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Accessing Collections: Why do you need to see it in person?

As researchers, we spend a lot of our time accessing collections at a variety of institutions: libraries, national museums, local museums, archives.  It can be a challenge to access artifacts not on display, especially when the institution has gone to the effort of digitally photographing and publishing images of their items.  We get asked, "why do you need to see it in person?" which is a reasonable question, especially when the collection professionals have spent time and money trying to provide digital access to a wide public.  But even when the artifacts haven't been photographed and published, we sometimes meet with resistance.  It can be hard for an institution to find the staff time to pull items from a collection for researcher's review, and it can pose a challenge in terms of viewing space, security, and care for delicate items.

Despite these very understandable concerns, we still push to see artifacts in person for a very good reason: there is nothing that replaces in-person examination.  Video chatting with a loved one is fine, but isn't it better to meet in person?  The same applies to artifacts.

In person examination yields so much that can never truly be captured in a photograph.  Color is extremely sensitive to surroundings, so it is one thing that we are careful to document using an industry-standard Pantone color deck.  Size and scale of a piece are also misleading in photographs, even when a scale or ruler is included in the photo.  For needleworkers, close examinations can reveal exciting and previously hidden details about materials, techniques, padding, and construction that would be easily overlooked otherwise.

Most museums and institutions want to provide access to their collections and often express that goal in writing in their mission statement.  But staffing, circumstances, and security considerations can get in the way of that goal.  We may have to work hard to access a collection, but it's entirely worth it!

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