Collections Care: Getting in aboot it!

Collections Care: Getting in aboot it!


The West Boathouse project was always a slightly unusual proposition. The building houses the sporting heritage collections of two rowing clubs, Clydesdale Amateur rowing Club and Clyde Amateur Rowing club, both of whom were founded in the mid-1800s. There is a mix of archives (1880s photographs, minute books and posters) and objects (boats, oars, trophies, vintage ergometers) in a wide range of materials – paper, wood, metals, textiles etc. How to record and share the collections required a bespoke approach and no single system or set of standards quite fit our criteria.

In addition, we must consider how the collections will fit back into the building once renovations are complete in the autumn of 2022. The building will continue to function as a working boathouse and this must be balanced against best practice for the collections. Alongside planning for the recording, sharing and long-term storage and care of the collections, we’ve been developing our interpretation and redisplay scheme. This has focused on how we will use the collections to tell stories and signal to visitors and members that the building is a friendly and inclusive place. 


We’ve relied on volunteers and interns throughout the collections care process – a handful from the rowing clubs, a core of committed volunteers from Glasgow University Archaeology masters course, our regular West Boathouse volunteers and three interns from Glasgow University Museums Studies and Information Management masters courses. Each cohort came with their own needs, motivations and interests. 

In the case of the archaeology students, Covid had impacted opportunities for traditional fieldwork, and this project offered a chance to engage with the recording, care and curation of objects, using similar principles and techniques to post-excavation fieldwork. Sporting heritage was an unfamiliar field for them, but they brought a different perspective on material culture that complemented the knowledge base of our other volunteers. The interns were keen to get experience in the methodologies and standards around the collections and helped develop our cataloguing systems.

Covid restrictions meant the process was delayed by over a year and proceeded in fits and starts. With the deadline for the redisplay looming, we’ve adopted a triage approach – prioritising parts of the collection we know will be redisplayed and the older material that will be deposited with the city archive. More on that later.

All our volunteers had training in handling, basic photography and lighting, using the cataloguing system, labelling and packing. Once they were confident and comfortable with the process, they were able to work autonomously and could pop through to the main office if they had any issues or needed advice. Where possible we’ve used a buddy system, with a more experienced volunteer paired with newer recruits.

It’s been difficult to attract and retain volunteers over the past three years. Our original plan was to house the collections in a community arts space during the renovations and tap into additional audiences through existing groups and programmes operating within the building. This was upended at the start of the pandemic. Instead, we cleared a room at GBPT’s offices, and, when restrictions allowed, had the first trickle of volunteers come in. As restrictions have eased, we’ve upped the number of volunteers, but we’re still significantly behind where we’d hoped to be.

The rowing community have also struggled to maintain their connection to the project. This is partly due to volunteer fatigue – members have devoted a lot of their spare time to other aspects of the project such as negotiating legal agreements and fundraising and simply don’t have the capacity to put in more time. The pandemic also had a big impact, as did no longer having a communal space while renovation works were underway on their clubhouse. The rowers were familiar with the material, but are primarily interested in getting out on the water rather than the history and heritage of the sport. We are currently reliant on a handful of veteran club members to provide information on the clubs’ collections, but we hope that once the collections move back into the building we can tap into younger members and ensure there is wider representation.

What have we got?

Our first job was to undertake an inventory to help us understand our collections and work out the scale of the project. We began with a rapid, systematic survey of items on a room-by-room basis. We noted the number and types of items, their condition, how they were displayed or stored, and, where known, their ownership. The inventory was supported by sketch plans, drawings and a rapid photographic survey showing the locations of key items. By the end, we knew we had:

  • Over 200 framed photos, some dating back to the 1880s
  • 93 pennants
  • 19 vintage oars 
  • 6 (and a half) vintage ‘shell’ boats
  • 5 antler trophies
  • 2 rowing ‘onesies’ (worn by Gillian Lindsay)
  • A stolen road sign from the 1958 Empire Games
  • Club minute books from the 1860s – 1930s, and a wealth of other sporting heritage treasures. 

Don’t forget the digital….

That covered the physical stuff, but we also had a lot of digital material to work through. Club members sent ‘born digital’ photographs and film captured within the last 20 years, as well as digital surrogates of photographs from their own collections. 


The next stage was thinking through the operational nuts and bolts. The West Boathouse will have limited public access and isn’t a museum, but we wanted to make our collections accessible. We spent a lot of time evaluating and testing various software options for cataloguing and sharing our collections, including EHive, Omeka, OpenHeritage, Collective Access, Collection Space and Axiell (formerly known as AdLib). One of the main challenges was finding something that suited the diverse nature of our collection. Most professional cataloguing software packages are tailored to museums OR archives and adhere to data standards for those sectors. We needed something that was simple, customisable and affordable. 

