Thanks to Kate Baillon van Rensburg for her presentation at the NCMC annual meeting, which suggested this topic, and for her additional contributions to this post.
At their best, history museum exhibits can build bridges between the perspectives of participants and “the past [as] a foreign country.” Before we can interest audiences in objects and information that are not likely to be part of their experiences, we have to find “a hook” that can connect them, helping them understand both the distinctiveness of what we want to present and the relevance of it for the present.
The Levine Museum’s founder, Sally Robinson, shaped the approach of the Charlotte institution and its award-winning exhibits with a grandchild’s request, “Tell me a story with me in it.” Kate Baillon van Rensburg, VP of Exhibits at the Levine, attributes the Museum’s success to this approach. “Everyone wants a story that reflects their experience in some way. We think of our exhibits as stories…That is what engages people and keeps them coming back.” van Rensburg points to “Courage: The Vision to End Segregation, The Guts to Fight for It” and “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers” as important manifestations of this design philosophy. “We have objects that resonate with people through the exhibit….something as simple as a washtub or kerosene lantern can bring memories back to people, create environments to help tell the story and give aspects of the story a familiar feel. Our exhibits are not telling a story about ‘the other’ but telling the story of us – how we work….. the community.” By allowing room for multiple perspectives in each story/exhibit, the reference for any one individual becomes part of a larger narrative.
Sometimes museum leaders want to tell stories that may be painful for audiences to identify with. That connection between topic and visitor may still be nurtured, and often participatory design elements can help build the bridge. The Levine installed a “community response quilt” as a colorful comment board within a photography exhibit on lynching. The heading above the comment board asks questions that help visitors connect with the exhibit’s difficult subject matter: “What would you do to make a difference?” and “How would you stand up for those without sanctuary?”
The visitor does not have to identify directly or completely with the subject matter in order to have a moving museum experience. In fact, one goal of historical interpretation is to emphasize the “foreign”-ness of the past. Participatory design advocate, Nina Simon, recently offered this guidance: “Visitors…want to see reflections, expansions, and distortions of their experiences in ways that allow them to form new connections. That’s what compelling relevance is about.” A forum for participants to record the new ideas an exhibit suggests and to contribute to its content, via a comment board or video feed within the interpretive space, will transform distant history into “a story with me in it.”
Thanks to Chris Tacker, Curator of Geology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, for this guest post.
Museums and cultural institutions frequently get phone calls from prospective donors who want to give away Daddy’s or Granddaddy’s rock collection. Rock and mineral collections can support interesting and educational programs. However, these collections may hold a few surprises that open the institution to a number of unexpected regulatory and/or safety concerns. Radioactivity, radon, asbestos, toxins and carcinogens can all arrive as a part of amateurs’ collections.
To put this in perspective, any rock or mineral is a hazard if it’s moving fast enough. Any rock and mineral above a certain weight is a hazard to your head or feet. With reasonable care, hard hats, and steel toed shoes, these hazards can be minimized.
North Carolina has a remarkable mineral diversity, so there are some North Carolina specialties that turn up frequently in collections. Pegmatites in the Spruce Pine area are known for uranium-bearing minerals that are highly radioactive. Uraninite (pitchblende), torbernite, autinite, clarkeite, or samarskite are all NC minerals that have uranium as one of the principle structural elements. Apatite, monazite, zoisite (especially the pink variety known as thulite) and zircon can carry uranium or thorium as a minor or trace element. There are actually some collectors who specialize in radioactive minerals. Others prize torbernite and autinite because it fluoresces brightly in ultraviolet light.
If enough of these are gathered in one place, the radiation does represent a workplace hazard. These minerals will emit radon, which is a regulatory concern. More than one geologist or collector has possessed a stash of radioactive minerals, then discovered that they can’t sell their house, because the buyer’s radon tests show phenomenal levels of radon. More information on radon is available here.
Ultramafic rocks are composed of high magnesium, high iron, and low silicon minerals such as olivine and pyroxenes. Ultramafic bodies in the state can produce, and have produced, industrial sized portions of asbestos where the rocks have been metamorphosed. It’s easy to recognize because there are few furry minerals. (You can check out the fuzzy stuff at this site that sells asbestos minerals to collectors) But there are federal regulations on asbestos in all its forms. Problems with regulatory control are minor compared to the problems that museum staff will face if parents learn their child has handled asbestos, even if it is in a ziplock baggie.
