A chat with a collections manager

Whenever I see Thando Ngcangisa, whether it be walking the halls of the Social History Centre or handling artifacts at the South African Museum, he has a smile on his face. That’s why when it came time to interview a colleague, I was hoping I’d get the chance to chat with him. Thando is an assistant collections manager at the Social History Centre, and like my supervisor Janene, he loves his line of work.

Q: How did you come to work in the field of museums? Did you study it in school, or did you just fall into it?

A: “When I was doing my matric, which was 1997, a friend of mine, he used to work in the museum at the Slave Lodge. So I used to come visit the museums like any other student, and then I got so interested because I saw quite a lot of things that were a bit familiar to me, like at the (South African) Museum, the anthropology department. And then during the school holidays, he would invite me to come and just do some casual jobs like cleaning. That’s how I started growing the interest. Then I went to college — Cape College. I did human resource management. Then in 2002 I was done with almost everything, and I continued coming to the museum and doing all those (casual jobs) like monthly or just on weekends — I just got invited — and I worked the SA Museum, I worked at the Maritime Museum. So that’s when my knowledge of the museum started expanding.

“From there — I think it was 2003, because I was done with schooling — I went to Woolies. I started working there because I needed some money. I think I lasted for about a year there, and then there were some posts advertised for Iziko — I applied for three, which were collections assistant in the social history department, and then for an attendant in customer service management, and then the other one was to do with human resource management. Fortunately I got collections assistant in the social history department, which was 2004, I think around October, if I’m correct.

“Then I grew up, you know, in the museum. I started liking a lot of things, and I was quite exposed in other departments, like even the archeology department, the natural history department — because (until then) I was more familiar with the customer service department, so my interest was just growing and growing.

“In 2006, I became a trainee collections manager, and then 2007, that’s when I got to be an assistant collections manager. So basically it’s not something that I studied for but I got the trainings like the workshops and some small training and also attending the conferences, that’s where I sort of grew to be sort of a (well-rounded) professional.”

Q: What are your daily tasks as an assistant collections manager?

A: “One of them is digitizing the collection. It’s quite interesting because in this day and age, we rely more on digital, unlike the olden days, so you need to be able to work with those to retrieve things and knowing where they are and their names and which grouping.

“(Another task) has to do with managing the collections, which involves retrieving objects for students, for the public, and for the exhibition — if things are going on exhibition, that’s one of my duties, to retrieve them and send them to the conservation team so that they can do their bit. And to move their stuff because also I’ve got a license so I can drive around and move the stuff. Also to visit some other (Iziko) sites because we’ve got loan material.

“(Some tasks are) also more to do with management — to draft some loan requests from other institutions worldwide and even internally within Iziko.

“But at the present moment we are busy with unpacking, which demands most of my time. And also new acquisitions because we always acquire things. I mean, things do come through, like loans, some purchases, some donations, so you need to register those things — know how to register them, mark them, photograph them, all those skills.”

Q: What is the biggest challenge of your job, and what is the biggest reward?

A: “The biggest challenge is to work with other institutions who don’t really understand the way we do things like, to make an example, some small institutions, they expect because we are THE museum, we are supposed to be serving the community, the public, that’s our biggest interest, so they always expect us to just give our things. Like if they are asking for items to be loaned, they expect us to just easily give them. But we’ve got principles in place. For instance, the climate control of your museum, we need to make sure that it’s up to our standards. So when you have to be involved in those discussions, it becomes quite a bit of a challenge.

“Also when a visitor comes because we are keeping their stuff — some of them, they get donated of loaned, so maybe a great grandfather donated something in the museum and then the great grandson would come and be interested to see the item. Then, if the item is not on exhibition and it just has never been on exhibition — you know for many reasons, because really you’ve got limited space, you can’t exhibit everything — so those people, they start saying things and questioning. So you have to just keep your head right and not get caught in it.

“One of the most interesting is just to — I must say, I am one of the most privileged. For some people, they have to pay in order to see just like 2 percent of the collection. They have to pay. And for me, I can see almost like 90 or more percent without even paying a cent. I can even touch the stuff, which some people, they don’t have that opportunity. I can touch the stuff. I can lift it, you know? I do get that connection, which is what really fascinates me most.

“And also to be involved with the conferences and learning more of the social history. You get a chance to learn more about your own culture as well, which you know, before I used to assume, ‘OK, I know my culture. No one can question me,’ and all that. But, I mean, work in the museum. You get that sort of light, that, OK, you don’t know anything.”

Q: What is your advice for students who would like to work in museums one day?

A: “Well firstly, it’s passion. I think for everything you need a passion.

“And secondly, if you have any luck, the team that you’re working with, you need to have great understanding. Our work involves things that are not ours. We don’t own the things. Everything is being owned by the public. So you do need to preserve these things. You can’t just mess around with them. You can’t just lose them. You can’t just damage them. You have to look after them, and it’s quite a challenge. I mean, I’ve got a little bit of conservation background in terms of attending these trainings, (but) those guys, they’ve got challenges. They have to make sure that these things last for the next like 300 years, whereas in just the normal life, things will last for three years or 30 years. But they have to make sure that it lasts longer. So for students, they need passion, (and) they need their team — a good team. You need to be surrounded by great colleagues, which I’m also fortunate (to have), I must say.”

Having never studied museums before this study abroad program, I didn’t  realized the size of most museum collections before our class trip to the storerooms of the MSU Museum in June. I hadn’t thought much about it, but I guess I figured what museums had on display is what they owned, give or take a few items or artifacts in a basement. But goodness, museums’ collections are extensive! Most museums have storerooms and storerooms full of objects neatly organized in cabinets and on shelves on acid free tissue paper, foam and bubble wrap. It takes a lot to manage these collections. Speaking with Thando, I learned about all that must be done in order to keep a museum’s collections organized, protected and accessible. It is a big job — but rewarding. Thando gets to see so much of the collections that visitors miss out on and to really connect with objects by moving them and working with them. He is constantly learning new things on the job. It was also interesting to hear about the challenges Thando faces in his work. I never thought about the fact that you have to consider the climate conditions and security measures of other museums before loaning out your own objects because not all museums have the same standards. I can imagine it’s difficult when Iziko’s generosity is questioned by other museums when such caution is taken and items are not allowed to be loaned.