Museum collections and the “rhetoric gap”

There are a couple of questions that have started nagging at me when I look at museum websites, and particularly when I look at online collections. With the American Association of Museums annual meeting on in the States this week, it seemed like a good time to start asking them.

Are museum collections actually as important as we often say they are? I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone in a museum argue that the most important thing about the museum is its collection – and why wouldn’t they? Each museum’s collection is unique. It is here that museums can differentiate themselves. A local art museum can collect works of national and local importance, and use each to speak of its place in a community. A history museum can define its very purpose by those objects that it has acquired.

Even more than this, as Steven E. Weil points out in his excellent book Rethinking the Museum, the justification makes “a kind of strategic sense to stress what it is that is most distinctive about museums – that they acquire and care for collections.” (p29.) In doing so, museums craft out a niche for themselves.

In Managing Things – Crafting a Collections Policy from the AAM’s Museum News, John Simmons writes:

It is clear that what distinguishes the museum from other educational, scientific, and aesthetic organizations is its relationship with its collections. “Museums exist,” writes Morris Museum Director Steven H. Miller, “because of an assumption that physical objects have value.” In Museums, Objects and Collections, Susan M. Pearce writes, “The point of collections and museums . . . revolves around the possession of ‘real things’ and . . . essentially this is what gives museums their unique role.”

But when I look at the message I get from museums on the Internet, the collection rarely sits front and centre. Many institutions still don’t have their collections online, and although I realise there are often both financial and time constraints, this just reinforces my sense that the collection has fallen down the priority list.

When even a major collecting institution such as the Met – whom have clearly invested a lot of time, thought and money into their online collection, and who were just awarded MW2012 Best of the Web for Research/Online Collections – does not obviously feature their collection on the front page of their website except in the navigation bar, it does not reinforce the message that the collection is what is essential and unique to the museum.

I know that we don’t really know who or what online collections are for, but maybe the Internet exposes the fact that we don’t actually know why our collections would be valuable to anyone for reasons other than the ones we provide in our existing displays and scholarship.

As regular readers would know, I firmly believe the Internet is actually the perfect vehicle for making museum collections more useful and more valuable, by ensuring that the collection can be found, used and reconnected to the ever-deepening well of online information. We might be able to ensure that the ideas anchored by our collections are be able to be put to worthwhile use externally to the museum, as well as within it. We are only just beginning to imagine how and why the Internet will be useful for the production of new knowledge and new memories, but it seems to me that there is richness to be found here.

Still, we contradict ourselves when we speak of the importance of our collections, and then act as though our programming is the centre of our existence, as is often the case online. Certainly, programming is easier to quantify and market. Our audiences know what it means to look online for events and changing exhibitions. It’s something they understand. But it’s also something we understand and know how to talk to.

Weil continues (p.29.), writing (emphasis mine):

The difficulty is that somewhere along the line too many of us – and here I must include myself – have too frequently misapprehended what has been a strategy to be the truth. We have too often taken what is a necessary condition to the work of museums – the existence of carefully-acquired, well-documented and well-cared-for collections – and treated that necessary condition as though it were a sufficient condition. In developing justifications for the public support of museums, we too have forgotten that their ultimate importance must lie not in their ability to acquire and care for objects – important as that may be – but in their ability to take such objects and put them to some worthwhile use. In our failure to recognize this, we run the danger of trivializing both our institutions and ourselves.

It seems to me that the Internet is exposing the fact that the rhetoric about the importance of collections to museums is not necessarily matched by actions that support that narrative.

Obviously each individual institution is different. Some institutions do emphasize the importance of their collections on- and offline, while others no-doubt place greater emphasis on other things in their missions. Non-collecting institutions are surely exempt from this issue (are they the institutions most honest with themselves about the reasons for their existence?). But what does this say about us as a field, that our rhetoric does not necessarily match our actions. And if we are lying to ourselves, should we change our actions to match our words, and actually find ways to put the collection front-and-centre online, or do we alter the stories we tell ourselves?

What do you think? Is the Internet exposing an internal inconsistency between what we say and what we do in museums? And if so, is it our rhetoric that should change, or our actions?

