1 November 2013

Interesting developments at the Powell-Cotton Museum

ThePowell-Cotton Museum in Birchington-on-sea in northeast Kent is recognized by museum ethnographers as one of the most important ethnographic collections in the country. However, as well as a collection of over 20,000 ethnographic objects, largely collected by Percy Powell-Cotton and his family, the Museum contains a world-class collection of historic taxidermy and a vast natural history collection. The Museum also holds large collections of local archaeology and stewards the public areas of Quex House, the Powell-Cotton’s historic family home, to which the museum is an extension. In addition to these incredible collections, the Powell-Cotton has an archive of over 45,000 items relating to the Powell-Cotton’s extensive travel and collecting activities, the history of both the Museum and the family and an important selection of early anthropological film and ethnographic photography. The collections are not only rich in their own right, but also tell the story of the engagement of Percy Powell-Cotton and his children in the worlds of anthropology, natural history and local Kent society in the twentieth century. The museum and house are set in attractive landscaped grounds, with many activities for museum visitors.

Natural history collections diorama

The Museum has recently designed and installed a new collections management system, having until now worked with a physical card catalogue. This will cover all the diverse collections of the Museum; it will provide the Museum with cutting edge collections management support for the coming decades. The database conforms to all museum and libraries standards and also incorporates many lessons learnt from other museums’ collections databases especially those worked in by the authors at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and National Museums Scotland.
The Museum has decided to use Filemaker Pro for its system and a brand-new custom-made database has been designed by the authors in collaboration with all the staff and volunteers at the Powell-Cotton Museum. For a small museum with limited funding, this has proved both exceptionally economical and practical. Relying heavily on volunteer support, this adaptable and intuitive system should suit the varied needs and abilities of all users. The design process will be completed over the next month or so and it is hoped that data entry can quickly progress.
The Museum is concurrently undertaking an Arts Council England funded project, called ‘Securing the Future of Our Past’, which will aim to widen the diversity of our audience and increase access to the Museum’s collection. Central to this idea is the redevelopment of one of our current ethnographic galleries to become an area for research, play and interactive learning. The content of the space is being determined through extensive dialogue with the public, which is currently taking place. The gallery will open in the summer of 2015. One outcome of this project will be to make the collections on display also available online, meaning that by the summer of 2015 we hope to make 1000 objects available via the museum website as well as in our new gallery.

Current ethnographic displays at the Powell-Cotton

The Powell-Cotton Museum is loved by many of its visitors for its historic charm. However our new database offers us a means of securing our future as an accredited museum. For small museums like the Powell-Cotton the prospect of undertaking such a monumental task, when no computerised collections database exists, can seem daunting, but we have been extremely lucky in the support we have received from other institutions, colleagues and supporters of the Powell-Cotton. The authors would like to take this opportunity to thank Karen Botha, Director of the Powell-Cotton for supporting this project so wholeheartedly, and the Trustees of the Powell-Cotton for their continued support in the care of the collections. We would also like to thank the Pitt Rivers Museum for their support of and interest in the Powell-Cotton Museum, particularly Michael O’Hanlon and Cathy Wright.
If you would like to know any more information about the Museum, its collections database or the new developments please contact us via museumenquiries@quexmuseum.org
Inbal Livne (Head of Collections, Powell-Cotton Museum) and Alison Petch (Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford).

November 2013.

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