March 2-7, 2014 = National Severe Weather Preparedness Week
It seems odd here in Raleigh, during the first week of March, that the Library & Archives Building is scheduled to have a tornado drill. That in itself is not odd – but the footnote – added to the memo was most unusual. It read: “unless snow and ice keep us from being at work.” We have certainly had a true winter here in the Triangle area this winter of 2014. It is not unusual for this area to have all of the trees blooming, flowers popping out and the forsythia long past full bloom by Valentine’s Day. However, this year, we are just slogging through to the spring like everyone else.
Let National Severe Weather Preparedness Week serve as a reminder that preparations for possible severe weather are paramount for every cultural site in the state. Even if ice in March is not the normal state of the climate, it can cause damages to structures, people, landscapes and visitors. The same is true for heavy winds, torrential rain, tornados, fire and hurricanes. Take this week to inspect your site, review your disaster plan, make a cake for the fire chief, or just take a walk around your property to look for potential areas of damage.
If you are scheduling a drill, having a meeting with your board about the disaster plan, or even getting tree limbs cut, let us know what you are doing to prepare and prevent as much damages as possible. Stay safe and stay warm and be careful.
–Lyn Triplett, C2C Disaster Preparedness Coordinator
Theft is the most obvious danger to artifact preservation that people pose. As we’ve discussed previously in this blog, museum staff, volunteers, and researchers comprise an amazingly high percentage of museum thefts (approximately 90%). But mishandling can also damage artifacts, and probably a similarly high percentage of the most egregious examples can also be considered insider jobs. Now, most of us who work with collections take our ethical responsibilities seriously and are scrupulous about honesty and proper stewardship. The vast majority of professionals provide care that is in line with current conservation guidelines, in so far as training and budgets allow. Exceptional cases of mishandling, however, can be instructive, and breaking news provides two interesting examples:
- Recently, a Miami artist intentionally lifted a Chinese artist’s vase from an exhibit at an art museum in that city and dropped it on the floor, shattering the piece. He committed the destructive act in protest of the museum’s practice of only displaying international art.
- Earlier this month, a French museum employee sat on a red leather folding chair that had belonged to Napoleon and broke it.
In addition to such stories that generate media attention, many of us who have been in the museum field for awhile have heard legends and rumors about staff members taking advantage of their access to collections in ways that could damage the artifacts. For instance:
- True story: graduate students in a program at a much-venerated East coast museum spied a museum historian and registrar embracing after hours on an 18th-century 4-poster bed sometime in the late 1960s. Since both staff members proceeded to have long careers there, and grad students kept coming, the story continued to be passed along for at least 30 years.
- Rumor: a rather large male costume and textile curator tried on women’s undergarments from the collection while working late.
These colorful examples of mishandling remind us that human nature is imperfect; that familiarity breeds complacency; and that accountability helps us all do the best job we can. Another reminder is that no matter what protections we put in place to keep artifacts safe, someone (out of thousands or more?) may put his own personal agenda above the responsibility to protect the artifact for perpetuity.
What can we do to protect collections from insiders who may believe themselves to be exempt from usual handling limitations? One answer is to require collections work to be on a buddy system, although that guideline clearly would not have prevented the 4-poster bed scenario. In addition to being an added security measure, the buddy system has practical benefits by ensuring more man and woman power when oversize objects and large boxes may need relocation. Another answer may be to limit after-hours work in collections storage. What works at your institution? Have you tried security cameras as a solution? Or has the honor system been enough protection so far?
Our Connecting to Collections colleagues in Illinois passed on an interesting tip several years ago in a webinar they produced entitled, “Preservation Tactics on a Shoestring Budget.” Of several great suggestions, the one which caught our attention the most was the use of polyester fleece as a preservation-appropriate fabric for covering mounts for both storage and display. To view the webinar, click here; to target the fleece suggestion, scroll to 35.05. Fleece makes a good option for several reasons.
- The material is affordable, often on sale for approximately $5.00/ yard.
- Its soft texture will help protect an artifact from an otherwise abrasive mount surface, such as cut ethafoam.
- Its stretchy texture makes it possible to tuck into slits cut into ethafoam blocks, consequently avoiding the use of adhesives.
