Documentation staff

 12 March 2013

As well as recording items in the collection, documentation staff keep records of the activities of the collection.

Jodrell mycology collection
Jodrell mycology collection

What do documentation staff do?

A heritage collection can consist of many objects. Large national museums such as the Science Museum have over 200,000. Whether the collection is large or small, records need to be kept for each object, including:

  • its name
  • a description
  • the physical attributes (size, what it is made from, etc)
  • the condition of the object
  • other relevant information (such as where it is from).

Staff need to keep records of:

  • damage to items
  • loss of items
  • movements of items from and to storage
  • items loaned to other collections.

As well as museum objects, recording and documentation also includes heritage sites, such as:

  • heritage buildings
  • archaeological sites
  • industrial sites.

Digital documentation

Nowadays, records make full use of IT. There are specially-designed software packages for heritage documentation. The most sophisticated allow the storage of:

  • images
  • sound
  • video
  • GPS information
  • CAD images
  • computer models
  • aerial photography.

Digital cataloguing also allows the collection to be more widely and readily accessed. Digital images, videos, etc can themselves be used in exhibitions.

As well as recording items in the collection, documentation staff keep records of the activities of the collection which could include, for example:

  • donations
  • corporate activities
  • acquisitions
  • development projects, such as the opening of a new gallery
  • past exhibitions.

Other areas of work

As well as recording the collection, documentation staff can also be involved in:

  • maintaining data standards
  • policies and procedures for the collection
  • ensuring that the organisation complies with the law
  • rights and copywriting
  • publishing catalogues for exhibitions.

In some museums, the documentation staff act as an enquiry point for members of the public and researchers. They may work with visitors to the site, helping them access items and documents. The work may be combined with, or overlap with, the duties of a collections manager or loans registrar.

In large heritage organisations and museums, there is a documentation department with staff working at different levels. There may also be volunteers working in documentation.

As well as recording items in the collection, documentation staff keep records of the activities of the collection.

In a smaller museum, with fewer staff, documentation staff may be involved in other activities such as fundraising, research or organising exhibitions.

The work may be indoors or out, depending on the heritage site or collection (some may involve both). You may be handling delicate objects or dusty papers, again, depending on the collection.

Most documentation staff work for a heritage organisation,  while some work freelance.

How do I become a member of documentation staff?

You need to be interested in heritage and in historical items and/or works of art.

Employers will look for good organisation and communication skills as well as attention to detail. You need to be able to work under pressure and to tight deadlines.

You have to be able to work as part of a team, but also be self-motivated to take responsibility for your own work. IT skills are essential.

Training and qualifications

Documentation officers usually have a degree. This could be in a heritage-related subject such as:

  • heritage management
  • museum studies
  • art history

Many also have Masters or postgraduate Diploma.

Alternatively, you could enter with a degree in another specialist area, with a Masters or postgraduate Diploma in a heritage-related subject. The first degree could be any subject you are interested in, such as science, social studies, geology or archaeology.

Gaining experience

You can face fierce competition for jobs in the heritage sector. Having experience can give you a real advantage when applying for jobs. This could be paid or voluntary.

Many museums and heritage organisations have volunteer programmes. Some may involve helping with documentation projects.

Documentation staff sometimes move into loans registration work.

What can I earn?

A documentation assistant can earn around £16,000 to £18,000. A documentation officer can earn £23,000 to £27,000.


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