Curator/Collections Researcher

Ipswich Museum World Collections

Collections Documentation Research
Date From
May 2021
Date To
September 2021
red brick victorian museum building

Ipswich Museum is a local authority museum which first opened in 1881. In 2020 they were awarded a Development Grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund for a project focusing on ‘the museum’s outstanding Victorian heritage – the philanthropists, industrialists and scientists who started it; the collections; the fascinating cast of characters who collected them and the museum building they built to house them.’

At the same time, the museum team were actively thinking about how to decolonise their practice and were open to starting a restitution process for parts of their world cultures collections, but knew they needed to do more work on the documented history of these collections.

The Situation


Like many museums of its size and age, Ipswich Museum has collections information in the form of accession registers, index cards, history files, correspondence, and committee minutes. Over the years several attempts had been made to digitise, transcribe, and otherwise transfer this information into the museum’s collections management system. With a lack of dedicated time and resource, these attempts had failed to result in a workable system. A more strategic approach was needed.

I talked to the curator and collections information officer about their aspirations for the project – collections information is never complete or finished – so I wanted to know what they needed in order to help them progress with the next stages of the wider project.

The Action


I worked with data that had been transcribed from the index cards by volunteers, removing duplicate entries and cleaning data. Different numbering systems had been introduced over the years so I reconciled any discrepancies in the accession numbers in the transcribed data with the numbers on the records exported from the CMS.

The museum was not using the people database in their CMS to its full potential and existing data in this database contained lots of duplicates. The team had identified several key collectors and collections areas which were relevant to their decolonisation efforts. As well using the museum’s own historic records, I used public records like the census, newspaper archives and cross-referenced other museums’ collections to create more detailed biographical records for eleven identified donors and collectors. This is a first step in understanding more about the colonial contexts in which collections were acquired.

The Result


I worked with the collections information officer to create a spreadsheet which would allow me to clean the existing data and ensure names were correctly formatted for 750 individuals. All the people and institutions that are mentioned across all the records are now compiled in the ‘persons and institutions’ spreadsheet with any significant collections noted next to them.

‘Kathleen has worked wonders on the Persons and Institutions database, which is being prepared for upload to Axiell and which then allows us to pull through data on donors and collectors into object records and analyse it in ways we’ve not been able to before (this is ground-breaking for the World Cultures collections here, as only a few key objects have this information included in their records).’

Melanie Hollis, Collections and Learning Curator, Colchester+Ipswich Museums