Continuity In Museums


Coca Cola Truck accident JPEG

Photo Credit: Vancouver SUN or Vancouver PROVINCE newspaper 1993-06-15



The Coca Cola Truck Principle

by Colin MacGregor Stevens

If a Coca Cola truck smashes into your car one morning when you are driving to work at the museum, and you are killed, can your successor come in and carry on with minimal loss of momentum?

I arrived as Curator about 1983 at the Cumberland Museum in British Columbia. The previous Curator had died two years before this and had left NO written records! The collection was 100% unaccessioned. Sadly the widow of that Curator refused to cooperate, so we had to start from scratch. 99% of the collection was without any provenance, i.e. no recorded history! It was in effect the same as an antique store, except that nothing was for sale. When visitors came in and were overheard saying how they had donated an item, I would pounce and gather information. That worked fairly well until one day we had a second person claiming to have donated a certain teapot.

Teachers have “Day Books” in which they record what has been done and what is planned. If they are suddenly sick, a temporary teacher can come in and carry on, without even having to talk with the sick teacher.  Secretaries have manuals at their desks. If they are off sick, a replacement can come in and take over.  That manual would have instructions on the format of a business letter and addresses.

Countless times I have gone into a museum and found old records that current staff do not understand. It is frequently the case where multiple numbering systems used over the decades. At one museum and archives that I managed, I discovered that there were 25 different numbering systems – well actually 24 and a “no number” system. Many were subtle variations of earlier systems and some were totally unique. The bottom line is that the then current staff did NOT understand the old accession number systems and the recorded history was separated from the artifacts in thousands of cases.

Old accession registers cropOld accession registers for a museum.

At the New Westminster Museum and Archives in British Columbia we found many colonial period artifacts that had become separated from their histories. New Westminster was the Capital of the Colony and artifacts from that period were very, very important.

P9010051 72

Legal seal for Customs British Columbia, believed to be from before B.C. joined Canada in 1871. This was found in a box of 1970s ribbons. Surprisingly it had never even been accessioned in approximately 60 years of museum operations. I t was also rusty and so I cleaned it. 

One example was the shawl which had been given by Queen Victoria to a young lady. We found the history on it and after a long search, we found the shawl. There was no accession number attached to it, but by of process of elimination, we were able to feel sure that this was the one – in large part because it had an old label to that effect wrapped up with the shawl.


Here is a 33,000 pound artifact that was out of sight, out of mind. This 1911 Ruston-Proctor Road Roller had been used by the City of New Westminster from 1912 to the 1960s. It had been lent out to another museum about 1983, and then had “bounced” from museum to museum  over the years. The data plates were in a garage that burned down, the machines was dismantled and lying in deep grass in a field at one point, and after reassembly, the machine was almost stolen and taken to England.  We tracked it down and had it returned to New Westminster about 2008, after an absence of about 30 years. Another example is the 1929 fire truck which had been lent to the Fire Department veterans never did come back. The loan form had never been signed and the loan had never been checked on. The borrowers had since registered it in their name, even though they did not legally own it.

Detective skills are necessary, and once you have figured out how old systems worked, record the explanation for your successors! Track down ALL of the old accession registers and file them in chronological and numerical order. Label the old ledgers and notebooks clearly. Here I have added modern label tape to identify the time period and range of accession numbers covered by each register.  Then one wants to enter the data into the computer database. After doing so DO NOT DESTROY THE ORIGINAL RECORDS! An example of how this can backfire was when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reportedly entered their old paper records on registered firearms into their database and then reportedly destroyed the original records. Their database later crashed which led to legal chaos. The Canadian Army microfilmed a lot of WWII records, then handed the microfilm over to the Public Archives of Canada (now called Library and Archives Canada), then the army destroyed the original records. The microfilming was of very poor quality and parts of documents are illegible, but we cannot go back to the originals to check as they no longer exist.

Safe with large hole blown in the left side. At the Cumberland Museum which had been blown open by safecrackers. A fascinating story which the museum has lost completely. Shown in September, 2013.
Safe at the Cumberland Museum which had been blown open by safecrackers. A fascinating story which the museum had lost completely. Shown in September, 2013.

The Cumberland Museum (in B.C., Canada) is an example where the original Accession Register was discarded after I had left the position as Curator. As a result they have lost the history of some important artifacts and sadly, when I visited there in 2013, the staff were making no effort to use detective work to fill in the gaps. Their database literally skipped accession numbers where they had lost the records and so nothing was recorded on those items. They had done no inventory which would have revealed artifacts with accession numbers (e.g. this safe that had been blown open by safe-crackers with a large accession number easily spotted on the back) and they could have then filled some gaps in their new database and then simple detective work would have found out the fascinating history of this safe which I had put into the collection when I was Curator there. They could also have simply contacted me!

Databases WILL crash. I had about three museum databases crash during my career. In one case it was incremental over several weeks. In another case, we had been told that the city Information Technology Department was making back-ups, which they were, of our administrative files, but not of our database! We recovered, but it was a great deal of work, with much time lost. Make your own multiple backups. It is best to have at least three copies. One in use, one as backup on site, and one as an off-site backup copy in case of computer theft, fire, flood etc. Rotate the three copies. Copies of digital records are so easy to make now that there is no excuse. Should you use “the Cloud”? Ask the movie stars who had their nude pictures stored there. Note that copying photos and information to the Internet is fine in order to reach out to more people. 

The Two Way Test

You MUST be able to pass this test if you want to be able to say that you have a good museum.

  1. If we have the artifact, can we find the history?

  2. If we have the history, can we find the artifact?


The Registrar’s Manual (Standard Operating Procedures Manual)

This manual might have the following subjects:

  1. Introduction
  2. Index
  3. Priorities in Collections Management [Step back and look at the forest. What are the priorities? Too many think that getting everything on the Internet, even if it is wrong, is a priority. First you MUST be able to find the item and its history.
  4. Key Staff [names and dates of staff. Thus the initials CMS in 1973 will mean something and understanding how that person did things can help solve mysteries and in some case you can then pick up the phone, if they are still alive, and ask “Do you remember …?” ] I did this many times.
  5. Numbering Systems [Many museums have gone through MANY numbering systems over the years, sometimes adding layers of numbers over existing systems. Only the first series connects to the donor so it is crucial to understand it. The larger museums can be worse as they usually invented their own systems that were totally non-standard. Some museums even assigned two numbers to each artifact – an Accession Number and a Catalogue Number.]
  6. Loans (Incoming and Outgoing)
  7. Flow Chart [for an artifact coming in as a gift or purchase as well as one that is on loan.]
  8. Forms (old and new) Keep examples of each old type of form as well as those current. See Appendix.
  9. Appendices
    • Checklist of Accession Registers that have been entered into the database
    • POLICIES e.g.
      • Collection Policy [ONE is all you need, even if you have an archives and a museum]
      • Deaccessioning Policy
    • Accessioning Procedures
    • Manual for the museum’s database program [This is critical if you have developed a database from scratch or have customized yours. If you use an off the shelf program, keep the manual handy.]
    • Sample forms e.g.
      • Donation Form aka Deed of Gift
      • Loan Form, Incoming
      • Loan Form, Outgoing