For my MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies course I chose a work placement with the Gallery of Costume in Manchester’s Platt Fields Park, and its companion site in the centre, Manchester Art Gallery. As part of the placement I became a documentation assistant with their Photographic Portrait Archive Project, which has been ongoing since a generous $75,000 grant from the Getty foundation in 2008. The grant was to digitise 25,000 photographs collected during the 1920s and 30s by Drs Cunnington, and depicts nineteenth century men, women, and children of a wide social spectrum, ranging from women playing cricket, to Queen Victoria, to postal deliverymen.

A selection of photos from the Cunnington’s collection: Studio portrait of woman with bicycle, c.1890s, group photo of men and women after a game of cricket, c. 1885-1890, studio portrait of woman in princess line dress with beret, c. 1880s, and two boys in knickerbocker suits, c. 1890s.
A selection of photos from the Cunnington’s collection: Studio portrait of woman with bicycle, c.1890s, group photo of men and women after a game of cricket, c. 1885-1890, studio portrait of woman in princess line dress with beret, c. 1880s, and two boys in knickerbocker suits, c. 1890s.

My main objective was to increase the amount and accuracy of the information available on the Galleries’ database to enable the collection of 2,527 Cabinet and Silver Print photographs to be searchable for the first time since digitisation. Prior to the placement I had an interest in, and some knowledge of, late Victorian dress features, but during the first stage of the placement the curator at the Gallery of Costume talked me through major elements and helped me grasp the keywords and dates of the cabinet photographs that researchers may want to find. When working in the Gallery of Costume, what made being part of the research and documentation better was learning about dress features then being able to stroll downstairs and see physical dresses mounted in display cases in the galleries. As the placement progressed I got to understand how integral an accurately described collections management system is to museum and gallery staff, but also how small changes in how I wrote my descriptions could affect the potential virtual audiences using online collections, whether specialist researcher, student, or general public. Even though it was a stress-free and simple process, the descriptions I produced will form the basis of Manchester City Galleries’ revamped online collections database alongside digitised piece from their costume and fine art collection, and these records will be available at any location and at any time around the world.

I chose this placement as I wanted to gain collections management skills that I could later put on my CV, like working with KE EMu, documenting skills to museum standards, and working with a designated collection. But being part of Manchester Art Gallery has also provided invaluable contacts within Manchester City Galleries, all of whom were really enjoyable to work with. I hope I may have convinced some prospective placement students to consider collection documentation based work as it forms the roots of all museums, being used by curators and visitors alike, but is also changing the way access and connections are made in the virtual museums of the future.

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