You may not think of minerals as fire hazards, but several toxic minerals represent significant fire dangers. Cinnabar (mercury sulfide), orpiment (a very pretty orange or yellow arsenic sulfide, As2S3), and realgar (a very pretty red arsenic sulfide, AsS) emit very toxic gasses in a fire. Steam may make it worse. Firefighters are not prepared for arsenic and mercury gas. Worse, cinnabar and realgar are photosensitive, which means that they break down under visible light. They shed dust as they are displayed, a dust that is quite toxic. If these are in a collection, they need to be stored in a fireproof safe. There is no reason for any of these to be accessible to the public, much less to children.
These minerals double as ingestion/inhalation hazards. For example, realgar is a carcinogen, and is toxic because it contains arsenic. Aresenic accumulates in the human body, as does the mercury from cinnabar. Pretty silver cubes of galena are made of lead sulfide. Lead accumulates in the body, so I recommend that children don’t handle it. A good handwashing will take care of most of the ingestion hazards, but handwashing combined with staying far away from it works even better.
If these are hazardous, why do we keep them in our collection? The Geology Collection at the Museum of Natural Sciences supports education and exhibits, but we are primarily a research collection. We have loaned out asbestos samples from defunct mines to support asbestos research and litigation. Radioactive minerals are extremely valuable for research into isolation of radioactive wastes. What happens to the atomic structure of a mineral or a glass when exposed to long-term radioactivity? Nature has already conducted the experiment. Where else are you going to find a material that has been subjected to radiation for thousands or millions of years?
So be suitably careful and remember: Any mineral moving at high velocity is hazardous.
Do One Thing For Emergency Preparedness
The recent events in Boston and Texas are disturbing and unsettling for all American citizens. But for those of us charged with the protection and conservation of NC historical artifacts – everything from architecture to zippers – we must be realistic in being prepared for any kind of threatening event that might impact our facility or collections. Did you know that one of the bombs that detonated at the Boston Marathon last week was in front of the Boston Public Library? Did you know that the recent fires in Colorado threatened ancient burial grounds and historical cemeteries?
Many times buildings and collections are greatly affected by an initial event but not directly involved. These are what are called secondary disasters. These sites and their facilities contain memorabilia, artifacts, books, papers, maps, furniture, and countless numbers of other items that may be at a severe risk of being damaged or lost forever. Of course, when we have notices of hurricane watches and warnings, we can be on alert and make preparations. But what about when an event occurs that does not involve the weather? What would happen if there were a chemical spill due to a train derailment within a 10 mile radius of your site? Or if there were a fire next door but not directly in your building? Or a collapsed dam?
Heritage Preservation, a national organization dedicated to assisting institutions with the preservation of cultural materials, promotes awareness through its annual “MayDay” program. Participate by doing one thing to improve preparedness at your location. Please take time to ponder the needs of your site, collection or facility and make the effort to update your disaster plan. Are the emergency numbers and contacts still viable? Please make copies of your inventory and store them off site. Has your institution’s Recovery Priority List changed with the additions of new components?
If we are to continue to use cultural resources to build the social, cultural, and economic future of our communities, we must do the very best that we can to protect all that is in our care, regardless of whether the disaster is directly connected to us or is a secondary fallout. Please take the time to do one thing this month to reach a state of preparedness in order to protect and preserve our cultural resources. For assistance with writing, testing, to implementing your disaster plan, or if you would like additional information about navigating disaster preparedness, response and recovery please contact C2C’s Disaster Preparedness Coordinator, Lyn Triplett at 919-807-7293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
As this blog has discussed previously, the landscape surrounding your institution can serve as much more than a backdrop for your buildings. With exciting interpretation, it has the potential to become a portal to the past, just as artifacts do. Consider taking advantage of North Carolina’s beautiful spring weather and planning some outdoor experiences that can connect your collection and institutional mission with the surrounding landscape.
The North Carolina Maritime Museum at Beaufort has been particularly active in developing public programs that bring the mission and interpretive themes of the museum beyond the structure’s walls. Curator of Public Programs Ben Wunderly, who presented on this topic at last month’s NCMC annual meeting, has turned a variety of outdoor experiences into maritime heritage learning opportunities. Last weekend the museum offered a guided hike through the Rachel Carson Reserve, focusing on the area’s flora and fauna. Other recent spring hiking destinations included Shackleford Banks. In areas with tourist traffic—like Beaufort, where other companies may already be offering tours, Wunderly recommends discussing plans for outdoor guided walks and other activities first with tour business owners and explaining how your institution’s programs will differ from theirs. Also, be careful not to undercut their prices for programs with overlapping content.
