Following the things on a museum decant project
The museum’s entire collection is moving to a brand-new storage facility. Rehousing takes place at a variety of scales: new facility, new racks, new shelves, new trays. In a warehouse on the southside of the city, the palaeontological collections are being processed prior to installation in their new home. Palletised material arrives from the old stores and is then unpacked, sorted and registered, then repacked into clean new trays that are in turn palletised and stacked to await transportation to the new facility.
The old wooden trays and individual card trays are being replaced with new bar-coded plastic trays and new acid-free card trays. As each object is removed from a wooden tray and placed in a plastic one, its accession number or identifying marks are entered into a spreadsheet, creating a skeleton digital record which will allow the object to be tracked. A digital image of each full new tray is additionally captured.
A purple-nitrile-gloved hand transfers a small piece of fossilised material from one tray to another one, and repeats this several hundred thousand times. Easy to describe, yet astonishingly demanding to plan and implement accurately, consistently and efficiently, keeping track of every object and ensuring the well-being of both the collections and the museum workers.
The following images attempt to visually gesture to the scale of the operation in two senses. Firstly, scale meaning a change of perspective, zooming in and zooming out, from the scale of the warehouse down to the scale of a small acid-free card tray, and back to the scale of the warehouse*. Secondly, scale meaning quantity or volume of the task, the number of trays, boxes, labels, sheets of jiffy foam, keystrokes entered, and the number of repeated bodily movements: lifting up, lifting down, picking up, putting to one side, placing, replacing, updating, ticking-off a list, discarding, renewing, again and again and again.
*Yes, I was indeed thinking of Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames.
There are limitations to this sort of visual representation of practices, however. My image selection makes visible certain types of museum work, but not all museum work lends itself to being made visually explicable. Absent, for instance, are the significant hours hunched over a laptop ordering materials and tools, deciding which sort of plastic trays to get, and how many, getting quotes from approved contractors, and wrestling with the not-necessarily-amenable institutional procurement system. All of this is real museum work, but a type of work that is difficult to represent through photographs. Absent too are other workers: we see the skip, but not the workers who remove it, and we see the brand-new plastic trays, but not the workers who construct them. I’ve represented certain types of work in a warehouse, but I’ve not necessarily represented all types of warehouse work.
My image selection and sequential presentation is furthermore somewhat normative. The sequence should not not be mistaken for an authentic revelation of “real” museum work. Seriality is seductive, and implies here a smooth inevitability: of course this is the way that the task should be handled, of course this is the way in which the complex task should be broken down into component parts. This runs the risk of making it look effortless, or at least merely a matter of following a set of instructions. Instruction manuals, with their sequential diagrams, map poorly to our experiences of following them, and the two distinct things should not be confused. Likewise instruction manuals map poorly to the work that went into creating them. Establishing a methodology is an achievement, the successful implementation of which can sometimes efface much of the achievement. Maintaining order is likewise an achievement that is often invisible. My images do look rather too closely like an instruction manual.
So there you go: a genre piece immediately followed by a critique of that genre. I may be trying to have my cake and eat it. Ho-hum.