In the end, we developed our own system, using a Google Forms user interface which publishes to a spreadsheet. This has made the cataloguing process more comfortable and intuitive for volunteers and allows for a degree of control and standardisation of terminology and descriptions. 

Sharing and Publishing

Sharing collections online was less straightforward. There are lots of options out there, and some great free, open-source projects. However, while the software might be free, you need a developer to integrate it into your website, and this can be costly. In the end, we plumped for eHive as a way to publish our collections – You can also use eHive to catalogue, but we were keen to keep our costs down, so we’ll be using our own system to create the master catalogue, and publishing a selection of material to eHive. We adapted our bespoke cataloguing system to align with core cataloguing fields in eHive, so we could do bulk uploads without having to do too much additional data entry. So far, the system has worked fairly well.


Every collection is different, especially when it comes to storage and display, but there are a few essential bits of kit that will always be needed. With a mix of objects and documents, some of which are definitely ‘outsize’ (8m long boats), we’ve used a mix of flatbed scanning for smaller documents and digital photography for everything else. An overhead scanner would have been ideal for larger photographs and documents that wouldn’t fit in the scanner, but these are prohibitively expensive. Instead, we rigged a makeshift overhead mount for the DSLR camera using a camera boom arm, mounted on an old hat stand! It’s worked a treat!

Below, is a list of the items we’ve found most useful on the West Boathouse project. In total, the cost came to around £850.

Paper, pencils, pens, sharpener and eraser and tweezers Recording and  labelling A chinagraph pencil will write on plastic, glass, paper, film and metal. Stabilo wax/graphite pencils will write on film, plastic, glass, metal & paper Use 2B pencils for writing lightly on paper surfaces and objects. Use a plastic eraser to avoid tearing and discolouration (e.g. Mars Plastic Eraser).

For note-taking and recording, or use a laptop/PC if you have one. Use tweezers to help position labels.

Soft bristle brushes, lint-free cloths, cleaning pads and smoke sponge Cleaning A selection of soft bristle (e.g. goats hair) brushes for VERY gentle cleaning and dusting. Use smaller paintbrushes for applying adhesive before labelling.

Cloths, cleaning pads and smoke sponges should be used with extreme caution and for light cleaning only.  

Ruler/measuring tape Recording A cord-backed ruler is ideal. Guage callipers aren’t essential but can make measuring 3D objects much easier. £10
Camera, memory card, tripod and boom Recording Can you borrow a camera? If not, a basic DSLR will cost from around £300 upwards or cheaper if you buy second-hand. Even a basic point-and-shoot camera or higher-end smartphones can produce high-resolution photos. Don’t be tempted to go for the cheapest tripod – they are often flimsy and unstable. You want to minimise camera shake to get crisp, clear photographs. A boom can also be very handy to get overhead shots of outsize objects (c. £40). You can print out your own scale bars from online sites and glue them to card or foamex to make them a little more robust. A set of 5cm, 10cm and 20cm scales should cover most smaller objects. £500
Photography backdrop + lighting Recording Monochrome, unpatterned curtain lining or a sheet of heavy card or foamex make a good, affordable backdrop for photographing objects. Two lights positioned on either side of your object will produce an even, diffuse light and reduce shadow and shine. You can pick up a softbox kit with 2 positionable lights for around £50-60. £60
Tyvek Tags Labelling Tyvek tags for labelling artefacts. Tyvek is very strong, tear proof and waterproof. You can use the tags as they are to attach to artefacts, or use offcuts for labelling.  £10
Wheat starch Labelling Used as an adhesive for Tyvek labels. Works well on wood, metal, stone and ceramic materials, however, we’ve had less success with plastics. Wheat starch paste makes a good non-chemical alternative to Paraloid B-72 adhesive, which requires careful storage and use. £10
Gloves Handling White cotton, Latex or Nitrile – essential handling for photographs and some metal objects. 
Acid-free tissue paper Packing Versatile and relatively cheap – use this to wrap and protect, or as a buffer between documents and photographs. You can buy tissue in rolls or as pre-cut sheets. A 13m roll will cost around £25 £10
Boxes Storage Ideally, any boxes or containers will be made from acid-free card or polypropylene plastic (chemically stable and safe for use on archives and collections). Sizes and quantities will depend on your collection. Plastic boxes offer protection from damp and dirt, but not potential UV damage from sun exposure. Really Useful Boxes are great – sturdy, waterproof and stackable.  £200 (cost for approx 10 medium sized boxes)
Thermo-hygrometer Storage Measures relative humidity in the atmosphere. Try to get one that records highs and lows so you can analyse the full range of humidity in a space. £10
Polyethelene pockets and bags Storage Archival polyester pockets and sleeves are a good way to store photographs and slim documents. Bags can be used to store larger or more awkwardly shaped objects. Both are available in a wide range of sizes. £50
TOTAL £850

Up next: Collections and Storytelling! Find out about how the collections will be fitted back into the building in our next blog..