Several historic sites have gardens that literally help enliven visitors’ sense of the past. Historic Oak View County Park has an exhibit on cotton culture in a barn and a growing cotton patch just outside. The effect is an exhibit component that’s multi-sensory, educational, and fun to revisit. Children can get up close and personal with the plant that was once such an important, “King,” cash crop and see the various stages of seasonal growth and harvest. How would they know, without this kind of experience available, for instance, that the cotton flower is really pretty? In recent years Bennett Place has added a kitchen heirloom garden to its interpretations of Civil War homefront and denouement. See page 3 of the Site’s newsletter for more details. Bennett Place’s garden has become so prolific that its surpluses can even be used to benefit the community.
Does your institution have land for gardening? Is it in an urban landscape with possibilities for guided walking tours? Are there other forms of transportation available, like sailboats in Beaufort, that can add to the authenticity of the outdoor heritage learning experience? Exploring outside connections can open doors to new audiences and help both your staff and community enjoy the spring!
Next week C2C will host 1 workshop to celebrate 2 important recognition events. Monday, April 22nd is Earth Day and also the beginning of Preservation Week. Cultural History collections often abound in natural history specimens. Bones, fossils, minerals, and taxidermy specimens frequently fill storage shelves and display cases. North Carolina also boasts some premier science museums, including the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gaston County, and the Greensboro Science Center. Here are some highlights of our state’s natural history collections.
Displays of birds and mammals can be fascinating, especially when specimens are mounted in ways that evoke the animals’ natural environments and activities. The Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education exhibits this bobcat and pheasant. The possum mother and young dramatize the Catawba County Science Center.
Fossils and other specimens can serve as evidence that particular creatures once inhabited a place where they no longer exist. The Aurora Fossil Museum tells the story of the development of North Carolina’s Coastal Plain region and its origins beneath the Atlantic Ocean. This fossilized whale vertebrae was uncovered in Craven County.
Many collecting institutions, particularly in the western region, showcase gems and minerals. The Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum holds one of the largest of these collections. Shown here is a display of geological specimens from North Carolina.
Do natural history specimens have special environmental requirements for preservation? Are they more susceptible to embrittlement than other objects? Are they more likely to emit toxins as they deteriorate? What are the best materials and methods to use for cleaning and storage? 4 experts from the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh will address these questions and more at C2C’s workshop next week. Please consider joining us!
Thanks to Martha Battle Jackson, Curator for North Carolina Historic Sites and one of C2C’s “Collections Management Bootcamp” instructors, for providing the following advice on freezing that she learned from a past AAM conference session on Integrated Pest Management.
Freezing is an effective method to kill insect eggs and larvae within an object and also to stall moisture-related deterioration. The key principles to follow when freezing objects are:
- Freeze to -20º C (-5º F).
- Freeze quickly, thaw slowly to prevent insects from developing “freezer resistance.”
- Remove as much frass as possible.
- Bag object in a sealed polyethylene bag.
- Extract as much air as possible to reduce water vapor.
- Store at room temperature before freezing.
- Use a manual defrost, such as a Sears Kenmore (can go to -28º C, has a quick freeze option, and takes four hours to reach -20º C); auto defrost freezers use heat which allows the insects to adjust to changes in temperature.
- Use an electronic data logger to monitor temperature and humidity changes; insert a probe as close to the core of the object as possible.
- Non-porous materials, such as metals, can develop condensation if in contact with organic materials; put a buffer between materials. Cotton batting will reduce freezer effects.
- Keep at -20º C for 48 hours.
- Thaw for 8 hours @ 68º F -70º F.
- Follow with second freezing cycle of 48 hours (“double reduction method”).
- Allow to come to room temperature before opening.
- Continue to monitor objects to make sure there is no further evidence of pests.
Objects that can be frozen include textiles, furs, skins, leather, wood, and books. Do not freeze composite objects, objects with painted or illuminated surfaces, or fragile objects without consulting a conservator first.
Conservators have studied whether freezing has harmful effects on a variety of materials. Dimensional changes in wood and delamination (especially in the cases of veneer and glued joints) are risks. In many cases, however, the risk to the object from pests or mold is far greater and freezing is an appropriate salvage method. Conservator Ellen Carrlee conducted an observational study of the effects of freezing a large and varied collection of ethnographic objects. Among objects that conservators deemed stable enough to try freezing, there were no noticeable negative effects from the treatment.
- LED lights do not emit ultra violet light. Consequently, they are safer for collections preservation than fluorescent lights.
- LED lights generate much less heat than incandescent bulbs—another preservation advantage.
- LED lights will save institutions money in electric bills and institutional labor costs. Because they emit less heat than incandescent lights, their use will decrease the need for cooling energy.
