The online curiosity cabinet

For 15 years the National Trust’s Head of Collections Management, Philip Claris, has been working on an outstanding project: the digitisation of the Trust’s collections. This web-based treasure trove of art and history – from stuffed boxing squirrels to medieval globes – is now one of the largest online resources in the world, and is growing by the day.

‘Are you really going to count all the teaspoons? And just how many are there? Where is the Trust’s oldest teapot? Will I be able to look up all the Trust’s treasures?’ These are just a few of the questions I have been asked over the past 15 years about the project to digitise the National Trust’s fabulous collections. Now, a search on our new website can answer these and (I hope) your questions on objects to be found at the one-time homes of the famous (such as Agatha Christie), the aristocratic and the working class. Here you will find records of around 700,000 objects, from laudanum bottles to a pair of Aertex underpants, sedan chairs to an early anti-ageing ‘rejuvenating’ machine, fine old masters to a lavish Georgian doll’s house. About half come with images, with more information and images being added every day. You can use the website to explore for pure enjoyment, to find an illustration for that piece of school homework, for more advanced academic or professional study, or even to entertain friends on Facebook – why not make up a few collection quizzes of your own? Another useful feature is the Collections A-Z Directory, with highlights of each collection – to whet your appetite for a visit to see the real thing. This will also provide a sprinkling of treasures on screen for each place in Trust care, all chosen by Trust staff and volunteers local to the site – the people who really know their collections. Records are constantly being improved and enhanced, too, so return visits to the site will be rewarded.

A thoroughly modern inventory

So, how many items are there in National Trust collections as a whole, and where are they? To answer these questions the Trust decided that the only way was to create a thoroughly modern digital inventory. With more than 300 collections this was no small task. We also needed to find a suitable collections management system to hold the inventory. The National Trust is the UK’s largest accredited museum authority (currently 142 collections are ‘Accredited Museums’), so naturally we looked first for an existing museum system. But the Trust, with its many dispersed locations and variety of properties, is not a typical museum – initially we could not find a satisfactory solution.

Breakthrough came when we found a partner, and only the very best would do: the Royal Collection. The Queen as sovereign holds the Royal Collection in trust for her successors and the nation. It is one of the largest and most important art collections in the world. Like the National Trust, the Royal Collection as an organisation has widespread collections management responsibilities and requirements, and needed a new collections management system. The Director of the Royal Collection and the Trust’s Historic Properties Director agreed to form a partnership project, to collaborate on the creation of a new system, which both parties could separately use. A supplier was chosen, the system developed and finally installed in 2009 in the Royal Collection and in the National Trust. It is now used daily by hundreds of staff and volunteers in both organisations, at locations throughout the UK. This important development provided the foundation for public access.

Digitising our collections

Meanwhile the Trust began to digitise its collections. Hundreds of volunteers, staff and contractors, guided by three Inventory Co-ordinators, compiled data from the Trust’s traditional inventory cards, took new digital photographs and checked, marked and counted every item, including the teaspoons. Data were first captured locally on dozens of individual Catalist databases (a museum application specially tailored for the Trust) until eventually all the data were merged into the one new system. Digital images were stored in the Trust’s photographic library system. The final piece in the jigsaw was the online website, launched in December 2011 – drawing together the threads of development and data capture which began more than a decade earlier.

Now every item in National Trust collections has a unique inventory number, and with three quarters of a million items online, we know exactly where they are located, at over 300 properties within 10,000 rooms or spaces. Cataloguing continues for books (about a third remain to be catalogued), inventories are still being finished at some older properties and starting afresh at new ones: Seaton Delaval, Tredegar and Nuffield Place are all currently in progress and emerging online. We estimate that when complete the inventory will exceed a million items.

Diverse, eclectic, magnificent…

It is hard to find words to sum up the Trust’s collections as a whole. Each collection is different, each one a personal creation, all reflect the lives and characters of individual people. Yet we can now also begin to see and appreciate the collections held by the Trust together, as a vast National Trust online museum, through which we can chart developments in taste, technology and society from the 16th century to the present day.

Our project is far from over – we plan to continue gathering new information and stimulating new research far into the future. We also plan to look for new ways to engage with you – as a growing community of people interested in collections and how they are managed. Many of you have been in contact following the launch of National Trust Collections, providing new insights and information. To get in touch please email [email protected] and let us have your feedback. Also please have a look at some of the blogs, written by staff and volunteers – new ones seem to be popping up all the time (see the box)! We hope you will enjoy sharing their stories and exploring National Trust Collections.

And finally…

To answer those questions at the start, there are over 1,000 teaspoons at more than 50 National Trust places. And the oldest teapot in our collection is probably the one that belonged to Elizabeth Dysart at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames. It’s a rare white porcelain example from Zhangzhou, China, with English mounts, c.1650-75. You can search for it by its inventory number: 1139006.1 or just type ‘Ham teapot’ on National Trust Collections to find out more – and from this teapot’s webpage you can click under ‘Related items’ to see all teapots in National Trust collections. Happy exploring!

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2012 issue of the National Trust Magazine