Author Archives: collectionsconversations
Thanks to Kym Maddocks, Manager of Research & Interpretive Operations at Old Salem for her assistance with this post.
History organizations often want exhibits to tell important stories but stall out when they run up against a dearth of artifacts to represent particular topics. Old Salem came up with an innovative solution to the problem of portraying past lives with few documentary and artifactual traces. Old Salem contracted artist Warren Parker to develop an exhibit about ten 19th-century African-Americans, many of whom had been enslaved, for the newly reconstructed African Moravian log church heritage center.
Parker chose to feature a variety of artistic media to evoke these past lives in conjunction with salvaged grave stones and bits of biographical information found in Old Salem’s collections. A new addition to St. Philip’s brick church in 1890 covered over several African-American graves. Although no human remains had been disturbed, many of the other stones from the front lawn of the church were removed soon afterward and placed in a pile under the front steps of the building. The exhibit displays each encased headstone, alongside Parker’s artistic representation of the person it commemorates. Parker sculpted several from various materials; other media include an oil painting, a man’s photograph enlarged to life size, a metal silhouette, and a carved wood panel. Each representation is life sized or larger to suggest a proportional comparison for each visitor in a way that appeals to both adults and children.Based on the grave stones and extant documents, Old Salem staff was able to sketch out a life story for each of the ten African-Americans. The institution then arranged with drama students and staff from the nearby UNC School of the Arts to record first-person interpretations of each life. Visitors can pick up a receiver and push a button to listen to each. (At left, young visitors enjoy the story of Christian David. See, http://travelncwithkids.blogspot.com/2012/06/old-salem-tour-of-african-american.html to learn more about their visit.) Although paper labels nearby present similar information, the ability to listen to a first-person narrative, while viewing a life-sized representation, conjures the humanity of the past life in a way that many other historic sites could replicate.
When I was a young college senior majoring in music education, we had to take numerous philosophy and methods of education classes the semester before we began student teaching. Every scenario presented in those courses was touted as the greatest achievement in public education since the eraser. The difficulty was that once I began student teaching, armed with all of the beautiful templates of how to make every child a gifted learner and devoted scholar, I promptly fell flat on my face. Why did this happen? Because every situation presented to me in those ivy covered classrooms prior to my clash with the reality of public school systems, was delivered under the ideal circumstances, with the ideal students, who had been raised by the ideal parents and funded from the magical unlimited budgets of the state and local coffers. Since then, I have always been skeptical of anything presented as the” perfect solution” that was not grounded in real life experiences.
I encountered this delicate dance again in November when C2C presented a fire recovery workshop in Buncombe County, North Carolina. There is always a compromise in teaching this sort of disaster strategy between what is laid out in the formal, rigid structure of ICS (Incident Command System) and the bureaucracy of municipalities, and what needs to happen immediately. Archivists, conservators, museum directors, librarians and any other staff can spend significant amounts of time on the disaster plan, telephone tree, duty assignments, and practice drills, only to see it all crumble when told that the city inspector gives you ten minutes to empty the facility before he chains off the door for safety reasons.
So why do we teach the complex system of ICS? And why do we preach the importance of inventory updates, off-site storage of the disaster plan, electronic back up and how to care for the cracked dinnerware and fragile, sooty textiles? Why does the workshop include ICS and not just emphasize urgent, immediate rescue?
We include it because we have a responsibility to the people in charge of these museums, historic homes and historic sites to prepare them in the best way possible – not if, but WHEN – a disaster happens on their watch at their site.
Granted, in an unexpected disaster, there is the sense of urgency and immediacy to rescue collections and protect all items from further damage or loss. If everyone just runs helter-skelter, there may end up being more damage, confusion, theft and breakage than if there is a pre-thought-out and prepared plan. Certainly, things will not go systematically in the perfect order with the perfect professional conservators on hand to give their wisdom and expertise, but being blind-sided by a fire, flood, tornado or mold infestation, is far worse when there is no organized course of action (or structure) to implement.
