Accessioning HMS Unicorn’s Collections

Documentation is an inalienable part of museum work, and is crucial in the management of at-risk items, collection-based research, collaboration between museums and the fulfilment of the Museum Accreditation criteria. No collection can be researched if the information accompanying its objects cannot be accessed, nor can a temporary exhibition be planned if no documentation is available to identify the contents. According to Carl Guthe, author of ‘The Management of Small History Museums’ (1994), the significance of an object: ‘Lies not only in itself alone but also in the information relating to it.’ Documentation enhances the relevance of a collection, making the information related to the object not only useful to the research community, but also essential in communicating with the public, in addition to assisting in the fulfilment of a museum’s deepest mission. Without detailed information on museum’s contents, in fact, a collection risks becoming ‘meaningless’, filled with objects devoid of cultural context and of a ‘curatorial voice’. In this context, the full realisation of a museum’s potential requires numerous procedures and the application of core standardisation rules, such as those outlined by SPECTRUM, the UK collections management standard.

Accessioning is one of SPECTRUM primary procedures and, as such, has strong implications for the success of museum documentation, representing a ‘formal commitment’ by a museum’s governing body to deeply care for an object over the long term. Once accessioned, an object ‘officially’ becomes part of a museum’s permanent collection and is assigned a unique number which links the object to the information related to it. With this in mind, accessioning has a clear ethical mission – it is a long-life commitment by the museum to preserve the object to the best possible state, and a decision about accessioning an item should, therefore, be carefully evaluated.

At HMS Unicorn, we are currently carrying out some intensive accessioning, thus uncovering the quite unique history of HMS Unicorn through highlighting the importance of the fantastic objects held in its collections. Amongst the objects we have recently accessioned, is one of the finest ship models in our care, created by one of our talented volunteers, Justin Dempster.

‘The idea of designing a model of the ship as she looks like today came to me when I noticed that there were not any models of HMS Unicorn as it is on display. My interest in ship model making first began when I was fifteen, and continued to grow over the years, inspiring me to volunteer at HMS Unicorn as a Ship Model Maker and Conservator. I have been volunteering on board for about 23 years, and what I particularly enjoy about volunteering on the ship is being able to help preserve one of the oldest ships in the world whilst doing something useful with my time and skills, and help pass her on to the next generation – she is one of the few genuine wooden sailing ships left in the world and we are very privileged to have her in Dundee’, Justin said.

Justin Dempster alongside his model of HMS Unicorn

We are very lucky to have such a wonderful team of volunteers on board, who get involved with us and truly help make a difference. Our volunteers help HMS Unicorn staff deliver the museum’s mission in many exciting ways, ranging from helping deliver our programme of events to enhancing the significance of our collections, while making them available to the public through digital engagement work and social media dissemination. Other volunteers, like Justin, even create wonderful artworks that help us tell the story of this unique, remarkable 19th -century ship in several inspiring ways.


Model by Justin Dempster, photo by Rhys Boyle, HMS Unicorn volunteers

To conclude, the importance of accessioning is indisputable. Recording and sharing objects information accurately is a first and essential step which will ensure that today’s museum collections will be of use to and add to the enjoyment of the users and researchers of the future. At HMS Unicorn, our success – collection and event-wise – is only possible because of the invaluable support of such a wonderful crew of volunteers, strongly committed to make HMS Unicorn a model ship!

Blog post by Federica Papiccio, Collections Intern