Several news articles published early in 2013 asserted that LED lighting was “the culprit” behind the fading of the fugitive yellow pigment in Van Gogh’s works, “Sunflowers” being the most renowned
Flaws in both the research and the reports of it mistakenly marred the reputation of LEDs. An LED manufacturer quickly responded to the Huffington Post’s article and asserted that the lights used in the research were not LED at all but another type of lighting (xenon) that emits ultra violet light. The recent articles also neglected to discuss that the fading yellow pigments in Van Gogh’s works were old news, predating the switch to LED lights.
Last month the Smithsonian American Art Museum Lunder Conservation Center responded with the program “Gallery Illumination: LED Lighting in Today’s Museums.” Two conservators, a lighting engineer, and a lighting designer presented on the claims about LED effects on Van Gogh pigments. Excerpts follow from the presentation printed on the PACCIN listserv:
In 2012 a team of European scientists and conservators published the results of their work on chrome yellow pigments used by Vincent Van Gogh…Unfortunately, the research team also made the very strong, but substantially untested, assertion in a press release that the pigments in question are likely to be selectively sensitive to the white LEDs increasingly used in museums. Significantly, they did not draw this conclusion in their peer-reviewed publications, possibly because it was based on highly unrealistic accelerated light exposure test using a test illuminant completely unlike an LED. In fact the accelerated aging light source is unlike any other museum lighting short of displaying the paintings outdoors, without glazing, in the sun…Astonishingly, given the importance of the issue they have raised, they did not actually test or even model the damage potential of…LED, nor did they compare its putative effect with conventional tungsten lighting, which they neglected to explain, must in principle also affect the pigments to a similar degree.
Finally, to compound the misinformation…the press release included an LED spectrum with the label “[e]mission spectrum of a typical ‘white’ LED, containing a substantial portion of harmful blue light”. The spectrum shown in fact is not typical of – nor even recommended for – any light-sensitive artifacts. They also omitted the important qualifier that in order to render the colors of these paintings satisfactorily any illuminant must contain a proportion of “harmful blue light”, not just LEDs. For works of art on paper, textiles, decorative arts, and paintings with known sensitivity issues, the types of LED recommended by conservation scientists are those that most closely resemble the visible portion of the spectrum of tungsten lighting that, for the most part, have been used for the last century to illuminate museums. These LEDs…represent no greater risk than the lighting they replace; indeed there is some research indicating that they are marginally safer.
We believe it is wrong both in principle and on the available evidence to characterize contemporary LED lighting in general as less safe than the traditional alternatives; and it is irresponsible to publicly imply that museums have begun to phase them in without considering their relative damage potential. In view of the energy and many other advantages that LED lighting offers, and the availability of a wide range of white light LEDs with virtually identical spectral properties to tungsten lighting, it would be better argued that museums would be foolish not to consider their adoption.
Have you considered the investment of switching to LED lighting in your institution?
The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes is a sweet children’s story about a brown, female country bunny with 21 children who competes and wins against slicker-looking, mostly white, male bunnies for the coveted role of Easter Bunny. She then deploys scientific management principals to delegate household responsibilities to her extra-large brood so that she can go out and conduct her important holiday job. The story is delightful and surprising for two reasons: 1. the country bunny is an Afro-feminist heroine; 2. a White male southerner wrote the book in the late 1930s. What influenced author DuBose Heyward to create such an unusual and enchanting Easter story?
One answer is that Heyward defined his literary career by creating Black (and often female) characters with strength and integrity. He was from an aristocratic Charleston family and scholars have speculated that Gullah (learned from his family’s servants) may have been his first language. As was common for Charleston elites, Heyward began spending summers in the North Carolina mountains near Hendersonville at property that he and his widowed mother purchased in 1917. After his marriage in 1923, Heyward built a substantial house, “Dawn Hill,” to serve as his family’s principal residence. The house still stands on Old Kanuga Road south of Hendersonville. He achieved literary fame after the publication of his novel Porgy (1925) and co-wrote the screenplay and music for the Broadway hit, “Porgy and Bess.” In 1939, while still living in Hendersonville, he published the children’s story he had made up for his daughter, Jenifer.
Another answer is that developments in the 1930s may have encouraged southern writers to expose fissures in the culture of segregation. Professor Benjamin Filene, Director of UNCG’s Public History Program, is currently researching this topic in his study of Stella Sharpe’s (a teacher from Hillsborough) 1939 book, Tobe. (See a selection of pages here.) Heyward’s treatment of Black characters was likely the most popularly successful and internationally renowned of his day. As contemporary black poet Langston Hughes commented, Heyward saw “with his white eyes, wonderful, poetic qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive.”