If there is a large presidential (FEMA) declared disaster, the ICS structure is implemented from the local community CERT volunteers and volunteer fire and EMT rescuers up the ladder to the governor. It is paramount that you, as a professional, at least have an understanding of where you and your facility fall in that hierarchy, how and whom to inform of your needs and how that structure will affect your collections and facilities in the recovery effort. (Both the immediate and the long-term aspect of recovery.)
We know that there is a real life energy and sense of urgency surrounding a disaster and, also, that there is a textbook response to a disaster and we know that the best possible, most productive response lies somewhere in the middle. We will keep listening to feedback, reworking the agenda, and re-structuring the workshops, practice burns, and artifact recovery until we have balanced the two opposing forces. Our reality is that we hope this is all wasted time on our part and your part. We desperately hope that there is never any kind of trauma or disaster at your museum, historic site or home. However, in the chance that if – and when – it does occur, all of the advance preparation will prove valuable in preserving these pieces of history for all future generations.
We will keep providing opportunities for you to have as much training as possible. We are not the ivy-covered walls of college, nor do we want to set anyone up for failure. However, a pre-determined response that addresses the issues of administrative, logistical, operational and planning needs (that is implemented and carried out at a disaster site) will bring order to chaos. Being prepared is the best reality training possible. Knowing your options and having a plan will help prevents panic and additional, smaller disasters from occurring at the site. All of this will help you manage a difficult situation in trying circumstances.
Remember that NC Department of Cultural Resources is always here with (free) conservators, archivists and specialists on hand to assist immediately after and in the long-term recovery. CREST team members will respond from across the state and a local response will begin with the *ACREN groups.
NC Department of Cultural Resources
Disaster Preparedness Coordinator
Remember when Thanksgiving was its own holiday and not just lumped into “the Holiday Season?” This post highlights objects with turkey motifs found in the NC Department of Cultural Resources’ collections and exhibits nostalgia for days of yore when Christmas decorations did not appear immediately after Halloween.
Do stores even sell Thanksgiving greeting cards anymore? The verso of this 1914 postcard on the left is addressed to Miss Eliza Pool of Raleigh with the message “That each passing year may bring you more to be thankful for is the wish of your loving Brad.”
The card on the right dates 1948-1952 and shows a scene at odds with typical 21st-century experiences of the holiday. How many of today’s parents would send their pre-school boys outside with an axe to help prepare the focal point of the impending feast?
This “turkey tracks” pattern quilt dates to circa 1850 and incorporates pieces of calico dyed “Turkey red“–a newly possible and tremendously popular color during the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike the name of the quilt’s pattern, the term for the red dye referred to the Middle East, rather than the bird.
A wooden turkey figurine, carved of apple wood by John Hall of the Campbell Folk School in 1948, stands elegantly in contrast to the cartoon turkey with Jesse Helms’ head on this political button from 1990.
Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!
Our Fire Recovery Workshop last week at the Buncombe County Public Safety Training Center is now behind us. We enjoyed beautiful, crisp fall weather in the mountains and a wonderful new facility. A shout out to the facility’s Director and fire fighter, Eric Rogers, for accommodating our unusual needs so well! This was our team’s 3rd and largest fire recovery workshop so far and we are planning at least 3 more of this type of training.
One lesson we learned this time from our participants is that we need to provided clearer guidelines on how to recover artifacts before sending our group out to “just do it!”. Heritage Preservation offers a good start with this video, which our group was able to review beforehand, but its recommendations are limited to vacuuming and soot sponging. A couple of points to remember about these materials:
- Vacuum objects in place before moving, if possible.
- Do not unroll textiles or open books before vacuuming.
- The vacuum should not be in direct contact with the artifact. Hold the nozzle with a thumb on its edge to prevent touching the artifact.
