Author Archives: collectionsconversations

StEPs Toward Improvement

The Standards and Excellence Program (StEPs) is a self-assessment curriculum and certificate program designed by American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) experts. There is a modest cost ($175) to enroll and buy the StEPs workbook, but it can serve as an informative and lasting resource for small museums. As staff members work through each of the sections at their own pace, they can register their self-determined progress with AASLH and receive bronze, silver, or gold certificates. These levels reflect institutional accomplishments in “basic,” “good,” or “better” categories, respectively.

The point of the program is to help small museums, many of which rely on unpaid staff, understand national standards in museum administration, collections care, and other essential topics and guide them toward making the improvements they can with available resources. Many of the smallest cultural heritage institutions do not qualify for other national assessment programs, such as MAP or CAP, since these require institutions to be open to the public at least 90 days each year. Learn more about the StEPs program in this free hour-long webinar, “What is StEPS?”

credit: AASLH

credit: AASLH

Recently, AASLH put out a list of all institutions that had earned certificates in the program.  No North Carolina institutions are included, although we know of two—The High Point Museum and the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University—that have begun the program. In fact, watch the short informational video, “Why Enroll in StEPs?”  to spot a fun photo of the Mountain Heritage Center staff, including Anne Lane and Pam Meister.

The Mountain Heritage Center began working through StEPs in an effort to gauge the institution’s readiness for AAM accreditation. Staff had gone through a MAP in collections stewardship and felt that a comprehensive review of additonal institutional functions would be useful preparation for the more intensive accreditation process. Meister, the interim director, established a StEPs working group that met weekly and consisted of staff, WCU faculty, public history graduate students, and community members. The group was effective and found the StEPs workbook to be a terrific educational tool that helped them focus on making necessary decisions for institutional progress. The process also sparked deeper examinations into key issues about interpretation and audience. Another plus about the StEPs assessment is that it is self-paced. After earning some certificates, staff put the StEPs project on hold when they learned that the Museum will have to move out of its current building and eventually relocate to a new campus visitor center. They plan to reconvene the working group eventually, but in the meantime, the StEPs work they did accomplish will serve them during the important planning stages as the new facility takes shape.

StEPs is versatile enough to be useful for the smallest museums as well those with more staff and institutional resources, like the Mountain Heritage Center. Their example shows how StEPs can dovetail with established AAM programs and keep staff and other stakeholders focusing on institutional progress. Also, don’t forget that the North Carolina Museums Council offers a free on-site consultation service for all museums, regardless of numbers of open days or full-time staff. This, as well as the services our C2C team can provide, means that no North Carolina institution should feel isolated or unsupported. Understanding national standards is worthwhile, as is being part of a nationwide community of practice. Consider StEPs as means to both ends.

Thanks to Pam Meister for her contributions to this post.

Thinky-Drinky: More Engagement Ideas for Historic Houses

As we’ve written here before, historic house museums across the country have been struggling with declining visitation and funding since the 1980s. At the Glensheen Estate in Duluth, Minnesota, annual visitation to the 39-bedroom mansion fell to 50,000 in 2012. To combat this trend and avoid closing, Glensheen and other historic houses are experimenting with new kinds of programs and interpretation strategies. The following 3 examples from the Midwest and New England may be worth a try in North Carolina too.

1. Three Minnesota historic house museums, including Glensheen, the Alexander Ramsey House in St. Paul, and the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, have “taken down the velvet ropes” for innovative programs designed to attract new audiences. History Happy Hour is an opportunity for younger and older adults can mingle inside period rooms, learn about and discuss a historical topic, and drink wine. An organizer calls such gatherings “thinky drinky events,” and they’ve helped boost both earned revenue and visitation. At Glensheen, the new approach has boosted the historic house’s previously languishing visitation by 19%. Despite the increased collection risks from handling and theft, so far, there has been no noticeable artifact damage from the new programs at these sites.

2. The Hunter House in Newport, Rhode Island has re-imagined the period room and turned the house into a series of interpretive exhibits on the meaning of decorative arts. Each room conveys a different main idea with a juxtaposition of objects. For example, furniture construction is the topic in one bed chamber; the hallway exhibits changing styles with chairs; and the kitchen is filled with objects representing nostalgia for the colonial period. While this approach allows more interpretive flexibility and distinguishes the Hunter House from the many other historic houses in its area, it may have little effect on attracting new audiences. The study of decorative arts is perhaps increasingly esoteric and its interpretation in this instance relies on traditional wall labels and/or guided tours.

