Telling CollectionSpace Stories: Growing a Forest Within a Forest

Photo credit: Pacific Bonsai Museum
Photo credit: Pacific Bonsai Museum

CollectionSpace is a community-supported open source collections management platform backed by LYRASIS, an internationally recognized non-profit committed to advancing the field of museology.

“Telling CollectionSpace Stories” is an initiative aimed at introducing museums while providing unique use case details about their CollectionSpace implementation. The following interview includes personal observations that may not represent the opinions and views of the Pacific Bonsai Museum or the CollectionSpace Program.

Carol Minton Morris from LYRASIS, talked with Aarin Packard, curator of Pacific Bonsai Museum to learn about how Pacific Bonsai Museum uses CollectionSpace.

The Pacific Bonsai Museum (PBM) houses a small but sturdy collection of 150 living trees in an open air art museum in Federal Way, Washington within a forest of much larger trees. Aarin Packard is quick to point out that although his curatorial duties at the PBM include Bonsai horticulture and conservation, he treats the bonsai more like an art museum collection than as a garden or horticultural display. PBM chose to utilize professional collections management tools and practices to sustain the collection which is what led Aarin to CollectionSpace.

Aarin’s main requirement was for a collection management system that would allow him to better track the aethstetic and horticultural care of the objects in the collection, in this case, small trees, as part of quality museum curatorial practice. He was also excited to have the ability to add photos and archival images that would show the changes in trees over time. Records also needed to include documentation of horticultural treatments and  significant design changes based on the quality of growth and pruning of each tree.

30 years ago the Pacific Bonsai Museum was established for the enjoyment of the local community.  In 2014 PBM became a not-for-profit organization which allowed the museum to partner with the Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California to develop CollectionSpace features unique to the curation of bonsai.

The trees are displayed in a series of alcoves with 60-70 specimens on display at any time. The bonsai trees are curated to highlight different aspects of bonsai culture and practice. Trees rotate seasonally. Next year PBM is planning to recognize the connection between WWII and its impact on bonsai history, practice, and culture in a themed exhibit title World War Bonsai.

Aarin hopes that by capturing these aspects of care other public bonsai displays will be encouraged to utilize CollectionSpace in treating their own collections like museums rather than gardens.In the past records for each plant included logging conservation steps and the application of  fertilization and pesticides These important records were either kept in excel spreadsheets or were sometimes even handwritten. CollectionSpace makes it possible for Aarin to add sequential photos of trees over time to show changes in growth and shape. Since bonsai growth is slow, having photos over long periods of time can illustrate dramatic changes that cannot be observed year-to-year.

As a future strategic goal the Pacific Bonsai Museum envisions being able to share the unique history of each object by providing access to full records that could be used to identify and analyze patterns of bonsai cultivation over time.