Without proper record keeping, the stories behind our taonga would be at risk of being forgotten.

Digitising collection records is not only a way of preserving the identities of collection items, but also a way to improve access for people across the world to engage with their taonga and maintain those connections. In this article, Lauren Boesley, team member of the IDEA (Improved Documentation Enhanced Access) project shares her work digitising the Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander collection, and the complexities of that mahi. 

How cataloguing can help us become better kaitiaki of the collections

Digitisation and beyond

How cataloguing can help us become better kaitiaki of the collections

Museums cannot properly manage collections without also carefully managing information about collection objects. Ideally museums would hold complete information about each object in their care, and each object would be easily accessible - but this is not the reality in many institutions, including Auckland Museum. Happily, in recent decades we have gained the benefits of digital cataloguing. Digital collection management systems like Vernon (used by Auckland Museum) make it much easier for us to search our collections, keep track of objects and update information about them. However, translating all our data from physical to digital is a huge task, and the work is ongoing to bring this data to the best standard possible. This is where my team comes in – we are Collection Technicians for the IDEA (Improved Documentation Enhanced Access) project here at Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

I currently work with the Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander collection, which includes approximately 1500 objects such as weapons, tools, basketry and ornaments. My main job is to make the Vernon records as complete and accurate as possible. I compare each object's original paper records (written when the object first entered the Museum) to the information that has already been digitised. Sometimes I find information was not properly transferred to Vernon so I update as needed. Alongside checking the records, I physically check the objects. The Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander collection is currently stored back-of-house, so I must retrieve each object and check it matches the description in Vernon. Often these descriptions consist of little more detail than 'stone axe' or 'boomerang', so I add more detail such as construction method, materials used and decorative features. I also measure the object’s dimensions. As I finish with each object I do a Vernon inventory of its physical location on the shelf. This is important because previously some objects were stored without their locations being documented correctly, making them difficult to find.

Why do we digitise our records when we already have them on paper? Firstly, digital records are not vulnerable to deterioration and loss in the same way physical ones are. But secondly, digitisation helps museum staff immensely with our daily work. It lets us gain a big-picture view of our collections. It makes object information easier to search, collate, update, and add to when new information comes to light. It also helps us engage with source communities. For example, imagine if members of an Aboriginal Australian or Torres Strait Islander community contacted Auckland Museum to ask about objects from their community. We could search Vernon to quickly find all the records that are tagged as being from that locality or community. Also very importantly, Vernon feeds into Collections Online, where anyone in the world can search for objects at Auckland Museum. Many of our Collections Online records now also have high-quality photographs of the objects, taken by our talented team of photographers. It must be noted that some object information or images cannot be fully shared online due to cultural sensitivities, however Auckland Museum is always working to make our collections available online where possible and appropriate.

Plaque, 1992.128, 54090, Cultural Permissions Apply

Keeping accurate records is also a way to show respect for the objects and the people who made them. 

Throughout history, many indigenous objects have come into museums through dubious means and been treated in ways that reflected European colonial attitudes toward indigenous peoples.

For example, some objects may have been stolen or plundered, and have often been displayed as curiosities and relics without proper respect for the people and cultures they come from. When an object is taken from its original context it can lose its identity. While Auckland Museum now tries hard to avoid these situations through modern-day collecting policies, we nonetheless remain custodians of objects that arguably should never have come to us.  And even when museums have ethically acquired objects from indigenous communities, there can be gaps in our understanding of the deeper significance of objects to their makers and the societies they came from, especially if we have not had the chance to ask the makers themselves. Digital cataloguing can help highlight where our knowledge gaps are. We can also respect source communities by bringing objects’ indigenous names to the fore in our records, although we must try to ensure the correct words and spelling are used, as even when indigenous names were in original records they may still be incorrect. Oftentimes we cannot have fully accurate records unless we consult with source communities.

When we are able to connect with the communities our objects come from, relationships can be built and much can be learned. In recent years Auckland Museum has been privileged to collaborate with community knowledge holders during major projects Te Awe and the Pacific Collection Access Project (PCAP), the former of which I worked on as a Collection Technician. During these projects, knowledge holder sessions were held at the Museum with Māori expert weavers and Pacific community members from 13 island nations/groupings. I saw first-hand how the benefits can go both ways - these sessions not only provided opportunities for the community knowledge holders to connect with, discuss and learn from their taonga, but also for them to teach Museum staff to better understand the taonga. Such knowledge-sharing can also help staff learn the correct cultural protocols to observe when handling or displaying objects, or making decisions around storage or conservation.

Bark painting, 1995.152.2, 55048, Cultural Permissions Apply

In order to collaborate with source communities, we must know who they are.

Sadly with some older collections, including the Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander collection, we rarely know the specific community an object originates from. Provenance information in the records can be very vague, for example many objects are recorded only as being from a general region, or even just 'Australia'. Considering there are over 250 Aboriginal Australian languages and dialects, each related to a specific group of people, communities of origin cannot necessarily be identified from general locations alone. Nonetheless, occasionally we do know the community or language group, or we may be able to find out through consultation with experts in Australia. The cataloguing and photography we are now completing will be invaluable in future work of community engagement.

Basket, 15964, Z91, Cultural Permissions Apply

By improving our management of collections and our knowledge about them, we will be better kaitiaki of the objects in our care. And by being better kaitiaki, we can show respect to the objects and the people who made them, and be in a better position to engage with source communities and share the collections with the wider public. In these ways, the taonga can be well cared for and treasured for many years to come. It is such a privilege to contribute to this important mahi.

About the author

Lauren Boesley is a Collection Technician, Human History for the IDEA Project at Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. She has a background in Social Anthropology and History, with a detour into medical device manufacturing. She first discovered a love for working with collections while volunteering at Auckland Museum.