- If possible, cover the nozzle with a flexible nylon screen, or even an old piece of pantyhose, to prevent sucking any loose bits of the artifact up, while vacuuming soot particles.
- Variable suction is a helpful feature in recovery. On our windy day, the shop vac we used tended to pull textile items too much.
- Our consulting conservator, David Goist, cautioned our group to examine surface materials carefully before deciding to soot sponge. The pressure of applying a soot sponge might grind soot particles into some matte surfaces.
- The name “sponge” is somewhat misleading for this material. Although it looks like a sponge, it should not be used to rub. A light dab will trap the soot particles on one face of the rubber cube. Cutting the dirty face off with scissors exposes a clean surface for more trapping.
The soot sponging process can also help identify patterns in soot damage. On Rogers’ suggestion, we placed one object, a carousel horse, in a room on its own, separated from the controlled burn areas. The recovery team found by sponging that soot only collected on top surfaces of the piece.
Although Heritage Preservation’s guidelines urge caution against rinsing anything sooty, Goist instructed the group that objects like glass and high-fired ceramics can usually be rinsed. Silver flatware may also be rinsed and then wiped with a cotton rag dampened with ethanol. Participants had success with these recovery techniques for the “artifacts” they recovered from the dining table setting in the mock museum.
Next week’s post will address the fate of the plastic storage materials we used in the controlled burn exercise.
Most museum collection policies delineate steps for the placement of deaccessioned artifacts.
- Attempt to transfer to a teaching or prop collection within the institution.
- Attempt to find another collecting institution for transfer.
- Sell at public auction and use resulting funds for collection purposes (acquisition or supplies) only.
- Destroy if in total disrepair or posing a health risk.
Another common guideline insists that deaccessioned objects should not be returned to the donor or a descendant for two reasons: first, the donor may have taken a tax deduction for the piece and its return would render the deduction fraudulent; second, there may be multiple descendants with competing ownership claims which the museum cannot and should not arbitrate.
In addition to the above 4 typical deaccession destinations enumerated above, C2C has become another option in between #s 3 and 4 (perhaps a 3 ½?). In cases where objects have no re-sale value but still have some level of structural integrity and visual interest, three North Carolina museums have opted to donate their deaccessioned pieces to C2C for our team to destroy in the mock museums we set up before our fire recovery workshops. These views include several deaccessioned pieces staged for the controlled burn at the Buncombe County Public Safety Training Center. Our fire recovery workshop participants got to practice triage and recovery with these materials yesterday. Sometimes items in these scenarios survive the fire and do 2 or more tours of C2C-controlled-burn duty, but more often they are destroyed during the burn or disposed immediately after the workshop.
Please consider sending your deaccessioned, no monetary value, but still interesting, objects to us at C2C for workshop use. And, stay tuned to learn the fate of these former museum artifacts after yesterday’s fire recovery workshop…
While in Western North Carolina a few years ago, I heard an old Mountain idiom that went: “Yep – those directions was just about as clear as mud.” I think that is what is happening with the new disaster recovery organization structure here at C2C. So I am going to try to clear up the mud hole in regards to the structure and purpose of CREST and the related sub groups for emergency salvage of artifacts in the event of a natural or man-made disaster.
