Hampshire Solent museums’ ‘Orphan Collections’ project in partnership with Portsmouth University’s School of Law
Hampshire Arts and Museums, Jane Austen’s House Museum
Karen Clarke, Museum Registrar, Hampshire Arts and Museums (now Hampshire Cultural Trust)
Mary Guyatt, Curator, Jane Austen’s House Museum
February - April 2014
Many museums have objects that have either been given at some time, without any clear, recorded transfer of title, or loaned, sometimes for many decades, by someone who they no longer have contact with and may even have passed away. These ‘orphan collections’ can causes huge practical and legal problems for the governing body.
A museum that does not have a plan to get these matters in hand will struggle to meet the Accreditation standard. Recommended good practice is that museums should make efforts to establish title (e.g. through researching current owners) and should take steps to clarify ownership arrangements or to ensure that there are proper fixed term agreements in place for all loans. This activity can be very time consuming and requires an understanding of the legal issues around collections, skill and persistence.
In 2013-14, the Hampshire Solent Museum Development Programme brokered an opportunity with the University of Portsmouth’s Masters in Corporate Governance and Law programme, whereby postgraduate students volunteered in museums, working with staff and trustees work to identify priority collections with unclear ownership or loan arrangements, to conduct relevant research to establish title, and to help the museums to fully understand the legal parameters and their possible courses of action in relation to their orphan objects.
What were the objectives of the project?
Overall, the project aimed to provide additional skills and resources to research orphan collections. Within this, the project was designed to accommodate the very different needs of the partner museums. So each museum defined specific aims which formed the basis of a volunteer agreement with their respective student volunteers. Both of the students appointed to the project had already graduated LLB at Portsmouth’s School of Law and brought both helpful legal knowledge and a fresh eye to their museums. Omair Qureshi worked with Hampshire Arts and Museums and Edward Moon worked with Jane Austen’s House Museum.
Hampshire Arts and Museums cares for around 1.5 million objects, some collected over a century decades ago in antecedent local museums with varied levels of documentation being kept. The museum used the project to progress work on orphan collections that has been prioritised in its Documentation Plan, recognising the need to be clear about the ownership of our collections and to have transparent communication with stakeholders, particularly as the organisation moves towards Trust status. Given the scale of the collections, important to focus on a small number of priorities for the project and so Omair’s work specifically focused on researching loans to the Museum in the last 50 years, tracing donors where paperwork has lapsed and precising legal documents, such as bequests, to provide overview of legal issues.
Jane Austen’s House Museum brought a very different set of requirements to the project. With under 500 objects in its collection, the museum was already clear about which objects had unclear ownership. Thus Edward Moon was able to focus very tightly on a small number of objects, recorded as being loans from four individuals, with whom the museum was no longer in touch. Edward’s project was very varied, from using a range of media channels to establish contact with the lender families, to reconciling MODES ‘entry’ fields against Index cards compiled in 1980s.
What was the impact of the project?
Both museums have made significant progress through the project.
Mary Guyatt says of Edward’s work at Jane Austen’s House Museum: ‘We have located two owners on our list, and we have now done as much as we think is possible to research the other two. This is important progress in working through our documentation backlog. The project achieved its outcomes; the student was a pleasure to host; having the project gave the organisation fresh impetus to pursue its orphans. We were fortunate to have been invited into this project and our allocated student did some really excellent, valuable work. It was also interesting from a professional perspective to be reminded that documentation is a live area of the law.’
Karen Clarke at Hampshire Arts and Museums was also pleased with results: ‘The original objectives were mostly met, though with orphan collections there can be many dead ends and this might have made the project disjointed. But Omair was committed and willing to work on a variety of donor issues. His work is feeding into an ongoing project to review longer term loans as Hampshire moves to Trust status.’
What went well and what didn't go well?
- Both museums report that their objectives were mostly or entirely met through the project.
- The students brought valuable insight and expertise to their museums – and their clients really enjoyed working with them.
- In Hampshire, with its vast and varied collection, it was difficult for the client to provide enough background information within the timeframe.
- The project was originally scoped to accommodate three museums, however only two applied.
- The project timings were governed by the University’s timetable, which did not necessarily align to the museums’ organisational plans. Running the project through the students’ exam period meant being flexible about volunteering hours.
- Embrace Higher Education partnerships as an opportunity to get fresh skills and perspectives into your museum;
- Many museums target Heritage or History departments when thinking about work with universities – think outside the box, there are many other departments that can offer specialist skills your museum needs. What about Business, Marketing, Finance or Design?
- Have dialogue with your Higher Education partner to identify a project that benefits not just the museum but also the students. They will be looking for the opportunity to develop and demonstrate skills relevant to their programme of study and their future career aspirations.
What are your plans for the future
This first collaboration between Museum Development and University of Portsmouth School of Law acted as a springboard for a bigger project in 2014-15, focusing on diversity in museum Boards.