Last week I had the opportunity of learning how to use Past Perfect, one of the many platforms museums use to catalogue and document their collections. While the software itself is fairly easy and straightforward to use, the main lesson I have taken away from this experience is that having attention to detail is perhaps the most important aspect of entering information.
The collection I was working on is a set of 25 photographs donated by the London Police Department (now Police Services). These photographs were taken as evidence after damage was done to the Flame of Hope 29 years ago, in 1990. Unveiled in 1989, the 30th anniversary of the Flame of Hope is approaching and so these photographs will make for a great addition to the commemoration. Now having been catalogued, finding and using them will be more efficient.
In terms of the process of cataloguing, Past Perfect will let you enter the information essentially any way you want. But, due to how the searching mechanisms for these types of databases work, there are certain standards of practice that should be followed. This will ensure that the information you have entered will actually be useful to the next person who wishes to search for something. The image below is an example of one of the photographs I catalogued and the fields to be filled in when entering a new object (or archival material) :
While seemingly straight forward, small things such as the way the date is entered or how you name an item or collection can severely impact whether or not the object can be easily found if searched for. For example, if one person enters dates as dd/mm/yyyy and the next as mm/dd/yyyy, then someone looking for an object they know to have a specific date may be entering it one way, while the database has it listed as another. Similarly if there is a spelling mistake in the collection title or the accession number is entered in the wrong order, then someone using those search fields will come up blank even though the object has been entered.
Another common mistake that I have heard more than one museum professional name is the that of entering in the wrong location of the object, or not entering it at all. While in a smaller museum this may not be a huge issue, in larger places where there is a lot of storage and shelving space, having the wrong location or no location can mean an object gets ‘lost’. When entering location data to Past Perfect, you are meant to include the building, room, area and shelf or placement of the object. If an object is lost it can take a long time to find it, either because you have to go by the description and try to match things up, or because the object is on a random shelf which no one has documented and the collection must be combed through until it is relocated.
Though meticulous, I have found that I quite enjoy cataloging items. Not only do you get in touch with the collections, but you provide a service that will be useful for other people. A well maintained database can make all the difference in a museum and the usability of its collections.
This post was written by Julia Schwindt, Graduate Research Assistant at Banting House NHSC. Julia is currently completing her M.A. in Public History at Western University.