Role of documentation in culture preservation

By Atemonokhai Evelyn Aduke

Documentation is as old as writing and man because man began to document as soon as he could write. Documentation became inevitable owing to the fact that human brains do not have the full capacity to fully remember everything.

  In the museum setting, the act of documenting increased with the awareness of collections relevance in the late 18th century. However, it wasn’t until the mid 1900s that the formal registration and training programmes began appearing and standards for documenting cultural collections were established (Wikipedia download 7th November,2006).

 Documentation generally involves written form of information but on a broader sense. It can include audio – visual aids, tape recorders, films, photographs, slides and computers. All this take care of different types of museum collections (tangible and intangible) as well as moveable and non-moveable. For instance, tangible collections are best documented through the use of audio – visual aids, tape recorder and television while photography takes care of the non – movable collections like the natural heritage or monument as well as moveable or smaller antiques. Be that as it may “the first form of documentation is oral history”( Andach and Okpoko 2011). Two types of documentation worthy of mention here are manual and computer/ electronic.

 Documentation in museum setting involves gathering and recording of object information both in written and visual form. This way,it enables us to physically preserve an object, its culture as well as its history.  Ezeokeke(2015)posits that ” Documentation is the process of collecting, recording and sorting information relating to an object or a collection of object”.

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 Documentation in the museum setting is borne out of the need of necessity of keeping and having records of museum collections or acquisitions. For instance, there is need for detailed information of where (origin of the object, the object was collected, the user/ usage of the object, the mode of collection – loan, gift, seizure or purchase).

 The conservation, exhibition, and education officers all rely on the initial documentary evidence, information and facts about the object in the hands of the curators( documentation officers). For instance, the conservators need to know the state of the object ( the health condition); does it have any defect or is it infested?, so as to know the remedial or curative measures to put in place to take care of such object.

 Similarly, the exhibition officer also needs good information about the object. There is usually a story line behind any object or museum collection. This is usually got at a point of acquisition. This will then be built upon or elaborated and expanded by the researcher and exhibitor. Also, this initial information of documentary evidence can be of good help to the researcher to commence further research into such collection. For example, the researcher needs to know where the object was collected from or acquired, the producer,user and usage. It will then be easier for researcher to visit the place to meet the producer one on one, interact with him or her and get a more detailed information on the object.

 The education officers/ tour guides will also have more information available to them from the reseachers. This will help them to better educate and inform the visitors about the collections.

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 Exhibitions are not just mounted for viewing and fun alone. There are stories behind them. If in the event of an object missing either in transits or otherwise, the information about it in the documentation unit will be of great help in tracing  such object. One major record in documentation is the object movement register. This shows the movement and place of the object per time, when it was taken in or out, where it was taken to. It will  also indicate who (the officer) signed it out e.t.c. Also, with modern trend in museum documentation, photographs of the collections are now stored electronically using computer and flash drives.

This has paved way for not only proper storage but easy retrieval of information concerning museum collections. Even if the original object is lost  or defaced, the object can be reclaimed using electronic device. One major advantages of the digitalization of our collections is the fact that whereas the photographs of the object can easily be defaced, the digitalized copies in the computer and the flash drive can be preserved and kept safe for a longer time. Also, there are now some museums that have collections electronically displayed using projectors and audio – visual aids.

  Angela Kipp posits that ” Losing your memory means losing yourself”. Without proper documentation, humanity will lose its memory. Museum documentation is therefore the memory bank of the museum. It is the oil that lubricates all museum activities. It is often said that without objects there are no museums, but without objects accompanied information, the objects are really of no value to the museum and the visitors. So, documentation is key as it serves as a lubricant that lubricates and keeps a museum running.

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 Museum makes objects available but documentation makes them accessible and important as it involves a lot of activities from the point of acquisition to disposal. Though, principally,museum acquires object, the protection and preservation of these objects (their cultural relevance) depends largely on the effective documentation of information relating to them.

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