This post is a part of the AAHC Forum. In the coming months we will invite current and past grantees to contribute their project experiences via blog posts on our UpNext Blog and then ask you to respond through the AAHC Virtual Forum. We hope you will add your voice and share your needs and opinions so that AAHC can continue to help African American museums thrive. Please visit the AAHC forum to continue the conversation.
By Tracey Berg-Fulton
Registrar and Collections Specialist, August Wilson Center for African American Culture
Introduction: The August Wilson Center for African American Culture was awarded a 2012 Museum Grant for African American History and Culture for a project focusing on optimal preservation practices, including producing a collections database and establishing policies for the handling and exhibiting of objects. The grant also allows the museum to hire a collections specialist responsible for creating and maintaining the database.
The building that houses the August Wilson Center for African American Culture is uniquely shaped like a ship in full sail. As registrar, I see it as my job to smooth the choppy waters of collections management.
When I first began my position, I knew that we needed to immediately begin building an electronic database of the collections so that we could better track, understand, and care for our objects. But which system should we use?
AWC was in an interesting position: it had never had an electronic database before. On the positive side, it meant a clean slate, uncluttered by years of changing standards and vocabulary. On the downside, it meant a clean slate, without any form or structure to hang my registrarial hat upon.
I evaluated a number of database systems, considering their initial cost, cost of upkeep, support costs, and our own technology challenges. I also had some concern about how a traditional database system would age. These are fast times in technology, and I didn’t want to adopt a system that would be quickly outdated.
I took advice from a wonderful graduate paper found on the Registrars Committee of the American Alliance of Museums site, and I consulted the Collections Trust (UK) CMS Software Survey to get an overview of what was out there. I finally decided on a web-based database called eHive, which is free to a certain data limit and also allows a user to access and change information from any device with access to the Internet. I think this will be a good solution for the center due its low cost, ease of use, independence from a specific computer, and the possibility of publishing the collection online. It also allows AWC to use its IT staff for things other than maintaining our database—a plus for everyone!
With the database selected, I can now move forward and begin checking off a few key items on my “to do” list:
- Complete an inventory. As of this post, we’re at 97 percent! The database and inventory are sides of the same coin; you can’t have one without the other.
- Resolve any lingering loans, and any outstanding paperwork, the registrar’s ultimate goal.
- Photograph, number, and catalog every item.
- Evaluate and update collections documents and other vital forms. Tweak, adjust, and create where necessary.
- Consider applying to the Museum Assessment Program for extra feedback and support.
We are also hosting our first MLIS student through the Pitt Partners program at the University of Pittsburgh—something that would not have been possible without our IMLS grant to fund the supervisory staff needed. This represents a new partnership for our organization, one we are hoping to nurture and grow.
About the Author
Tracey Berg-Fulton is registrar and collections specialist at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, a position created by the IMLS AAHC grant. Prior to AWC, Tracey worked as a contract registrar in the greater Pittsburgh area. She currently acts as chair of the website committee for the Registrars Committee of the American Alliance of Museums. Tracey graduated from Otterbein University, Ohio, with a B.A. in Art and Journalism, and received her M.Litt. in Decorative Arts and Design History from the University of Glasgow, Scotland.
About the August Wilson Center for African American Culture
One of only two major arts institutions in the world named for Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright and Pittsburgh native August Wilson, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture engages regional and national audiences in its mission of preserving, presenting, interpreting, celebrating and shaping the art, culture and history of African Americans utilizing the rich history, legacy and culture of African Americans from Western Pennsylvania as a foundation. Visit us online at www.augustwilsoncenter.org.