3. The Strong-Howard House in Windsor, Connecticut is transforming into a completely hands-on visitor experience.   By researching probate inventories and studying period furniture, staff has directed the reconstruction of furniture and accessories in several rooms. They now invite visitors in to try out the rope mattress canopy bed. For special events, guests can also dine on food made from period recipes and use reproduction furniture and implements. The downside of the Windsor Historical Society’s experimentation with audience engagement is that it doesn’t come cheap. The Strong-Howard project cost $500,000 for phases I & II, amounting to restoration work on the building itself and two rooms full of reproductions. Phase III, which will include the kitchen with a working hearth, will require an additional $200,000 and will open in fall 2015, as long as fundraising progress continues on pace.

Do you know of audience engagement experiments within a North Carolina historic house? If so, do you consider the new approach successful?

Moving Targets for Preservation

MovingTargetAccording to recent reports by the Image Permanence Institute, the 70 degree/ 50 % relative humidity target for collections storage environments is not only outdated and unsustainable, it was never optimal in the first place. What started as a best guess, based primarily on human comfort, became accepted practice in museums and libraries for decades. However, “research at preservation science laboratories in the United States, Canada, and abroad provided data to show that wider fluctuations in relative humidity and temperature were not necessarily damaging to collections.” The old standard is “difficult to achieve, even harder to maintain, expensive and not always necessary.”

But where should collections stewards aim? The target is now always moving based on seasonal drift and material types. For instance, moderate temperatures are not appropriate for preserving certain materials. Most photographs and films should be chilled. For optimal preservation, different types of materials should be stored together and in smaller, customized environments where possible. These separate measure do not have to be costly. A frost-free refrigerator/ freezer can house a photograph collection safely. Many can be stored in the freezer section, while special types, such as glass plate negatives, can be stored in the refrigerator section. Polyethylene or polypropylene boxes with silica gel inside can provide affordable storage for humidity-sensitive materials such as leather and metals.

IPI_EnvironmentIPI’s “Quick Reference” guide can help to plot environmental priorities for various collection material types. Further, The University of Illinois Library is developing another tool to help collection managers make item-level and collection-level preservation assessments and identify actions to improve conditions. The Preservation Self-Assessment Program is a free online method to target solutions. The program is new and currently limited to library materials–books, papers, photographs, and film–but is worth exploring for museum collections too. The Connecting to Collections online community will introduce this tool more fully in an upcoming free webinar, scheduled November 5, 2014.

As collections stewards, we shouldn’t be afraid that the monolithic standard has been debunked. Preservation knowledge has grown more complex, but we are all crafty and resourceful enough to adapt to the new moving targets.

Musings from a First-Time Attendee at AASLH

C2C’s Disaster Preparedness Coordinator, Lyn Triplett, shares her thoughts…

We just got back from attending the American Association for State and Local History conference in Minnesota. Because my background is in Education, FEMA, and the arts this was my first time to attend a national conference with so many historians.  I was surrounded by sharp, learned, and interesting people, all of whom had a very high level of expertise in their chosen passion and career.  The best part of most professional conferences is being able to immerse yourself with peers who really speak your language and know the ins and outs of the professional world of your career.  People were always willing to share information, display new ideas and approaches, chat, vent, problem-solve and cheer each other and their institutions onward and upward.

The best part was learning that stumbling blocks in our area are the same in other areas.  Getting small and medium museums to write disaster plans, update inventories, and document artifacts are challenges across the country.  Not all ideas at AASLH were met with cheers and confetti.  The ideas of gearing education programs to specific styles of learning (traditional schools  vs. home schooled), contemporary approaches to media (Zombies and comic books),  interactive collaboration between fields of study, and cross categorical implementation of the arts still makes many museum, library and conservation professionals uncomfortable.   However, I think that it can be said that we need those folks to make us get out of our ruts, view our sites and collections with a new prism and encourage fresh ideas in order to keep the funding, the audience and, most importantly, the educational enlightenment that arises from attending the state and local history sites and museums at a peak.

The one component that everyone could agree upon was that the local group of dedicated individuals, upon which every historic entity depends, is absolutely paramount to the continued success of preserving history for the future.  That unique group of people gives their time and their money to keep the doors open and are the backbone of sustainability for tens of thousands of museums, sites and libraries across the United States.

