MμMα #3: Starting to Accession

Well, things have certainly started with a bang! I have received many responses and congratulations about our announcement of the Museum of Mathematics (MμMα) in the past week, resulting from our initial blog post and also the tweets of this by Nick Poole of Collections Trust (thanks, Nick!). I am writing this blog primarily to record our trials and tribulations as we start MμMα and what we are dealing with as we ramp up our collections and our work. It is my goal to build a well-run, professional museum, but I realise that no museum ever starts life as such a professional institution, and all new museums need a continual process of responsive development and operational improvement. In calling this a “Museum” I am required to also meet the requirements for what a museum is. The web site of SAMA (South African Museums Association) provides a page which deals with the definition of a museum. This web page provides two separate definitions, with the first being from ICOM

“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves,researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

and the second from SAMA itself

“Museums are dynamic and accountable public institutions which both shape and manifest the conciousness, identities and understanding of communities and individuals in relation to their natural, historical and cultural environments, through collection, documentation, conservation, research and education programmes that are responsive to the needs of society.”

It is the intention for MμMα to be non-profit, and also to be permanent, and should be open to the public both by digital means and physical (eventually). However, from both of these definitions comes the concept of acquisition and collection, and this is my starting point for today. I have already one item in my collection, being a slide rule, which is a manual calculation item which was commonly used in schools up to the end of the 1970s, prior to the common usage of electronic calculators. I have another items, also being donated to the museum from my own personal collection, being a punched card, which was used extensively in the early computer industry up to the mid-1980s. I have also many other items which are soon to be acquired into the collection.

Donated by Roer Layton 2 July 2014

Accession 2014.1 : Slide Rule.

I am thus asking myself a few critical questions at this time:

  • what documentation should I implement to record the accession of the items into the collection?
  • where should I put the items, given that I do not have a physical storage area at this time?


I already have two different modes of accessioning which are happening from what I am doing and from my conservations with others. These are donations (in which I am donating items from my own collection or where others are donating items which they wish to find a home for) and purchasing (in which I am buying certain items which I believe will meet the collection development policy – see below). Whereas I am a completely digital nut, I am preferring to start my documentation using a manual system, and will later transfer this to our ETHER Base collection management system. This may sound a little strange – that I have my own collection management system and yet am starting life in the museum on paper! My justification is that I want these early paper records to be digitised and to form a part of the history of the museum itself, including paper-based transfer-of-title forms and object entry forms, and a paper-based accessions register.

Accessions Register

I have archival paper available, which we provide through our ETHER Conservation business unit, and I am printing our ETHER Accessions Register Template document onto this paper and will later be binding these Accession Register pages into books. These pages will also be scanned and maintaining digitally as well.


Now comes another question, on how I should  number the items which I am receiving, and also when an item should be considered as a single item and when it should be accessioned as multiple items. Let us look at the slide rule, which consists of the slide rule itself, and its container, which is in two parts which separate to open, and which combine to close up the slide rule. The slide rule itself also consists of the main rule, and the movable bar, which can be removed completely, and the hairline cursor, which is attached in a way that it cannot be directly removed. I have referred to the SPECTRUM Advice Note on Numbering, and also used my own judgement on a practical solution. Whereas we can use an internal computer-generated number, I am preferring to use a human generated number for now, using the simple scheme of YYYY.N where YYYY is the year of accession, and N is the sequence number within the year. So my first accession, being the slide rule above, is numbered 2014.1, and the second, being the punched card in the image below, is 2014.2.

Donated by Roger Layton 17 July 2014

Accession 2014.1 : Punched Card

However, the slide rule is also divided into three parts, so whereas the full slide rule is seen as a unit, its parts will be numbered 2014.1.1 for the slide rule itself, 2014.1.2 for the larger part of the cover, and 2014.1.3 for the smaller part of the cover.

Collection Development Policy

I have collected two items, and there are many more coming shortly, and thus I need to determine what objects I want and which I do not want, and also how I intend to collect these. I am writing the Collection Management Policy at present, which includes a number of specific policies on Collection Management (what to collect), Collection Documentation (what to record), Collection Care (how to store and conserve), and Collection Usage (how to use these to meet the purposes of the museum). This collection management policy will take some time, as part of establishing the governance structures of the museum, and of creating the museum as an independent, non-profit entity. However, I need some guidelines to how to handle the initial items prior to the collection development policy being finalised. Here are my initial guidelines:

  • the items must related to mathematics and must tell some story of mathematics
  • the items may include computational devices (such as my slide rule), numeric storage (such as the punched card), measuring devices, shapes, teaching tools, and can also include more complex computing machinery (such as a mechanical calculator).
  • age of the items is not considered, and both historical and modern objects will be accessioned
  • for mechanical and electronic items, working items will be preferred over non-working items
  • we should be able to look after the items using our existing resources, and we should not accession items which we are not capable of caring for
  • all items should have sufficient provenance where this is possible, at least a document from the owner transferring title and other rights where appropriate.
  • any notes and manuscript information should also be included where these are available
  • biographical information and objects from famous mathematicians

Some specific examples of what I hope to obtain:

  • calculating equipment, including mechanical, abaci, slide rules, electronic calculators and adding machines, but not computers at this time since I do not have the capacity to store these
  • all instruction manuals and guides for these calculating machines
  • measuring equipment, including those to measure, distance, time, space and location, such as early rulers, and sextants
  • textbooks, and especially early textbooks
  • any objects which are used for the teaching of mathematics


My next concern is where to store the items while I am finding a more permanent home. I work with a number of museums which small or starting life, and for which there is no permanent home, and storage is borrowed from others or is stored at home or at the office. Whereas this may be shock and horror for the professional museum community, I am certain that every single collection started life in someone’s home or their office and only when this became a serious collection was a home sought. All of the major collections started with a single item, and many did not start with a museum but just as a collection, which then was used to start the museum. I happen to be doing things the other way around, starting the museum, and then building up the collection as I go along. Given that some of the items I will be acquiring will be potentially valuable, I have decided to use a reasonable secure location for storage, but I will not tell you where it is, otherwise is will not be so secure, will it! Once a location is selected, then I need to determine how to pack and store the items. The slide rule does not require much conservation storage, since it is made of plastic and will probably be unaffected by the environmental conditions for at least the next million years. However, the punched card is more of a challenge, given that it is made of paper card and will fade and degrade over time. I am considering a photographic sleeve for this and I will consult with my conservation expert, Sholeen Sanker, the head of our ETHER Conservation business unit, for advice.

What’s Next?

As part of the accession process, I need to conduct and document a condition check, and also I need to complete the documentation of the Object Entry and the Movement records. I know that if I do not do this now it will become a future cast of Retrospective Documentation, and I do not want to find myself in this position with my first two accessions! I also need to begin the cataloguing process and to determine the suitable fields which will help to provide the right level of information, and which will provide a suitable set of finding aids once the collection becomes large. I have taken a simple photograph of each purely to document the accession process, and a digitisation strategy will be required as well as the museum expands its operations.