CREST – Cultural Resources Emergency Support Team
Breaking down the letters of CREST, acknowledges that the group originates here at the NCDCR. The purpose of forming a statewide team is to be able to respond to any library, museum or historic site in North Carolina that has a disaster or crisis. CREST participants would provide the manpower and the supplies to begin immediate salvage and recovery of artifacts and collections at the site. It is an “all hands on deck” for the people who are signed up as part of the CREST team to respond as quickly as possible. Here in Raleigh, we will maintain a cache of recovery supplies that might be needed. Supplies are stored here in large tubs ready and waiting for a call to respond. Examples of the supplies are soot sponges, wax and parchment paper, tarps, Tyvek tags and pens, drying racks for small and medium sized textiles, rope, close pins, clean water, fans, extension cords and numerous other items we can stockpile. Should a call come to Raleigh of a crisis, we will deploy CREST persons with the tubs of supplies to that facility. All CREST team members receive an individual “Go-Pack” of personal safety equipment and immediate triage supplies to get started. Items in the go-pack include a safety helmet and vest, masks, gloves, flashlight, simple tools, and other items. (See photo)
On the local level, there are regional groups that support the CREST team. The letters of the regional groups stand for Area Cultural Resource Emergency Network. So far, there are three groups. They are in the Triangle, Mountain and Piedmont sections of North Carolina. Add the first letter of the region to *ACREN and you have TACREN, MACREN, and PACREN. These regional groups are the first responders to their regional area that is experiencing the disaster. The CREST team will arrive as quickly as possible with trained personal and specialized supplies as backup.
Both CREST and *ACREN members have been trained in personal safety, recovery of artifacts and organizational procedures in a disaster. Workshops and classes emphasize an immediate triage and joint effort to stabilize the condition of the collection. The goal of quick response to a disaster is to prevent further long-term damages until the items are evaluated for future conservation and restoration by professionals.
Anyone who is trained in artifact recovery can be on either the regional *ACREN group or the statewide CREST team. Actually, a participant can be on both because the training is the same. The differences lie in the ability to respond. A CREST member must be willing to respond anywhere in North Carolina. (And of course in their region as well.) However, a member of one of the *ACREN groups only responds to help their colleagues in their geographic area.
We are striving, through workshops and training to empower library, museum and historic site staff in all regions of the state. There are dreams of a CACREN, (Costal) WACREN (Wilmington) and OBX-AREN. (Outer Banks)
If your area is interested, we will be more than happy to provide training, workshops and burn recovery to collections. We would love to have a long list of *ACREN groups ready and prepared to assist each other. Hopefully, this clears up the muddy mess to at least a watery mess. Stay safe and continue updating the inventory list.
Disaster Preparedness Coordinator
NCDCR – C2C
Our first rule on polishing silver is to avoid it. Not because collection managers are lazy, but because each time we polish to remove tarnish, we rub away a microscopic layer of the material. Over time polishing can diminish and even deface the historical material. Most of us have seen incidences of this where the engraving on silver artifacts has become barely visible after many years of polishing. Silver plated objects can loose their shiny metal casings readily with polishing and reveal patches of copper or another base metal beneath.
Several storage materials can prevent tarnish by blocking sulfuric pollutants from coming in contact with the silver. 4 products are especially effective:
Still, even with methods to prevent tarnish, there are times when silver artifacts must be out on exhibit, outside of protective cases. Perhaps this is most common within historic house museums, where silver often gleams from table settings and sideboards. When polishing becomes necessary, collection stewards should use the gentlest methods and materials possible. In the past, our “Collection Care Basics” workshops have included practicing with silver plate utensils, and this activity has been one of the hands-on components participants have enjoyed. We have followed the directions outlined in the National Park Service’s Conserve O Gram on silver polishing. First wiping pieces down with cotton rags dampened with ethanol and then stirring a polish made from precipitated calcium carbonate mixed with distilled water to form a cream consistency. (Click here and scroll to page 3 for more complete instructions.) Other great online resources are two videos that the Nebraska State Historical Society’s GeraldR. Ford Conservation Center produced—one on polishing (solution varies slightly from the NPS recommendations) and another on applying microcrystalline wax as a protective coating.
Now, as our C2C project focuses more on disaster preparedness and recovery, our Basics workshop will concentrate more on storage methods as disaster damage mitigation. We will use the hands-on time previously spent on silver polishing to practice creating storage cradle mounts from ethafoam instead. We hope the online resources we have suggested, along with whatever personal guidance we can offer, will help you through the polishing process. NC metals conservator, Jane Bynon, is another local resource and is one of the few experts in the region who has the capability to lacquer objects–another tarnish-preventing option for silver on long-term display.
