Dealing with collection duplication

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Collection duplication is rarely discussed in the heritage literature except as something to be avoided.

Most collecting organisations don't aim to acquire duplicates but they may be needed for display rotation - for educational ‘hands on’ purposes, or as spare parts for collections of working equipment and machinery.

Such duplicates occupy space and require management as assets. If they are not documented as part of the collection, important information about their significance – or lack of significance – may be lost. This makes it hard for the organisation to decide whether items should be retained or ‘de-duplicated’.

If a duplicate item has been accessioned into a collection, it can be de-accessioned in accordance with well-recognised ethical procedures. But what should an organisation do when it holds a large number of items that appear to be identical, only some of which have been accessioned?

Significance International (SI) recently assessed the heritage collection of Telstra Corporation Limited, Australia’s largest telecommunications provider. The Telstra Heritage Collection represents not only the current company but also its antecedents including the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG) and Telecom. SI identified a high rate of object duplication, particularly in Telstra’s equipment and document sub-collections.

There are several historical reasons for this duplication. The collection was amassed at different locations by former staff, sometimes in a rescue context and / or in informal ways. Different approaches to cataloguing at each location made it hard to compare holdings across the country.

When professional guidance became available for the collection, Telstra developed a procedure to separate its ‘representative collection’ of significant items from its ‘program collection’, intending the Program Collection to hold duplicates of items already held in the Representative Collection. (In addition to the usual uses Telstra also hires out duplicates as props to support stage, television and movie productions.) Many items in Telstra’s custody have not yet been formally assessed for inclusion in either the Representative or the Program collection, and most are unaccessioned.

    SI Telstra Nic and Chris sorting bell setsSI Telstra Bell sets being sortedSI Telstra Penny and Richard comparing modems

From left: Nicolas Buff, Telstra Project Manager and technical volunteer Chris Nelson sorting bell sets; A selection of bell sets; Penny Duncan, Collection Administrator and technical volunteer Richard Schipper comparing modems. All photographs taken at the Telstra Museum Hawthorn by Significance International Associate Meredith Blake.

Like any collecting organisation, Telstra has limited storage space but is committed to the ongoing development of its collection. SI therefore recommended that Telstra should develop a de-duplication strategy and was pleased to guide this work.

SI Associate Meredith Blake worked with Telstra’s Museum Manager Stefan Nowak and Collection Adviser Penny Duncan, as well as a number of highly knowledgeable volunteers in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, to short-list collection components worth a closer look.

A de-duplication decision-making guide was carefully designed and tested in relation to selected groups of items. SI Associate Margaret Birtley helped create the decision-making matrix, and Telstra’s Project Manager Nicolas Buff ensured that the guide met Telstra’s requirements under ISO 9001 for quality and standards of procedures.

The resulting Telstra Heritage Collection De-Duplication Procedure provides Telstra with a methodology for reducing the number of identical versions of an object in a collection, based on the completion of ‘de-duplication significance assessments’. Such assessments make explicit the evidence base for de-duplication decision-making. De-duplication may result in the deaccessioning of accessioned items as well as the disposal of items that have not been formally accessioned into the collection. The Procedure will enable Telstra to identify and dispose of the items with a low degree of significance – thus creating the space and resources needed for managing the more significant parts of its collection.

This unusual De-duplication Project was one of two projects completed for Telstra in 2015-2016 by SI. The other project provides a rigorous framework for Telstra’s future capturing of Oral History. This project yielded its own ISO 9001-compliant Telstra Heritage Collection Oral History Procedure and eight oral history interviews conducted by SI Associate Dr Susan Marsden.

SI Associate Susan Marsden interviewing Stefan Nowak at Telstra Heritage Collection

Dr Susan Marsden interviews Museum Manager Mr Stefan Nowak for SI's 2016 Oral History Project for Telstra.

The interviews with Telstra staff, retirees and volunteers have generated much useful provenance and technical information about objects in the collection, as well as some very engaging stories about the working lives of telegraph messenger boys, telegraphists and telephone technicians. With the recommendation to continue a small annual program of oral history interviewing and recording, it is expected that more ‘object stories’ will be uncovered and additional themes, such as the role of women in the organisation, will be explored.

Both projects arose from a body of work completed by SI in 2014 on the current state and future options for Telstra’s 500,000-item collection held at 18 locations across four States and the Australian Capital Territory. Our five reports began with a whole collection significance assessment by a team of nine assessors, and an accompanying whole collection risk assessment.

Significance International thanks everyone associated with the Telstra Heritage Collection for their cooperation and enthusiasm during all of our work and particularly with our ground-breaking De-duplication Project.

Posted on Thursday, May 26, 2016 (Archive on Monday, January 1, 0001)
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