- The fabric comes in a variety of colors that could enhance various exhibit designs.
A couple of concerns, however, made us hesitant to recommend the material widely for storage and display mounts. First of all, manufactured polyester materials often have resins or chemical finishes that may be harmful to artifacts. Secondly, we’re trained to be leery of colored fabrics around artifacts.
To learn more about the preservation-appropriateness of polyester fleece, we corresponded with Margaret Geiss-Mooney, Textile/Costume Conservator & Collections Management Consultant. To guard against the dangers imposed by resins and possible chemical finishing agents, Geiss-Mooney recommends that before use, the fleece be “machine rinsed (in good-to-excellent quality water) and dried (in a dryer that has never had fabric softener sheets used in it OR line dried).” She also cautions that fleece, with its fuzzy texture, is only appropriate as a mount cover for contact with artifact surfaces that are fairly stable, i.e. neither brittle nor fragile.
Geiss-Mooney also notes that most fleece is a knit fabric and warns against its use in a vertical orientation for display mounts, because knits are prone to sagging over time. Use on a slant board “most likely would depend on the angle of the slant and the size of the display mount.” She suggests that acrylic fiber can also be considered as a mount cover with the same caveats in mind.
The pigment does not compromise the preservation-appropriateness of the fleece. Unlike cottons, which are often colored with water-based dyes that can easily bleed, pigmented polyesters are usually safe. Geiss-Mooney explains that “the color is put in the melt and so when the solution is then extruded to form the fibres, the pigment is locked inside the fibres.” She recommends white for storage mounts to aid in visual inspections. Most pest debris or small artifact fragments will show up clearly on a white mount. A light grey color serves the same purpose for white artifacts.
For more ideas on mounting materials that are safe to use with artifacts, check out this NPS Conserve O Gram.
Geiss-Mooney generously offers to discuss this topic further with any readers who may have questions or need further clarification. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-763-8694.
Thanks also to NCMOH Textile Conservator, Paige Myers, for her contributions to this post.
At last week’s Collections Care workshop in Charlotte, organized by the Mecklenburg Historical Association, one of our participants asked a great question. She explained that her organization maintains a log cabin with no environmental controls. When possible, she has replaced old objects with reproductions, but there are still many antiques at the site. Interpreters and visitors handle and use some of these in demonstrations of blacksmithing, cooking, and more. What should she do?
Coincidentally, this same question came up last week on the Connecting to Collections online discussion forum. According to Museum Consultant Ron Kley, “This has long been a topic of discussion…There is general agreement in the field that the use of original period artifacts in such circumstances is ultimately consumptive, and that the use of replicas is…preferred.” Kley also notes “persuasive counter-arguments…that certain artifacts — machines in general being a good example — are [better off] through prudent use with appropriate maintenance rather than sitting in storage under ‘benign neglect’ conditions.” Kley recommends ALHFAM, the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums, as a good resource to learn more about this issue and to gather supply sources for suitable reproductions.
In addition to reproductions, some old objects may be okay to continue using in these programs. Fully equipping historic environments with reproductions is not likely to be affordable for most organizations. Although those of us working for non-profits and public institutions are bound to preserve collections according to the best practices available within budgetary limits, some objects within the museum can be considered expendable. Kley uses the apt term “expendifacts” to distinguish such objects from those that require care for perpetuity. Staff should designate an education collection that includes both reproductions and expendifacts (some museums even track these categories separately). Accessioned objects should not be used up for programs unless first transferred to an educational collection, and the transfer process typically involves Board approval.
How do we decide whether an artifact should be considered expendable? Here are some questions to consider:
- Does it have a good story, especially one that relates to the institution’s mission? If yes, then the object should be accessioned or remain in the permanent collection and its handling limited.
- Could it be replaced easily through purchase? If yes, then the object may be appropriate for the educational collection.
- Is the object a machine or musical instrument that warrants (and possibly benefits from) periodic, limited use? If yes, and public program use is occasional, then it may remain in the permanent collection, as its use can be considered preservation-appropriate.
How does your site handle using artifacts for public programs? How long does it take before the objects break down? We’d love to share your examples here!
