Jessica Stitt

By Jessica Stitt

Keeping track of things

It is perhaps not surprising that organisations that regularly handle large inventories have trouble keeping track of everything. So it should also come as no surprise that heritage organisations face the same problem. However, on closer inspection it turns out that these problems are actually not quite the same, although the comparison is illuminating.

Have you ever bought two different items that cost the same, say, chicken soup and beef soup, and seen the checkout person scan one of them twice? It makes their job fractionally easier and it doesn’t cost you anything. Both items end up in your shopping bag, and everyone’s happy. Well, not quite everyone.

Your weekly shop

Your weekly shop

Consider the inventory manager, or the stock controller, or whoever is ensuring the stock room is supplied and the shelves are filled. They rely on their inventory data to manage their stock and they probably make use of a sophisticated inventory management system with automated features such as alerts when certain stock levels are reached. As far as the system is concerned, you bought two chicken soups because that is what was scanned, so two errors have been created in the data – there is one less beef soup and one extra chicken soup that the system doesn’t know about. Add to this everyday damage and loss, pilfering, and things just being misplaced, and you can end up in a whole heap of trouble. In operations management this phenomenon is known as inventory record inaccuracy (IRI) and it is surprisingly prevalent in both retail and manufacturing.

Now, museums do not hold stock for reasons I have mentioned previously [link to previous blog post], but they can have vast collections. The largest ones hold millions of objects, for example, the Natural History Museum in London has a mind boggling 80 million specimens. The British Library has nearly 57 million items. These collections are not only huge, but can be incredibly diverse as well. The British Museum has over 8 million objects from all world cultures, ranging from postage stamps to monumental stone sculptures, and pretty much everything in between.

Mice from the Department of Vertebrate Zoology's mammals collections are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Mice from the Department of Vertebrate Zoology’s mammals collections are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

Museums, like factories or warehouses, typically use databases to manage their collections. In a museum this is known as a collection management system (CMS). Record inaccuracy is found in CMS data too. For example, errors can occur during data entry or when transcribing historic hand written registers. One notable anecdote I heard at a conference concerned a ‘spoon’ which was re-catalogued as a ‘spear’ when it was found to be six feet long!

However, whereas the primary difficulty as far as IRI is concerned is errors in the data, the primary CMS problem is incomplete data. Museums are not always good at knowing what they have. They may acquire objects without fully knowing what they are (for example, through excavations or fieldwork) or they might know very well what they have but that knowledge might be dispersed all over the organisation. Knowledge that is absent from the CMS may well be located in registers, card indices or catalogues, or in the brains of curators past, present, and those retired curators who have yet to leave the building. And what do you mean by item or object anyway? Is a pair of shoes one item or two? Or a pack of cards? What about a hoard of 3,700 coins?

Part of the Bredon Hill coin hoard. Around 3,700 Roman coins were found buried in a ceramic jar.

Part of the Bredon Hill coin hoard. Around 3,700 Roman coins were found buried in a ceramic jar.

There are other differences too. Inventory data in a factory or warehouse is frequently used and regularly updated due to the high throughput of items. Stuff goes in, stuff goes out, and the data is used to inform the management of this throughput. At its most basic, inventory management in these settings is all about maintaining optimum levels of stock for maximum efficiency and minimum cost. CMS data is also used to manage stuff, but as discussed previously, museums don’t have this kind of throughput. Instead, CMS data is typically used when objects are taken out of storage for display, loan or research purposes. Objects that are not used generally stay put in the stores. And, for many museums, the vast majority of the collection is hardly (if ever) used at all, a fact highlighted by recent publication The Secret Museum.

So, it seems that collection management in a museum isn’t the same kettle of fish as inventory management at all. If you are a museum, your stuff is not really inventory (in a operations management sense), there isn’t throughput as such, and most of it isn’t used anyway.

However, the fact remains that if you want to keep track of your stuff you need to know what you have and where it is, whatever kind of organisation you are. When you have a mountain of stuff this can be an enormous challenge. And the system, whether a CMS or an inventory management system, can only be as good as the data it is populated with.

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