27 thoughts on “Museum collections and the “rhetoric gap”

  1. Hmmm. I think it’s interesting that a museum would need to be internally consistent; I think of the objects in museums as texts as well as physical objects. It also seems interesting to think of how digital collections both create value and also subvert the very value to which Simmons refers: the physical objects, once made into copies and simulacra on the internet, are no longer “physical objects” in the same way, and so, as copies that are infinitely reproduceable and malleable they can threaten to draw value away from the “real”. Especially in a discursive context in which the “real” (brick and mortor, face-to-face) becomes more and more obsolete, uncomfortable, redundant, I think we have only scratched the surface of the problematic status of “real” objects, their relationship to digital copies, and the value lying between the two.

  2. I agree that our online collections should feature more prominently on websites, but aren’t public programs, including exhibitions, just as valid as a way for visitors to explore our collections? Perhaps public programs are offering something that our online collections are still often missing eg providing context / narrative / opportunities for social interaction and participation.

  3. To be quite honest, the short answer (mine isn’t) for who online collections are designed for is quite simply your average procrastinating, time-crunched art history students. While attending a certificate program affiliated with a prominent auction house in London, I was spoiled with choices. If I required visual evidence for a paper with relatively little effort I could either go to the British Museum (unfirtunately nicknamed the bm by our prof. providing us with hours of scatological giggles) and the V&A to peruse their East Asian collections and freely take pictures for my own academic use. However, the underlying question is here did I? No, by the time it came to writing the blessed papers not only had I frittered time away going to this or that auction or that new hip east end gallery I needed evidentiary support and quick. The online collections,which to this articles point,are relatively easy to find using the site map function and have better quality images and detailed behind-the-vellvet-rope type images that are distinctly better than my amateur musings at photography could ever be.Those images in tandem with (carefully cited of course !) photographs from books and articles were often the lifeblood of my papers. Sure, I went to those museums quite often as not only they were a cost effective (read: free) way off whiling away weekend afternoons but often provided a well-needed east Asian art break. I could have been an over-achiver and taken all those images myself but at the end of the day my papers were evaluated on style and content not style alone.

    What I would like to challenge is just who and what online collections are for and needs to be taken one step further. Ignoring the north american bias in the MW 2012 awards which does not represent acurrately the potential online collections have an important role to play.Writing in an academic setting as a student at any level comes with access to academic journals and databases such as Jstor and Artstor which are simply not available to the public. Put in another say, the access to information is simply not democratic. Online collections are a free research tool that can be accessed by anyone anywhere. I no longer need to be in London to go to the V&A and get a reasonable command of their collection. what I disagree with is the notion is that they are notoriously hard to find and incomplete. It is unreasonable to assume the museum will put the entirety of its collection online as it would make the instruction obsolete. Furtheremore, just as in the bricks and morter version of its identity,the online collection is representative of what the museum has in its collection and even displays in its online annexes pieces and works that are not currrently on display. The Sackler-Freer’s online gallery is a prime example. The notion that they sre both cumbersome, incomplete, and, a bizzare vestigial organ of the museum’s site map is annacurate. I know it’s impossible to say you’ve been to the Louvre to see Mona Lisa’s pearlies if you’ve just happend to stop by the online show, but if like me you’ve a smattering of ingnorance online collections are an invaluable tool to prove a point and anyone who wants to be seen and heard.

  4. When I first read this post, I was all like, “right on!” but the more I’m thinking about this, the less I’m sure that I agree with your central point. I think Weil’s “necessary and sufficient” argument makes a lot of sense when dealing with collections in an online sense, but I’m wary of expanding that argument to include the physical museum as well.

    It’s interesting that you use the Met as an example in this case. The Met, maybe more than almost any other collecting institution, is known not for a single object, but for it’s collection as a whole. Unlike, say, the Louvre, people don’t tend to visit the Met to see that one spectacular superstar object. The comprehensiveness of its collections is the attraction. But these collections are relatively downplayed online, and I think that’s probably appropriate, because “comprehensive” doesn’t have the same value or meaning online that it has inside the museum.

    So this is where “necessary and sufficient” come in. Online collections are necessary because they are, to a certain extent, key to an institution’s identity. However, we usually present them online in roughly the same way we do in the physical space–with the assumption that seeing a picture of an object with a little bit of label copy is sufficient, which I don’t believe to be true. Online collections are terrible at replicating the experience of seeing an object in person, but seeing an object in person is a terrible way of communicating lots of information. I think we need to start looking at online collections as merely a means to an end, which significantly downplays their importance in the overall scheme of things.

