Collective Conversations with Gillian Essam

Gillian Essam is a recently retired collection information manager at the National Gallery, London and after a professional career spanning 24 years, she is still adjusting to her new-found free time

Prior to her arrival at the National Gallery in 2001, Gillian worked as a professional librarian, then went on to study art history at the post-graduate level at Reading University and the Courtauld Institute of Art. At the Courtauld, Gillian worked on the first computerised catalogue of the Witt Library, a large collection of fine art images, before becoming Documentation Officer at Tate from 1990 to 2001.

Over the years, Gillian has amassed a wealth of knowledge and insight. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with Gillian about her work and her ideas for successful museum documentation.

What advice would you give someone just starting their career in this industry?

Try not to re-invent the wheel. When you meet a problem or develop an area of information, review all the available sources of help in the documentation sector and consult your peers. By using or adapting existing standards and solutions you will not only work efficiently, but you will also help to reassure your museum that it is spending resources wisely and going in a sensible direction. Save your creativity for uncharted areas!

Talking and listening to the people who will benefit from your documentation system is the most important thing you can do. Take time to understand what people really need. Be prepared to explain documentation over and over again from first principles to the newest ideas. Provide as much training for new staff and refresher courses for existing staff as you can, and as much help and advice as possible.

What was the biggest challenge faced by you and your team when you were at Tate and the National Gallery?

In both museums my post was newly created to manage data quality. At Tate the big change came towards the end of my time there when we migrated our existing data to TMS. Before this, a very small team had achieved an enormous amount with an in-house collection database, putting in place some key collection management procedures, providing camera-ready copy for the concise catalogue, and serving up-to-date cataloguing and images to one of the earliest online collection catalogues. TMS opened up many more possibilities to us and the process of procuring and implementing such a large collection management system provided a very steep and valuable learning curve as well as requiring more documentation staff. By agreeing on requirements, specifying new features, and developing new procedures with a much wider group of staff than had ever been involved before, we were able to really focus our vision for the future.

How do you see the use of technology in museums evolving in the future?

Linked open data may offer us more efficient and exciting ways of integrating collection-related data held in different systems within and outside museums, and presenting it to staff and the public. Most large museums with access to IT resources have already proved the benefits of linking their various systems, but it would be good to find ways of developing and maintaining these links with less effort.

What one project or exhibition are you most proud of from your career and why?

One of my early projects at the National Gallery was to standardize and update core data about the collection in TMS. The Gallery had acquired TMS the year before I arrived, but although much effort had been made to enhance loan history and acquisition data, the core cataloguing was not yet trusted by the staff in their daily work. Therefore we updated the details of every painting in the collection to standards and sources agreed with the curators and established clear procedures to maintain them. Later we did the same with the shared names of people and organizations.

At the time this was a game-changing investment for the Gallery. It established TMS as the authorized source for this information in the Gallery, and staff confidence in the data enabled us to re-use it for many other purposes, notably to integrate it much more effectively with the staff intranet and the public website. It also laid the foundations for the huge improvements to our collection management procedures that are continuing to this day.

Do you have a favorite book, event or training resource that helped you in your career?

Collections Trust has been a constant source of help. It provides a wealth of advice via its website and publications, and its annual conference is an inspiring forum for documentation professionals. SPECTRUM, the UK Museum Collection Management Standard, is a great achievement and continues to improve.

I also found it very helpful and enjoyable to be part of a friendly community of TMS users via the TMSlistserv, the TMS UK and Northern Ireland User Group and Gallery Systems’ own annual conference, Collective Imagination. I’m a fan of Gallery Systems’ webinars too; they helped me plan our most recent big upgrade to TMS 2012. 

If you were allowed to take home an item from your collection, what would it be and why?

I think it would be a recent acquisition by the National Gallery, ‘La Ferté’ by Richard Parkes Bonington. It’s a small sketch of the French coast from about 1825, and I feel it has an exhilarating sense of freedom and freshness.

After such a diverse career, what are your plans for retirement?

I’m looking forward to the luxury of having more time and energy to spend on seeing friends and family, theatre and exhibitions, reading, and enjoying the countryside!