One day it just happens. You look around your living space and realize, oh-my-gosh, I have 500 Pez dispensers. Well, ok, maybe not Pez dispensers and maybe not 500 of them but you do have a whole lot of one particular item. Congratulations! Whether intentional or not, you’ve got a collection!
Since you’re reading the HMNS blog, I’m thinking your collection probably runs more towards natural specimens and artifacts. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s Pez dispensers or wombat figurines, every personal collection could use some management. And viewing your collection like a museum collections professional can be helpful.
To start, I’m putting on my registrar’s hat to caution all collectors strongly about specimen and artifact collection. There is a myriad of state, federal and international laws about surface collection, sale and import/export of natural history specimens and antiquities. Please be sure you’re up to date on them. Ignorance of these laws won’t get you out of hot water and the penalties are pretty stiff. If you want to know more about these laws contact me or a curator and we can point you towards the appropriate websites. Caveats issued, let’s begin.
First, define your collection – briefly please. Do you collect rocks, shells and fossils? Take a broader approach and say you collect natural science (or natural history) specimens. As you organize further you can break down the collection into its various categories of geology, conchology and paleontology. Next, spend some time pondering the scope of your collection. Are all additions welcome no matter how tangential? Or do you collect with a narrower focus? If your collection has a sharper focus what are the criteria? People collect for all kinds of personal reasons. The scope of your collection might be dictated by color, size, geographic place, cost or a combination of things. The important thing is to define it as one all-encompassing entity.
Now that you know what your collection is you have to know what’s in it. If you haven’t been an intentional collector it’s likely that you’re not so sure how many items you’ve got. An accurate count is essential. Start with an overall count of every item; for example, a pottery collection of thirty pieces. In the highly unlikely occurrence that you collect only one thing identically replicated over and over you can stop here.
Otherwise, the next step is where you truly put your own stamp on your collection. Decide and define the different categories of your collection. You’re not just a collector but a curator as well, so you can lump items together however it pleases you – size, shape, color, date, whatever. If you’re serious about natural science specimens, it is best to follow the Linnaean system. But whatever you use, get an accurate count of the number of items that fit in each category.
As every devout fan of the Antiques Roadshow knows, documentation is most important. Always document the date and place where you’ve collected. If you’ve added to your collection by purchase, keep the receipt. If your collection has ethnographic artifacts such as pottery or textiles, ask the artist if you if you can take their photograph. Getting yourself in a photograph with the artist also helps to document your collection. When collecting specimens be as specific as you can about location and circumstances.
Good images, digital or film, are very important. Individual images are best but group shots are good too. Brief written statements about your collection add to its educational value. Detailed documentation is of enormous help should you decide to part with your collection by donation or sale. It is absolutely necessary if your collection is lost to theft, fire or water. It’ll also stop your heirs from pitching it, especially if they haven’t a clue about what you collected.
So, how do you keep on top of all that documentation and cataloguing? Again, it’s up to you. Many people do just fine keeping receipts, photos, etc. in an archival notebook or album. If you want to keep it all digitally you can scan hard copies (but keep those originals!) and use a spreadsheet for cataloguing. Excel will do, especially if you’ve got less than two hundred items. Should you want to get really serious, lots of collectors use Filemaker Pro, though I hasten to add that I haven’t personally worked with it. There are collection management databases but they’re all geared towards museums and libraries, expensive and way too complicated for the needs of a private collector.
These are just a few suggestions to start maintaining your collection. A future blog will cover basic care and preservation. And if all this seems too arduous, don’t worry about it. Collecting should be a fun and relaxing pursuit. After all, those 500 Pez dispensers are meant to be enjoyed.