Often when we’re putting together sample supplies to hand out at workshops, we wish we had multiples of a fairly common item that we could use to store products with limited shelf lives. Clean glass baby food jars, for instance, would be great to store and/or distribute small amounts of Renaissance Wax, which dries out and hardens quickly in many types of plastic containers. These jars could also be good to contain silica gel beads. By piercing the metal lid with an awl, the gel could work within a microclimate (such as a storage box or exhibit case) to either dessicate or buffer relative humidity, depending the optimum environment for the artifact materials inside. The clear glass would allow quick visibility for color indicating silica gel, which looses its orange pigment upon becoming saturated with moisture.
One museum audience engagement expert has remarked upon wish lists as participatory experiences. Collecting materials that would otherwise be cast off is an additional way for community members to contribute to your organization. Have you considered issuing wish lists for preservation and/or public program supplies at your institution?
Several of our workshop partners and participants have had success collecting preservation and other supplies this way. Bob Hopkins, of the NC Transportation Museum and exhibits workshop instructor, maintains a wish list that includes empty pill bottles (with prescriptions removed for privacy). Volunteers bring these in for Bob to store variously gauged stainless steel mounting pins. Director of the Orange County Historical Museum, Brandie Fields, has engaged volunteers with collecting silica gel packets from their leather goods, pharmaceuticals, and electronics to donate as a preservation supply. Fields can bake the donated colorless silica beads at a low temperature to regenerate them and then mix them with the samples of orange-indicating beads she’s received at our workshops.
In addition to babyfood jars, pill bottles, and silica gel, a preservation supply wish list could also include ethafoam. Electronics often come packaged with good ethafoam that can be carved into shapes for artifact storage or even display mounts. We want to avoid styrofoam, since it is not preservation appropriate, but the more malleable poly ethylene foam is normally safe (unless it’s light pink anti-static foam which contains residues that can harm some artifacts) and can be a great preservation tool.
What other common products could be put to good preservation uses? What supplies have you had success collecting from your institution’s community?
Again this week, Archivist Heather South deserves a shout-out for her many contributions to this post and great work on CREST’s behalf.
The crisis at the Yanceyville Public Library three weeks ago highlighted the importance of air drying techniques. Archivist Heather South and NCDCR Western Regional Supervisor, Jeff Futch, shared their knowledge with staff and volunteers at the library and got them started on the salvage process that would consume a great deal of space and time before the library could re-open.
During our C2C disaster preparedness workshops, we guide participants in practicing rinsing and air drying books and photographs. Heritage Preservation also has a helpful 10-minute video with worthwhile instructions. Becoming aware of proper techniques and maintaining a stash of wet recovery supplies is important for every cultural heritage institution.
If spines of wet books are strong enough, they can be placed short side down on a covered tarp or table and fanned open. If spines are too fragile, then interleaving alone is the best technique for drying. If adequate time and space are not immediately available to air dry wet collections, most can be wrapped and placed in a freezer and air dried later, a few at a time. Remember, mold begins to grow after 48 hours of moist conditions, so it’s important to begin the salvage process right away.
The following supplies are essential for wet recovery.
- nitrile gloves: these are an essential part of your personal protective equipment (PPE) and will keep the contaminants that may be in the water from your skin.
- Absorbent coverings for the drying surface: these can be fabric or paper, but remember that wet dyes often bleed and some wet book covers will stain the fabrics they are placed upon. Disposable paper, such as paper towels or unprinted newspaper, may be the best bet. You will need to replace it often, as the paper wicks moisture from the drying books. The books can be flipped over regularly to let gravity help with moisture wicking and drying at each end.
- Interleaving materials: Unprinted paper towels or blotting paper can be inserted every 25 – 50 pages to help wick moisture from the inside of the book and speed the drying process. Wet interleaves should be replaced for active drying to continue.
- Wax paper: this is useful to interleave illustrations so that their coatings will not stick to the adjacent page as they dry. Coated pages are less likely to stick to wax paper and if they do, the material is still transparent enough to allow some visibility for the image beneath. In Yanceyville responders only used this technique on the books that were really wet, rather than damp. Wax paper is also a good material for wrapping wet books before freezing.