  5. This is great, because everyone’s answers so far have made me question my own sentiments about this (I don’t know where they’ll end up, actually). Anne’s question about whether we need to be internally consistent is actually a really useful one. On one hand, as someone who likes to consider the way we “pitch” ideas and how that impacts the power of the idea, I think that having a consistent vision is very important, because consistency promotes trust. At the same time, however, what I think can be one of the most interesting aspects of museums is that there are all these different questions and forces competing within them. It is actually the push and pull that makes things interesting. I’ve been considering the ethical aspects of online collections lately, and am coming to the conclusion that making collections online open is both absolutely part of, and potentially contravenes, the ethical responsibility of museums. Making the collection open seems critical to meet the need to make a museum’s collection usable. However, in the AAM’s “Expectations Regarding Collection Stewardship”, one of the guidelines includes that “the scope of a museum’s collections stewarship extends to both the physical and intellectual control of its property” – but this sounds like something hard to regulate, particularly in the context of the network.

    And Lisa, I absolutely agree that programming is an entirely valid way of utilising and exploring collections. For lots of institutions, particularly smaller institutions that don’t have a permanent collection on display, it is the only way they can. And I think that’s absolutely fine. What I find maybe uncomfortable is institutions that talk about the collection as key, but then put comparatively little emphasis on making it accessible online. I think it’s absolutely ok to instead say “our collections are significant, and we can utilise them in our work, but actually, programming is the best thing about our museum and it’s through this that we really bring value to the world.” What do you think?

    Koven, I really like where you are going, particularly in your last paragraph. I want to tease that out a little further and see where it takes us. If online collections are merely a means to an end, and not an end in itself (which I absolutely agree with), what is the end?? In Weil’s discussion of collections, he asks the question (p. 50) “While museums have always been informative, is the museum still an important medium for the dissemination of information?” He concludes that it is less so than previously. Do you think that the Internet changes this? Is this a reason for online collections? I’d love to keep thinking through this, because I don’t know the answers myself and it’s interesting teasing out the nuance at play.

  6. I think the Internet absolutely changes this. Museums have always had the potential to communicate/disseminate information, but it’s really only since Teh Internets that they’ve been able to (fully) realize that potential. This is partially because the main means of disseminating information to the public in the past was the museum visit, which was a fairly low-density experience, from an information standpoint. It takes hours inside a museum to pick up as much raw information as I can get in 10 minutes reading through a well-written blog.

    The trick now is to recognize which of our “cherished traditions” are actually a part of our core identity and should be somehow translated to the higher-density online experience, which shouldn’t be translated at all, and which need to be radically altered to fit the online space. I think that collections fall into this last category.

    To this point, online collections have mostly been a one-to-one translation from the physical to the digital. If we have an object in our collection, we also have a picture of it on our website! Neat! But that’s because we assume(d) that those objects would have a similar value online that they have when on display inside the museum. They don’t. To be honest, I don’t know what their value online actually is, but this is why the “after market” potential of them is so interesting to me. I like the idea of someone outside the museum sphere finding our collections data and doing something really interesting and valuable with it.

    1. @Koven “The trick now is to recognize which of our “cherished traditions” are actually a part of our core identity and should be somehow translated to the higher-density online experience, which shouldn’t be translated at all, and which need to be radically altered to fit the online space.” Yes! I think that when I’m thinking about the “rhetoric gap” above, it’s actually a similar thinking to this. The importance of our collections – in the physical museum, and in museum’s own internal scholarship (or sanctified scholarship by externals) – is one of those cherished traditions. The one-to-one relationship you talk about, well, that’s exactly the crux of it, isn’t it?!?

      So the online value of the collection doesn’t align with this way of thinking, does it? But as you point out, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value. It’s just that we don’t necessarily know what that value is *or* get to be the ones who define it. The ‘after-market’ value of collections data is likely to actually come from without and not only or necessarily from within. So in terms of rethinking our identity, this is a critical point. To go back to the “Expectations Regarding Collection Stewardship” and the idea that “the scope of a museum’s collections stewarship extends to both the physical and intellectual control of its property”, maybe it is actually here that we need to rethink how we deal with things, and also how we think about things? Maybe this is why I find the message that the museum sector – and at times individual institutions – gives about collections inconsistent.

      Hmm. Lots to think about here.

    2. Can someone define ‘after market’? (Is it a term that popped up at MW2012? It implies ‘post-sale’ to me, which doesn’t seem right in the context.)

