Major collections move project reaches new milestone with 64,600 objects decanted from the Harkness Building

In December 2021, the collections move team reached a new milestone to decant and move a total of 64,600 collections objects stored in the Harkness Building into temporary storage.

For years the Harkness Building has stored Ashmolean Museum collections from the Western Art Department, Eastern Art collections, textiles and archives, and the Antiquities collections. Over the last sixteen months, the team moved more than 9,500 boxes. It took 30 vans and 30 lorry loads to move these boxes as well as furniture and carpets, travelling 1,700 miles in total.

The collections move project is a major project to move the University Museums' off-site stored collections into two new permanent stores in Oxford and Swindon. Currently the off-site collections are stored in ten sites across Oxfordshire, which means they can be difficult to access and sometimes stored in inadequate conditions. The move project will help improve access to the collections for staff, researchers, students and local communities, and ensure the objects have excellent long-term storage conditions.

Much care and consideration goes into decanting a museum store like the Harkness Building, as there are so many precious and unique objects to pack and move. Collections Move Assistants Jennifer, Giles, Laura, Lucy and Team Leader Pete talk about reaching this new milestone in the project and their favourite objects from the move.

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The Harkness Building decant was a long project but split into many stages. What was the process of decanting the building, and how long did it take?

JENNIFER: Work at Harkness started at the end of summer 2020 when we were still working with a reduced team due to Covid restrictions. We packed the Western Art furniture first and took the furniture to the temporary store. Then in the new year the entire team came back to Harkness on a part-time basis, where we worked on the boxed Antiquities and Eastern art objects.

We split the objects by whether their permanent resting place would be the Ashmolean or the new Swindon store. So for several months over late summer and autumn we packed objects destined for the Ashmolean.

GILES: After that we cracked on with packing the carpets and brass rubbings collections for the temporary store. We then worked with the contractors Constantine towards the end of the year who supported us with packing and moving the remaining free-standing objects and boxes to the temporary store.

JENNIFER: So, in total, the Harkness decant took about a year to complete (with some breaks for other projects and Covid disruptions).

What do you think has been the biggest challenge(s) of the Harkness decant?

LAURA: The many reasons the Harkness Building was unsuitable for storing museum objects also made it hard to work in. The heating system was very old and faulty, making rooms on the first floor wildly hot, but parts of the ground floor incredibly cold! There was no plumbing so we had to nip to the nearby Maths Department to use the loo. Because the building conditions were deteriorating, we couldn't fix these things and had to stick it out and move all the objects to the temporary store as quickly as we could. Catching up with the schedule after working from home for periods was also a challenge!

When we first started the decant, the old database posed lots of problems - it was slow, hard to navigate and difficult to use to solve "problems". We started using the current version of the database in spring 2021, and it really helped to speed up our packing and auditing process.

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That does sound like a lot of obstacles to overcome. What do you think has been your biggest success this year? Anything that kept you going?

LUCY: Lunch from the nearby Japanese food van was always a highlight of the week. The biggest success was, despite all the challenges, moving everything out of Harkness to the temporary store on schedule.

JENNIFER: Yes, good lunches definitely helped us to keep going. Our team works really well together, so we were able to motivate one another to keep going. We have a spreadsheet to record all the box numbers moved by each team member, and the friendly competition was a good motivator.

There were also smaller milestones such as completing the repacking of all of the carpets, brass rubbings and free-standing objects. We also repacked all the items destined for the Ashmolean ourselves aside from the biggest objects. At the end of last year, we had completed moving 25% of the boxes at Harkness!

That's wonderful to hear. Is there anything you have learnt from this ambitious decant for future collection moves?

LAURA: We’d say that over a long-term project like this, it’s good to be flexible as situations change and there’ll always be things you can’t plan for. The pandemic has shown how mobile we can be. We were ready to work in different locations and on different materials as the moment called for it, as we were always flexible and self-sufficient to a certain degree.

We’ve also learned that checking in with each other regularly helps us to keep up the standard of work. In a long-term project, methods and techniques can wander over time as people find different ways of doing things, so frequently reassessing the way we do things keeps us all on the same path.

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Tell us about your favourite object(s) that you came across in the Harkness Building. Anything unusual?

JENNIFER: Personally, I really enjoyed the brass rubbings. Getting to see the different medieval fashions and having information about the individuals was really interesting.

The "man trap," likely to have been used to catch trespassers on private land in the early 1800s, was also kind of unusual and felt more like a Pitt Rivers object rather than the Ashmolean. The display plaque said the trap's metal jaws were triggered by pressure on the central plate and that they were declared illegal in England in 1827.

LAURA: We came across unusual packing materials such as tobacco tins and replaced them with archive standard materials. There were also many beautiful objects from the Antiquities and Eastern Art departments including a stunning blue and white dish made in Multan.

Some objects were destined for the Ashmolean Museum, including a selection of swords which we made a bespoke box for. Giles and Meg also came across exhibition display materials from the 90s.

These are great! The "man trap" definitely sounds unusual. What are you and the team working on next?

PETE: After we finish processing the Harkness material this summer, we are moving on to work on History of Science Museum collections that used to be stored in Osney Power Station. To ensure the collections are ready for long-term storage, we will be checking the packaging of a range of fragile objects including test tubes, thermometers, radios and telescopes.


Read about the Collections Move Project

Read the last project update