Jessica Stitt

Operational management in heritage: optimising preservation in the context of development and use of collections

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

This research takes a business approach to examine a prevalent issue in collection management – documentation backlogs.

Start Date: October 2014
End Date: October 2017
Theme: Objects, meanings and knowledge
Research discipline: Museum studies, Management research, Operations management, Collection management
Locations: UK
Staff member: Anna Bülow
Department: Conservation
University and department: Saïd Business School, Oxford University
University supervisor: Janet Smart, Pegram Harrison
Other funders: Saïd Business School Foundation DPhil Scholarship

Where do backlogs come from?

There are many reasons why documentation may be incomplete, this research seeks to understand how and why this happens.

What is the impact of backlogs?

Documentation backlogs mean that museum collections cannot be fully utilised or cared for as needed.

Why do backlogs matter?

There are ethical and legal reasons why documentation matters, but there are also implications for museum management that this research will examine.

About my research

Museums, libraries and archives often face a documentation backlog where a proportion of their collection is not fully recorded. Incomplete documentation means that collections are not being used to their full potential and cannot be cared for in the most appropriate way.

Documentation backlogs can be a result of lack of resources and relevant expertise, or changing organisational priorities. However, these reasons do not fully explain how backlogs occur, nor how they persist in the long term. At the same time, these institutions often continue to collect while apparently functioning as normal with the result that the impact of these backlogs is hidden and not recognised.

This research will adopt approaches used to study business operations to examine the backlog issue in museums. Many commercial organisations handle vast quantities of objects on a daily basis in highly complex processes. Commercial firms are profoundly different from museums but the same analytical methods can be used to understand museum operations.

Aims of my research

There are two main aims to this project: to establish how and why documentation backlogs occur in museums, and to understand the impact that these backlogs have on collection management and wider museum operations.

Methods from operations management will be used to analyse the nature of museum work, in particular the role of the collection and collection knowledge in museum operations. This analysis will provide an overview of where and when documentation occurs in museums and how it contributes to collection management.

Detailed case studies of documentation backlogs at selected museums will then be used to examine backlogs and their implications. This will involve auditing of museum processes, as well as interviews with curators and collection managers.

The ultimate aim of this research is to contribute to the effective future management of museum, library and archive collections through an improved understanding of this widespread and significant issue.