      Anyway, the not one-to-one issue for online collections is something I was trying to explore with (though not very successfully as I was trying to approach it from the audiences and the museums points of view at the same time). I’ve called it the ‘800 Roman oil lamps’ problem elsewhere – most of a history museums collection is repetitive, and while we fix that in the gallery by only displaying a few, in the online catalogue we might chuck in all 800 with no way of differentiating the one or two that have the most informative or engaging stories. Online catalogues currently flatten collections way too much, which is one reason I like the potential of linked data for making better interfaces easier (eg but that’s a whole other thread…

      1. The term ‘after market’ was used by Andy Neale (DigitalNZ) during the un-conference session on online collections at MW2012. In our discussion it specifically covered the use of collections information beyond your organisation. e.g. Harvested to a national aggregator, used by a developer in a prototype game, indexed by search engines, analysed (as a data set) by a researcher.
        The key idea is that putting your collection online on your own website is not an end goal. It is merely one output of structured re-usable data. The after market for your collections data is likely to be much bigger than the market for it on your own website, so you need to be thinking ahead about search engine optimisation, programming interfaces, alternative ways to get at the structured data, even it’s at a very basic level (e.g. Cooper-Hewitt Museum’s release of their collection records on GitHub).
        As to the prominence of the collection on museum websites, we shouldn’t expect this to be the same as the prominence of the collection at the physical site. The website serves many other roles, including ‘how do I visit you’, ‘what’s on’ etc. There are examples of sites with published collections buried several layers down in the website, but generally museums do try to draw attention to this content.
        A complete published set of all records can end up suffering from the ‘800 Roman oil lamps’ problem. However, structured data gives others a chance to analyse this full data set. Museums can also start creating topics/stories that group or feature particular sets of content by theme. This has been done well on the new V&A website.

      2. Exactly. The reason online collections are (mostly) boring and repetitive is because they’re not curated. Museums used to display endless rows of similar objects – most of them have stopped doing that in their buildings. Those 19th century/early 20th century tendencies are now repeated on the web.

        Exhibitions inside the museum buildings had to get better, get more to the point, because there was a lack of physical space to display the entire museum collection. Unfortunately, the internet doesn’t offer that restriction, which means that the online museum experience is usually less to the point, less stimulating than a visit to the physical museum.

        I think online collections are a dead end, and that the curated museum experience should find its way onto the web. The question is how…

  7. It might be instructive to consider that MONA (Hobart) is entirely about ‘the collection’ and the ‘experience of objects in the flesh’, that they purposely withhold any access to their ‘collection’ until you’ve been a visitor.

    There is no access to their online collection until you’ve been.

    Further, to preserve and try to force a ‘contemplation of the object’, their mobile guide (there are no wall labels whatsoever and every visitor gets the guide) has a designed-in artificial 4 second delay on presenting information on objects when requested.

    It helps that MONA is driven by a singular (and compelling vision) – see – but it is also fascinating in what it reveals about other museums.

    It is also fascinating that the annual attendance of MONA is nearly 500,000 whilst the State-funded museum nearby gets a fraction that.

    1. I was just discussing this w Mary Lijnzaad from MONA. While its easy to say that “the MONA model” won’t translate easily to other kinds of experiences, I hope more people will look at it as an instructive outlier. They break a lot of the assumed “rules” of museum experience design. And as Seb points out, their 12 month attendance is almost the same as the total population of Tasmania. And I don’t have data to support it yet, but I think a great part of the appeal has to be the compelling vision that MONA embodies and the clarity with which they serve that message. From what I’ve been told of their online visitation stats, they are doing quite well at making the connection between a visit to the museum and a visit to the website afterward.

      1. Hmm, looking at the content around visits to MONA while in Melbourne, a lot of it seemed to be a mixture of ‘finally, a reason for the well-heeled Chardonnay drinkers to visit Hobart’ and ‘ooh, rude bits!’, less so excitement about it as a new type of museum experience, though that was written about too.

  8. Suse, on thinking about it more I’m not sure about your starting assumptions, at least in the UK context.

    The V&A’s home page has ‘what’s in the V&A’ and ‘Search the Collections’, the British Museum features ‘Explore’ the collections and ‘Search over two million objects’, Tate has ‘Art & artists’ and ‘Works in focus’, National Gallery has ‘Paintings’ all over the front page, the Science Museum has ‘Online Stuff’ and a major collections project… collections feature in the front page and main nav of these sites.