What methods for preventing and/or removing tarnish have been most successful for the collections under your care?
Last week members of our C2C team completed the fundraising course through the Connecting to Collections Online Community. If you are interested in learning more about this topic and were not able to participate in the course, many materials, including archived webinars, are still available on the course page. Also, make plans to attend an upcoming affordable face-to-face learning opportunity. Next month the Federation of NC Historical Societies will be holding a workshop on fundraising in Raleigh on Friday morning, November 22nd. Click here and scroll down to the workshops section for more information and registration links.
In most institutions funds available for collections care either do not exist as a separate budgetary line item or have not kept up with increasing professional standards for storage and exhibition. Even the low-budget and “on a shoestring” strategies we try to devise and promote often come with a cost. Consequently, all collection stewards need to familiarize themselves with fundraising.
Many of us have tried our hand at grant writing. C2C Project Director, LeRae Umfleet, has written about “Finding Funding” and set up a slide presentation you can access here on various grantors to consider for collections funding on the local, state, and national levels. While grants are an important component of fundraising, those monies, on average, make up less than 20% of non-profit budgets. Individual giving—either by institutional members or benefactors—comprises 80%. Grant writing, though time consuming, is worthwhile; successful grant applications can help leverage individual gifts as well as raise the status of your project or your institution within your community and professional organizations. However, focusing more on raising funds from individuals will do more to sustain your institution. David Winslow, a successful fundraiser for cultural heritage institutions in NC, will be sharing some of his tips for cultivating individual donors at the Federation workshop in November.
Foundations are a potential source of funding that form a middle path between grants from federal and statewide grantors and individuals. Some have formalized grant applications; others are smaller and can be family run. Forging personal connections with foundation representatives in your area can help your non-profit achieve its goals. The Foundation Center’s free online database allows you to look up basic information on individual foundations and to search by location. Focus on those foundations in your communities that have substantial capacities to give and missions that align with that of your organization or special project.
You can also get free access to the full database of information at the Foundation Center’s Funding Information Network Centers in NC. They are, from east to west:
- Onslow CountyPublic Library, Jacksonville
- New HanoverCountyPublic Library, Wilmington
- Braswell Memorial Library, Rocky Mount
- Olivia Raney Local History and Research Library, Raleigh
- Chapel Hill Public Library, Chapel Hill
- Durham County Public Library, Durham
- Greensboro Public Library, Greensboro
- High Point Public Library, High Point
- Forsyth CountyPublic Library, Winston-Salem
- Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, Charlotte
- Blue RidgeCommunity College, Flat Rock
- TransylvaniaCounty Library, Brevard
The dangers of picric acid may be old news now, as a flurry of various museum staff members discovered picric acid in their collections two years ago, but the warning is worth repeating. Especially since our outreach efforts are focusing more and more on disaster preparedness, we have to be mindful of the potential disasters that collections themselves may harbor.
Picric acid is a pale yellow, odorless crystal that is normally packaged as a solution with 10%+ water. The chemical was once commonly included in first aid kits and other medical supplies, especially around the turn of the 20th century through about 1950. [The example here on the left is part of the online "Museum of Menstruation's" collection.] The substance becomes hazardous over time as the water evaporates and dry, yellowish crystalline particles remain. The dry acid crystals are an especially volatile chemical, which combusts easily from changes in temperature or friction. The crystals react to metals and alkaline materials, such as plaster or concrete, to form explosive picrate salts, becoming even more dangerous.
Several of the 2011 incidents were in Colorado (notably the PioneerMuseum) and another in Oklahoma. When museum staff members identified collection items laced with picric acid (guaze pads in some cases) and called authorities, bomb squads came to the institutions. Officials evacuated visitors and staff and then detonated the materials.
Have North Carolina collections stewards verified that 50-100+-year-old medical supplies are free from this danger? Do you know of any institutions in our state where staff has discovered and disposed of this hazardous chemical?