A story hour at your institution this week with The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes will celebrate both Easter and a significant North Carolina author.
One of our C2C project partners, the North Carolina Museums Council, is turning 50 this year. NCMC had its first organizational meeting in Raleigh, at the Sir Walter Hotel, on December 4, 1963. The achievement of a half-century’s persistence is a common marker of historical significance. 50 years’ endurance often qualifies objects as “antiques.” Similarly, houses must usually be 50 years old to be considered for Historic Register status. The organization’s longevity, then, is worth celebrating. The NCMC annual meeting next week will be in downtown Raleigh again for the organization’s Golden Anniversary. It will be a great opportunity to see colleagues from across the state, learn from their experiences, and strengthen your institution’s network of support.
50 years ago, Raleigh looked very different. While the Sir Walter Hotel had been around since the 1920s and its name reflected colonial revivalism, the city’s urban renewal was beginning. The brand-new legislative building (in the center of left photo) held its inaugural session and ushered in a wave of state government building and cityscape transformation.
50 years ago, approximately 35 museum professionals attended NCMC’s first meeting. The president of the Tennessee Association of Museums “spoke on the implementation and advantages of the state-wide organization of museum personnel.” Founding members decided to meet 3 times each year in March, June, and December. They charged $1.00 for membership, $1.00 for meeting registration, and $2.00 for meeting luncheons. The first president was Frank Walsh of the Department of Archives and History, Division of Historic Sites.
50 years ago, Walsh and Secretary-Treasurer Joye E. Jordan sent letters inviting all North Carolina museum personnel to join NCMC and announcing the organization’s purpose: “…to encourage and improve the practices of museums in this State; to stimulate public interest, support, and understanding; and to provide for the inter-change of ideas and co-operation among the museums and museum personnel.” Although members and fees have shifted over the half century, the organization and its purpose stand strong.
We hope to see you here in Raleigh for the big event!
Sources: 1963 annual report, ORG 119.1 & letter “To All North Carolina Museum Personnel:” in June 26, 1964 meeting folder, ORG 119.5. See State Archives records ORG 119 for more NCMC history.
Insurance is one of the primary disaster preparedness steps any cultural heritage institution can take. Yet a significant proportion of organizations do not believe they need it. Sometimes those in charge of collections believe that since their artifacts are irreplaceable, and insurance typically provides for the replacement of losses, it is not cost effective. To really think this idea through, you need to do a risk assessment. Are the chances greater that you institution’s collections will be a total loss in the event of a disaster or that they will be partially damaged? Many times, artifacts can be salvaged, despite a destructive event.
The Chatham County Courthouse Fire of 2010 consumed most of the building’s interior, yet all of its collections were able to be salvaged. Immediate efforts involved drying out artifacts that had sustained water damage during efforts to put out the fire. In addition, a number of objects required conservation for stabilization. Proper insurance coverage should provide your organization with the funds to accomplish this crucial phase of disaster recovery.
The Historic Salisbury Foundation, which owned Grimes Mill, did not insure the property. In the wake of the January fire, trustees are still grappling with the financial consequences of that decision. Given the dangers involved in trying to save a huge 1896 roller mill, the Foundation had a mutual understanding with the Fire Department that if a significant fire ever occurred at Grimes Mill, firefighters would not be sent inside. The uniqueness (i.e. irreplaceable nature) of the roller mill was one factor that dissuaded the Foundation from obtaining insurance. But cost was the ultimate deterrent, and the structure was especially vulnerable to a fire disaster. Its dust, old growth lumber, and difficult configuration (with 14 rooflines and countless windows), as well as the sheer size of the building, all increased insurance costs exponentially.
Although the reasons behind not securing insurance coverage are logical, the result is an even bigger headache in the fire’s aftermath. Clearing the land of the mill debris generated by the fire is a huge and costly undertaking, which the Foundation is required by law to accomplish. Board members hope that by selling some of the metal remnants as scrap, they can eventually generate the funds necessary to recoup most of the clean-up costs.
In contrast, the Belmont Historical Society is an all-volunteer organization that spends approximately 25% of its annual $7,000 budget on specialty insurance. Leaders of this 501(c)(3) recognize that museum property is held in the public trust and prioritize insurance as a way to protect the Society’s collections and other assets, as well as visitors to their site. A recent webinar participant recommended Huntington T. Block Insurance as affordable for small museums. Can you offer our cultural heritage community any other advice regarding insurance?