- Fans: experts caution against blowing the fan directly on the drying materials. Rather, fans should be directed for overall air circulation, speeding the drying process and preventing mold spores from settling on damp materials.
Consider gathering these supplies and practicing some of these techniques for a staff drill to increase your institution’s level of disaster preparedness. If you do this kind of activity for May Day, you can even be in the running to win a prizes from Heritage Preservation or at least get credit for your efforts on this list in 2014.
With Black History Month around the corner, it’s a good time to send out a warning about a colorful, comforting, and yet pernicious myth concerning the Underground Railroad. The story goes that households involved in the Underground Railroad hung quilts outside with geometric patterns designed to communicate information to escaping slaves. Despite an absence of primary-source evidence to support this myth (no references in escaped slave narratives, for instance), several North Carolina cultural heritage institutions have embraced and perpetuated the story. Click here for one online example.
Quilt historian Leigh Fellner has thoroughly researched and debunked the myth of the quilt slave code. She has traced the tale to one family in South Carolina selling quilts to tourists in the 1990s and a less-than-careful writer who published a book on it thereafter. Several academic historians support Fellner’s myth-busting account. See, for instance, this discussion thread on the history network. The New York Times has also worked to get the word out, and Scholastic has a website dedicated to educate classroom teachers about the many myths surrounding the Underground Railroad.
If a story engages audiences about the past, does it matter that it’s not exactly accurate? Public historians grapple with this topic regularly and often have to steer tour guides away from the good stories they develop by responding to audience reactions over time. Ghost tours are a typical example of this process.
North Carolina has several authentic Underground Railroad stories to take pride in, as well as a fascinating heritage of quilts and other textiles. The resources of our state’s historic sites and museums can help educators share these lessons. Harriet Jacobs’ brave endurance, hiding out in Edenton for seven years before her escape, and the false-bottom wagon Quakers used to help transport escaped slaves, now at Mendenhall Plantation, are two prominent Underground Railroad successes.
The North Carolina Museum of History’s collection includes two quilts made by women who were previously enslaved. Mary Barnes, of Wilson, NC created the “Martha’s Choice” patterned quilt sometime between the years 1875 to before her death in 1902. Her family used the piece and passed it down until donating it to NCMOH in 1978. Another quilt with a log cabin pattern dates to 1907. The maker, Patience White, gave the piece to the donor’s mother as a token of appreciation for teaching her to read.
True stories are often more wonderful than fiction. We just have to spend more time teasing them out of verifiable evidence. North Carolina has a great deal of cultural heritage material to mine for Black History Month lessons and programs. Let’s honor those who lived through past trials and tribulations by keeping it real.
Does your historical organization produce programming that relies on writers, artists, storytellers, or craftspeople? Do you regularly engage the community with these activities? If so, you may want to reach out to your local arts council for partnerships or additional support and/or consider applying to the NC Arts Council for a direct grant.
The 13th annual African American Cultural Celebration is a great example of a history museum/ arts council partnership and will take place at the North Carolina Museum of History on Saturday, January 25, 2014. NCMOH works with state, local, and national arts councils to make the event possible.
Even though many historical organizations cross-pollinate with the literary, performing, fine, and folk arts, we do not always take full advantage of the possibilities. The fall 2013 meeting of the Federation of North Carolina Historical Societies featured a workshop on fundraising and Vicki Vitiello, a Senior Program Director for the NC Arts Council, discussed the direct grants program. Funny how the missions of art and history organizations overlap significantly but those 2 branches of “cultural resources” are not always mutually aware. History organizations need to know about arts council funding possibilities for their community programs.
There are two ways the NC Arts Council can support your institution’s art-related programming—direct grants to organizations and grassroots funding via local arts councils. Direct grants are available for eligible nonprofits. The applying organization must:
- have provided arts programming to their communities for at least 2 consecutive years
- have prior-year organizational cash operating expenses of at least $20,000.
Grant applications are now available electronically. Even if your institution’s primary mission is historical, this program is something to consider. For most organizational grant categories, funded expenses can range from $5,000 to $15,000. The deadline for 2014-15 organizational grants is March 3rd.
