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Auckland Museum has over four million objects in our collection. As you can imagine, keeping track of all these items can be quite a challenge!
How do we find that needle in the haystack?
The building which houses Auckland Museum is nearly 90 years old, and has undergone several extensions and redevelopments in its lifetime. This has left us with a fabulous heritage building, and a remarkable maze of rooms and corridors behind the scenes.
In order to make sense of this potential chaos, the Museum has implemented a building-wide system of location control. Each floor level and room has been given its own unique identifying number - from the large grand foyer in the 1929 portion of the building, all the way down to the smallest broom closet.
Within each space where collection objects are stored or displayed, we get even more detailed. For example, in an exhibition gallery, every case and shelf has a unique number.
The same process is applied in nearly 40 of our collection stores - with floor areas and aisles, cupboards, shelving bays, rows & shelves, and even storage boxes having their own coded names as well.
All of this location numbering means that by using our collection management database, we can locate an object in a very large space with accuracy and efficiency. Until recently, however, not all of our collection stores were using this system.
Image: Margaret and Elise adding shelf labels to the Land Vertebrates collection store, Auckland War Memorial Museum
How do you name a location?
We needed to implement more precise location control in five collection stores. These house objects from the Applied Arts & Design, Documentary Heritage, Geology and Land Vertebrates departments. In each of these stores we used the same logic when creating names for spaces - a system which breaks down all of the spaces in the Museum to the categories of Room, Area, Row, Bay, or Shelf.
To demonstrate the process of creating a location code, we can use the example of a single shelf in the Land Vertebrates store.
Firstly, if the room is rather large, it is organised into areas. In the case of the Land Vertebrates (LV) store - which houses bones, scientific skins, wet specimens, and mounted specimens - we had areas already called Study skin compactors, Bone compactors, Wet storage, Open storage and Egg storage. Our shelf is in the Study skin compactors - so at the moment our location code is:
land vertebrates store/study skin compactors
Each of the storage areas in the LV store contains rows of shelving compactors or storage cupboards, which were then given their own code.
Image: Margaret and Elise adding shelf labels to cupboards in row K of the study skins compactors in the Land Vertebrates store, Auckland War Memorial Museum
The Study skin compactors had 11 rows, numbered from a to k. In our example, our shelf is in the last row of the Study skin compactors. This means that our location code is now:
land vertebrates store/study skin compactors/k
The cupboards within each row are also given a unique number - in this example we had a sequential number ranging from 1 to 66. These cupboards are classified as 'bays' within our location scheme, and our shelf is in cupboard #61. This means that our location code is now:
land vertebrates store/study skin compactors/k.61
Now the real fun starts - creating the shelf numbers! In our location system, the shelves are always numbered from the floor upwards. However, the shelves are not numbered sequentially (i.e. shelf 1, shelf 2, shelf 3...) as this could cause headaches when we need to add extra shelves into existing sequences.
Instead, we name shelves using the number of shelf bracket spaces between the floor and the shelf. For example, in the image below of a cupboard in the study skin compactors, we have four shelves, numbered shelf 2, shelf 7, shelf 10, and shelf 16.
Image: Margaret sorting row labels in Botany, Auckland War Memorial Museum
This system ensures that if we wish to add an extra shelf between shelf 2 and shelf 7, we can simply add a new shelf (for example, shelf 5), without having to renumber all of the shelves above. This wouldn't be too bad in this example - but some of our collection stores have shelving units which are up to 7 meters tall. Imagine all the shelf re-labelling you'd have to do then...
Our example shelf is the one full of parrots - so our final location code is:
land vertebrates store/study skin compactors/k.61.010
This is the code used in our collection management database to record the location of all of the birds on that particular shelf. This system can be interpreted by all of our collections staff, and it has been implemented across the museum, making it that much easier to find one particular needle in our very large haystack!
Image: Our example shelf - land vertebrates store/study skin compactors/k.61.010, Auckland War Memorial Museum
As you can probably imagine, creating area, row, bay and shelf locations for five collection stores is a fairly time consuming process. Luckily we had two excellent volunteers - Margaret and Elise - to assist us in this endeavour. Every Wednesday for several months we worked our way through collection stores across the Museum, counting rows, bays, and shelving brackets.
Once this was done, we recorded the new location data and entered it in onto our database. After this, we typed out and printed location labels, cutting them out and popping them in label holders. Finally, we installed the new row, bay and shelf labels. No easy feat!
Image: The author adding shelf labels in a Documentary Heritage store, Auckland War Memorial Museum
The result of all of this hard work is a more comprehensive system of location control, enabling us to take better care of our collection objects.
Megan is a Collection Manager, Collection Care at Auckland Museum and works in preventive conservation.