    On another note, I think it’s generally risky assuming that a museum’s website is aligned with goals of the whole organisation and not the department that runs it… sadly that’s still mostly the case (thus the obsession with whole-organisation digital strategies).

    1. Mia, on thinking about it more – and reading all the comments – I’m not sure about my starting assumptions either. I still intuitively feel that there is a gap between the rhetoric about the way museums talk about their collections and my sense of where those collections fit into the digital space at the moment. But this conversation has prompted me to wonder more about issues of value and need. Mimi’s contribution below is very interesting in this context.

      I am finding myself torn between a very strong sense that museums *should* be making their collections available digitally to the public, because it means these things we’ve been collecting for the better of humankind can actually be used by that purpose externally to the museum as well as internally, and the realisation that potentially those collections aren’t actually interesting or useful to anyone without the context that we give those objects *within* the museum. And yet, I still think there are interesting – and not yet exploited – possibilities for new knowledge and new understandings from looking at or utilising collections data in aggregate. What happens when we can start to see patterns arising in our collections (oh – everyone was collecting Roman oil lamps for about 50 years here, but the number of oil lamp acquisitions goes into a sharp decline after 1837 – why?) that we’ve never been able to see before?

      I just don’t know the answer yet. (Mind you, blogging publicly is a great way to break down and force questioning of your own assumptions.)

      Having said that, your point about museum websites being aligned (or not aligned) with the goals of the organisation is a good one, but still a worrisome one. If I am looking at websites and judging the whole organisation by them, surely this is an issue that museums need to be thinking about, right? Or is that another incorrect assumption?

      1. I think museums need to think consciously not only about what their purposes are for putting (or not putting) collections online, but also about the actual reasons people use/want to use museum websites. For me, someone who has made a point of visiting many museums in person, information about programming, hours, directions, fees, etc. was most important. For my friend who is a new mom seeking intellectual stimulation from home, a good online exhibit – a way to experience objects on the computer screen – is most important. While looking into museum websites to recommend to her, I find that I’m using them in a very different way from what I’m used to.

        You write of “the realisation that potentially those collections aren’t actually interesting or useful to anyone without the context that we give those objects *within* the museum.” Perhaps online exhibits should have their own context, not just a copy of the context at the physical museum? There’s no reason online collections shouldn’t be displayed in some sort of context. But determining good context could take a lot of creativity and thinking outside the box.

      2. Lest we carry the Roman lamp thing too far, I would like to add my own most recent collections consuming experience. In carrying out thesis research I needed to locate examples of complete early 18th c firearms to compare to moldering, soggy and incomplete examples from an archaeological site. Museum websites that would let me peek into their holdings were essential to making some of the points I was arguing. Yay online collections. I would’ve been happier if there were 800 musketoons instead of the half dozen or so I could locate.

        That said, the experience of trying to find (and save) information from the museums was enormously frustrating and time consuming. I,ages were rarely good enough quality to do real analysis, or I was forced to use some proprietary zooming image browser, which let me see, but not save print or even bookmark. Ugh…

    2. Ed – what do you think would have made your research experiences easier? Obviously better photos and the ability to save images/information. What else? Were you able to find the sort of information you needed? What was missing? What else did you want?

  9. I haven’t researched this, but if I remember correctly online collections were a funder-driven phenomenon to begin with. Museums began digitizing collections to improve their record-keeping, and huge amounts of money were invested in what was largely an internal need. Then funders got tired of that and began to demand that funding proposals include a public access component in order to justify the expense. So museums began to just make their databases accessible online. And that was boring, so then the whole idea arose of “curating” that experience in various ways. If I’m right about the history, it’s instructive because the questions we are asking now did not arise out of a desire to serve our audiences better, they arose out of the need to serve our funders better. The issues are aligned with the issues surrounding the presentation of objects in the physical space–just showing the best objects versus an open storage approach.

    1. Yes, I think digitizing the collections was funder-driven (at least in Sweden). Then, the step of making those digital records available to the public was a small and obvious step. A huge problem here, for non-art and art museums alike, is that the records were originally made for the researchers and conservators themselves, not for a public audience. Thus, the data is mostly irrelevant when you’re trying to use it for a purpose other than documentation and preservation.