In contrast to direct grants to organizations, grassroots funding is the result of a county-by-county decision-making process in which each local arts council selects community projects. If your organization is not eligible to apply for a direct grant, consider partnering with your local arts council to initiate projects through the Grassroots Arts Program.
Three members of the Federation of NC Historical Societies, who were also fall workshop participants, discussed their institutions’ arts-related programs. Each offers a different type of program with the support of its local arts council.
- The New Hope Valley Railway, a volunteer-run train museum in Apex, has partnered with the Apex Arts Council to sponsor a writer-in-residence program. Click here to read the poem, “Clackety Clack,” one of the recent products of that partnership.
- This past June, the Catawba County Historical Association hosted a Bluegrass music festival, sponsored by their local arts council, at the historic Murray’s Mill site.
- The Wayne County Historical Museum joins with the Wayne County Arts Council and 4 local libraries to present “Wayne County Reads.” In 2013 “La Laguna” was the book selection and the museum hosted a speaker from Mexico, a panel of former residents from Mexico telling about their pre-immigration lives, and a fair for all local Spanish-speaking residents. Community members displayed various crafts, demonstrated dances, etc. Three years ago the book, “Three cups of Tea,” inspired several museum programs including an exhibition, a panel of soldiers from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base discussing their experiences in Afganistan, and a presentation about Islam by a Duke professor. The museum also co-sponsored a fair for children that included photographs, costumes, and toys reflecting Afghan culture.
Most history museums and sites provide programming that involves reading, writing, music, or folklife. Wouldn’t NC Arts Council funding help make these initiatives bigger or better at your institution?
Clocks may be becoming antiquated artifacts in our current digital age, but New Year’s Eve continues to lend them special significance each year. Clocks also comprise important elements in the collections of historic houses and museums across the state. This mantle clock from the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem features Roman-style satyrs flanking the clock’s marble face and suggesting the revelry of a New Year’s celebration. The following sampling of clocks from a variety of North Carolina collections offers a range of design and provenance.
Two clocks from different NC Historic Sites span nearly a century. The museum at Duke Homestead displays the clock on the left as part of a 1950s period room setting with a television that loops cigarette advertisements. Governor Charles B. Aycock marked time with the shelf clock on the right, c. 1861-1880. The piece is now in the exhibit hall at Aycock Birthplace.
The BradyJefcoatMuseum, part of the Murfreesboro Historical Association, houses an interesting piece (right) that multitasks as both a hall tree and a clock.
The NC Museum of History‘s collection also reflects a century of clock evolution and innovation. By the mid-19th century, Northeastern factories produced most clocks. In contrast,this shelf clock dates 1845-1860 and was made in a North Carolina factory, although the factory’s name nods to the more prevalent Connecticut clock-maker. The label inside reads, “BRASS CLOCKS/ Made and Sold at the/ WATERBURY FACTORY,/ North Carolina,/ for/ Wright & Co./ Warranted, if well used.”
An electric clock radio, also in the NCMOH collection, dates to c. 1950.
The Moore County Historical Association displays two similar mid-19th-century shelf clocks. The one in the c. 1790s Garner House (left) sits atop a paneled hearth and the other in the 1820s Shaw House (right) also rests on a mantle.
A small clock helped structure the day and added charm to the 1930s kitchen wall at the Penderlea Homestead.
Two more mantle clocks grace the 1820 Dr. Josephus Hall House in Salisbury. Both have well preserved reverse-glass paintings. The clock above with turned elements has a landscape scene and the one on the right includes a more geometric gilt design. Decorations for special holiday tours with the theme “Toyland, Toyland,” surround each.
More than 10 volunteers spent over a thousand hours restoring the 1911 Seth Thomas clock from the New Bern City Hall tower. The Fireman’s Museum, just down the street from the site the clock operated until 1999, hosted the work in progress. The clock was installed in the North Carolina History Center at Tryon Palace in 2010–in time for New Bern’s 300th anniversary celebration.
The turning of every year warrants some kind of festivity. Have fun counting down the last moments of 2013 and HAPPY NEW YEAR from NC Connecting to Collections!