Postcard from a conference: SPECTRUM 29-30 May

Detective work: participants at a workshop figuring out how to handle a surprise donation using the SPECTRUM standard.

P.S.-blogi in English! Join an ?bo Akademi graduate student Matilda Grönberg as she tells us her experiences of the SPECTRUM conference (29-30 May).

During the very last week of May Kulttuuritalo in Helsinki was the venue of an international conference focused on collections management and a standard called SPECTRUM. The conference was organized by Finnish Museums Association together with Swedish National Heritage Board and Arts Council Norway.

It was really nice to see how people from several countries had found their way to the auditorium of Kulttuuritalo, ready for two days of discussions on how to manage museum collections. Most of the participants were museum professionals who work with collections in one way or another, i.e. curators, conservators and museum assistants. Although not yet a professional, I got the opportunity to attend this conference in order to give a museology student's perspective on the discussions and share with you what's going on in the museum world right now.

So, you might now be wondering what this SPECTRUM is. Some new kind of software? And what do I mean by "standard"?

Richard Light, one of the speakers, described standards as "an agreed, repeatable way to do something". The idea behind the SPECTRUM standard is to find good ways of collections practice regardless of what collection management system your museum happens to use, and help museum staff record information in a consistent way. SPECTRUM does so by providing museums with standards for each procedure in the process of collections management - from when a new object turns up at the museum to what to do with objects that have been in the collections for decades.

The standard is developed by Collections Trust in co-operation with museums and other institutions that manage collections. SPECTRUM is free to download from Collection Trust's website and can be used also in analogue collections management since the standard is not software, but a set of shared guidelines and recommended procedures. It can be used by museums of all sizes. Collections Trust also provides training and consultancy regarding SPECTRUM in addition to the tools and advice included in the standard itself.

The conference was quite perfectly timed, as many Finnish museums are considering to start using a new collection management system called MuseumPlus RIA and a new version of SPECTRUM will be published this summer. The draft for the latest version of SPECTRUM was also still open for feedback at the time of the conference, so it was possible to comment, discuss and directly affect how the latest version turns out!

The two conference days consisted of one day of presentations and one day of workshops. I thought the structure was very pleasant and it let the participants get over the initial nervousness before getting on with workshops. The conference was opened by Leena Tokila from Finnish Museums Association and Pirjo Hamari from the Finnish National Board of Antiquities, both giving an overview of databases and standards used in Finland. Fellow Finnish museology students might be familiar with the national cataloguing instructions called Museoiden luettelointiohje which are based on the SPECTRUM standard. Other familiar names were Finna, Loki and Europeana - websites through which Finnish institutions are opening up their collections to the public. Tokila and Hamari both emphasized the importance of standards as key to making cultural heritage available to all, as well as the importance of international exchange of knowledge.

Kevin Gosling from Collections Trust continued with a talk on the development of SPECTRUM, and described the standard as a tool of influencing behaviour on workflow level. Gosling pointed out how beneficial it is to involve museums and other actors in the development of standards, as that ensures that the standards actually work in a relevant and sustainable way. According to Gosling it's also good to have SPECTRUM procedures as part of museums' manuals for collection care and management in order to ensure that the actual work is done according with the SPECTRUM standard. If not, the standard might just become a nice theoretical plan that isn't present in the everyday practical museum work.

The rest of the day was spent sharing experiences of collection management with SPECTRUM in Norway, Sweden, Finland and the United Kingdom. Bård Bie-Larsen from Arts Council Norway gave presentations on the Norwegian experiences with SPECTRUM, both positive and negative, and about development projects focusing on the standard. Leena Furu-Kallio presented how SPECTRUM is visible in the Finnish instructions for cataloguing, whereas Kevin Gosling shared his experiences with SPECTRUM in practical collections management in the UK. The Swedish perspective on SPECTRUM was provided by Ingela Chef-Holmberg, Annika Carlsson and Susanne Nickel from the Swedish National Heritage Board. The day ended with consultant Richard Light's presentation on the role of standards in documentation.

During the workshops of the second day participants got to do practical exercises. It was possible to choose between three different workshops: one on how to adapt SPECTRUM to your museum's procedures, one where participants were to analyze how the collections management work at their own museums relates to SPECTRUM, and a workshop on implementing SPECTRUM in the work of a small museum making the transition to new collections management software. It was pretty fun to move between workshops and see how participants discussed, made connections, found differences and similarities as well as mapped out strengths and weaknesses.

Conference essentials: good snacks
Consistency, communication and transparency stood out to me as central themes during the conference. Consistency in collections management procedures makes the management and publishing of collections easier on both national and international levels. Consistency in procedures within institutions was also pointed out as extremely important. Internal consistency along with communication and transparency helps the people working with collections to know what is collected, why, how and for what. The three aspects are also great tools in quality assurance throughout the management process and make it easier to justify collection work to non-experts such as the management. It can also make it easier for new people to enter the museum field if the work procedures are standardized and easy to teach forward.

All in all I got the impression that the conference was a relaxed environment where it really was possible to exchange experiences and knowledge with colleagues from near and far. Comments about the latest version of SPECTRUM directly influenced the development process and practical workshops combined with discussions seemed to help participants develop their work with collections and find ways to further solidify the SPECTRUM standard as part of their activities.

My tip for the summer is to find out more about linked data, as it seems to become more and more present in collections management and the sharing of information. Also, keep an eye open for the new SPECTRUM 5.0!

Matilda Grönberg
The writer is a graduate student at ?bo Akademi University with a special interest in museums and cultural analysis.

NÄKÖKULMA / 14.6.2017

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