      I really like what some museums (Powerhouse, Brooklyn, the Stockholm Transport Museum here in Sweden) have done to engage their audiences in transforming the online collections into something communicative. Only when the public engages with the content (and is allowed to contribute to it!) will the online collections start to increase in value.

      1. Fascinating Aron. I wonder how different an online collection might have been if the original purpose of the digitisation was to make the collection public (and usable to the public) rather than for internal records. What different choices might have been made?

    2. The drive to get catalogues digitised had a similar effect about a decade ago in the UK (see for some background). It’s a shame that catalogue digitisation wasn’t funded outright, as it meant that people shoe-horned a public access component onto what was a really specialist project.

      That said, as with the 800 Roman oil lamps, mass digitisation is a necessary, but not sufficient, process to provide public access to collections. As Aron says, more work is needed to transform online collections into a engaging experience for the non-specialist audience.

  10. “Still, we contradict ourselves when we speak of the importance of our collections, and then act as though our programming is the centre of our existence, as is often the case online.”

    Do we? It’s true that our collection is what separates us from other knowledge institutions but what use is that collection if we don’t find a way to engage our visitors? We’re not just collecting trinkets because the accrual of history demands it (I hope). The objects are symbols representing some aspect of our history or culture that is important to us. The purpose of our programs should be to get our audiences engaged with our collections in meaningful ways, to connect them to the history behind our collections rather than to the collections themselves. If it seems like the focus on programming belittles the importance of your collection, then I would suggest you need to change your programming rather than change the focus of your website.

    I’d like to add some thoughts to the discussions about how our collections systems were designed originally, the after market points and bringing our programs online in more meaningful ways. It’s not just about the online uses or aftermarket uses. Our databases were never designed to be used as services when they really should have been. There was a longwinded rant, written by a former Amazon employee now working for google, that was accidentally posted publicly on google+ last October. I think it’s worth a read (or at least a skim).

    When you design your internal systems as though they were a publicly accessible service you end up with a more flexible and robust infrastructure that more readily adapts to change. If we were to redesign our collections database software as if it were a publicly accessible service, accessed through a robust and well documented API, we would have much better collections databases. We wouldn’t just provide aftermarket developers with a mountain of data that they could analyze. We would provide ourselves with the tools and capabilities to more completely analyze and understand our own collections. We would be empowering our curators, educators and exhibition staffs.

    It’s not just about the web. It’s not just about the API to the public. Providing these things opens doors within the institution that we haven’t even considered yet. I keep wondering what we could do if we could just find a way to incorporate the richness of our databases in our onsite galleries. I keep wondering how changed a museum visit could be if the rich, interlinked history and context of every item were on display right next to them in the gallery somehow and if providing that information was as easy as moving the object into place and putting a label next to it like we already do. I keep thinking of ways that this content could be delivered and tools that could be used. Audio, video, interactive, all of it requires an accessible API to a collections database that is designed with public access in mind.

    We keep talking about how the web is different from the physical space and we have to cultivate different experiences. We keep talking about how the web will accentuate the physical collection rather than overshadow it. We keep asking what we can do online to create a museum-worthy experience. In many ways, these are the wrong questions to ask. The online world is encroaching everywhere. It won’t be long before the ability to access things “online” is ubiquitous and easy and people don’t think twice before doing so at a whim, anywhere and anytime. It won’t be long before the distinction between on and offline becomes meaningless to us as online access is taken for granted the same way running water and electricity is (I’m assuming all of our museums have both of those).

    What we do now will lay the groundwork for what we want to do ten years from now. If we want our collections to be more than just a bunch of trinkets in a room when wireless always on internet access is a reality we have to create collections databases today that are capable of doing what we are going to ask of them tomorrow. The online collections database is just one piece in a much larger puzzle. It’s not the “online” component that interests me as much as the API and service component that can be used by the public or by us to do things with our collection we never thought of before and to create richer on site experiences as well as online ones.

  11. I happened on this blog googling “better way of searching british museum collection?” Was trying to follow up a vague reference to a C2 statue of a Roman soldier carrying writing materials, according to Peter Salway, this makes him a clerk and the statue is to be located in the British Museum. Have spend a good half hour on their very slow website without finding any reference to it – and the random results turned up with their search (and I do a lot of searching on various interfaces to various library catalogues and databases) don’t fill me with confidence. /end rant.

    Hope this answers your question as to how important the collection is to at least this researcher (OU MA, trying to finish my dissertation)

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