card catalogues that libraries used.
But Joburg’s museums had a vision to be up there with the best, with an electronic system suited to their current networked information age.
In 2004 opportunity knocked, in the shape of the auditor general, who required Johannesburg, like other local governments, to maintain asset registers in order to achieve clean financial audit reports.
The City allocated a budget to make such a register for the heritage assets.
And the museum staff was ready to meet the challenge.
An electronic database – Cuadra STAR – had been introduced in the City, but only for Museum Africa. With the expanded budget came the opportunity to centralise, standardise, and fast track expansion to the other museums.
April 2005 saw the start of the Heritage Asset Register Project. Its aim was to create more than just an asset register. The database had to record and search large amounts of complex information.
Two key needs were identifies: to manage the collection, all the control functions common to museums, such as location changes, loans and exhibitions; and it had to be a sustainable database into the future.
The project took 27 months, coming to an end in June 2007.
Johannesburg now can boast being one of the few places in the country where the museums run an effective electronic collections management system.
Besides setting up the management system, there were other benefits from the project: people were employed on contract for the duration; many gained experience and skills in the heritage field; and the museum staff members was reminded of the immense riches and depth of Johannesburg’s museum collections.
A temporary exhibition was put up to share the finds with the public.
In addition, the move to improve documentation led to the development of a thesaurus, or authority list, to standardise the names used for South African cultural groups. Because nothing suitable existed, Museum Africa has published this work for use by other heritage practitioners.
Information is a resource; we can use it to serve our customers. The database needs to also be a business driver, a tool in the information economy to bring museums to our customers.
Museums need to package information as a product and use distribution channels such as the internet.
That’s the next challenge.