Is your museum a dumping ground?
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2. Know WHY you are collecting
For any museum or historic collection, however large or small, it is important to have a collecting policy, so that your museum understands what it is collecting and why.
For example, the purpose of your museum might be to bolster the spirit of your institution or organisation by reminding its members of their glorious traditions. Or your collection might be a teaching resource for school or tertiary students. Or you might be collecting in the hope that some day someone will realise how important your particular specialty was to the advancement of medical science. All of these and many more are legitimate reasons for a museum to exist, but your reasons, that is, your mission statement and collecting policy must be worked out and clearly stated. And they must be known and understood by all the people who work in your museum.
Your collection policy will be the basis on which you decide what to collect and what to reject.
So, even if you are volunteers with limited time and resources to give, nevertheless you have taken on a serious responsibility and you should face up to that responsibility. Part of that responsibility means caring for the collection to the best of your group's abilities. Another important part is being discriminating about what you collect.
This is where it is important to have a collecting policy to refer to. It is much easier to say no to an offer of donation if you can say something like: "I'm sorry, but we only collect items that are directly linked to nursing practice at our hospital".
In a few years' time a collection whose condition is deteriorating because it is poorly maintained will be no use to anyone. What use are boxes and boxes of rusting surgical instruments compared to just one set of instruments from a particular slice in time - a full set of instruments used in one particular procedure during one particular era, say; or a box of instruments that used to be carried by one particular practitioner.
No doubt you own museum is unique. This may be because of the particular specialty of your collection (you may the be the only group collecting audiometry equipment, for instance); or you may be unique because of your particular mission (for example, you may be the only museum specifically set up for students of the history of nursing). Nevertheless, the fact that other organisations may be collecting the same sort of things as you should affect your decisions about what to collect and what to decline. For example, if you know that a number of other museums have kept Both artificial respirators (or 'iron lungs') then perhaps there is no need for you to take up precious storage space with yet another one.
Remember too, that if you are offered something that doesn't fit your collecting policy you may be able to refer the offer on to another museum.
Keep in mind also that you may be able to do swaps with other museums. Or borrow items if you are planning a display or exhibition on a particular topic.
Don't forget that HMM can assist museums to network with each other.
Consider this. Often, when a museum is offered something for the collection:
they say no because it's ugly and functional.
They say yes because it's in good condition and has never been used;
They say yes because it's unusual;
They say yes because it's small and easy to store;
Is the beautiful carved chair that was presented to the chairman of the board really significant to the history of your organisation? It might be more appropriate to keep a makeshift machine from the basement storeroom which is held together with string and sealing wax. It would definitely be more appropriate if that machine is the prototype for a very successful machine that your organisation developed. Surely such a prototype is more significant to the history of your organisation than celebratory boardroom furniture?
Or what if some department in your organisation offers the museum a piece of medical equipment that is in mint condition and still in its box? You should be suspicious. Perhaps that piece of equipment was a white elephant, and was never used because it was useless to your institution. It would be much more appropriate for your museum to collect a piece of equipment that was used for 50 years until it dropped from exhaustion. That exhausted piece of equipment is much more significant because it was part of the fabric of the running of your organisation.
For exactly the same reason, unusual items are often less significant than the usual. Beware that you don't become a 'collector' who collects the rare, the unusual, the attractive, the exotic. This is a legitimate activity for highly specialised museums of oddities or for individuals (many of us have our private passions for collecting something, from decorative electric jugs, to pieces of string, to china pigs). But it is not a legitimate activity for a museum of the history of health and medicine. In most cases, surely you are trying to document how things were (or are) actually done. Not how they were not done, or how they were very rarely done.
Another factor that often influences decisions about whether to accept an object is its size. But to only collect items that are small and easy to store is to take the easy way out. Large items can certainly present problems, but if you have the opportunity to collect a large item that is significant, that opportunity may never come again. It is often worthwhile in the end to make the extra effort involved in collecting a significant large item, rather than expend time and space accepting every small item that is offered to the museum.
For example, historically, the setting up of dedicated intensive-care units represented a significant change in practice in hospitals. If you could preserve one early set of continuous monitoring equipment from your hospital, that acquisition would be much more important to posterity than 20 boxes of assorted bedpans, scalpels and clamps, badges, plaques, crockery, and other small memorabilia.
This article is based on a talk given by Megan Hicks at a Health and Medicine Museums SIG Seminar at Sydney Hospital on 30 October 1996. Megan is the Curator of health and medicine at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.