A friend once told me that every event depending on participation from others was a risk.  Whether it was a birthday party, an open house, or a black tie charity ball, in order for the attendees to say “Yes” to that event, they had to say “No” to something else; even if that something else was just getting off the couch and not watching TV.  Her point was that we should always appreciate, with genuine and deep gratitude, the people who choose to support us with their hard work and devotion.  They could easily choose to do something much more glamorous, fun or relaxing.  Thinking of this, I realized that many historical institutions and museums are hanging from a very thin thread.  When that connective filament breaks down between the custodians of the sites and artifacts and the local community, the worst disaster possible will occur.  The doors will close and the history will be locked away.  That will mean no more stories, no more education, and especially, no way to learn lessons from our past to create a better future.

From developing new attendees, to filling the financial coffers, to showing admiration for the work-horse-volunteers, we must do whatever it takes to keep the doors open.  If that means dressing up as a super-hero, or learning a new computer system or spending money for a professional consultant, then it simply must be done.  It will also mean that I might be a little uncomfortable in the process.  But I learned something very important at the AASLH Conference: that history and artifacts do not belong to just one group or individual – we are simply the temporary custodians.  It is our responsibility to entreat others and inspire the next group of learners who happen along.  And we must make sure that those people are welcome and willing to say “Yes” to history and its importance to our cultural growth.

Book Cradles

yearbook on display at the Carthage Museum

yearbook on display at the Carthage Museum

Rare books frequently turn up in exhibitions in libraries and museums of all types. Instead of displaying the book flat and stressing its fragile spine, or squeezing it into a stand, consider a book cradle to provide appropriate support. The Benchmark catalog is one source for state-of-the-art book mounts. These are visually appealing but at $155 each, typically not budget-friendly for smaller institutions.

By making your own cradle out of acid-free board, however, you can create a preservation-appropriate mount on a small budget. The planned DIY activity at last week’s C2C workshop, Exhibition Basics, was making a book cradle. Andrea Knowlton, who is a conservator for UNC Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library special collections, provided instruction in this useful skill. But if you missed the session and are interested in learning to make this kind of mount, there are also some online instructions that will guide you. During the workshops Knowlton used 3M acid-free double-sided tape, rather than hot glue, to attach pieces of board together for the cradle. For diagrams of  various book cradle shapes you can make yourself, click here.

Knowlton also recommends polyethylene strap, an affordable display supply from Benchmark, to secure pages safely on each side of an open book. The Benchmark site includes helpful images and instructions for using poly-strap for this purpose. The poly-strap has softer edges than strips of polyester film (melinex/ mylar)—a preservation advantage. Use a bit of the double-sided tape to attach one end of the strap to the other, keeping the adhesive from touching the book.

ExhibitsWorkshop3At right, another instructor from last week’s workshop, Linda Jacobson, also of UNC-CH, discusses supplies and methods with participant Justin White of Wilson’s Imagination Station. Note two of Knowlton’s completed book cradles in the right foreground.

What mounting-making challenges have you faced? Have you discovered any  methods to enhance both an artifact’s display and preservation at the same time?

Sea-sonal Harvest

The fall harvest is upon us in North Carolina. That means cotton and many food crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. On the North Carolina coast, fall is also a time to harvest from the sea. The Day at the Docks festival in Hatteras will celebrate the seafood harvest later this week, September 18 – 20.

Although coastal fishermen have long been active through the fall season, the festival highlighting their efforts is relatively new. It began as a disaster recovery celebration in the wake of Hurricane Isabel in 2003. It now includes roundtable discussions, a blessing of the fleet ceremony, children’s activities, additional fun entertainment, and of course, seafood. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum has a presence there too, providing an activity for kids and information about volunteer needs.

Several coastal museums have active oral history programs, recording the fall rhythms of herring and mullet and their upriver spawning runs as well as the menhaden migrations southward to Carteret County and the impressive industry that developed around their harvest. The Federal Point History Center has collected a remarkable oral history on the late November mullet run. Read Howard Hewett’s lively account of fishing for mullet during the 1940s here. Hewett writes that mullet roe [eggs] was a delicacy and that salted mullet from one fall catch could feed a family (or several) throughout the winter. Shad [menhaden] roe has also been a regional delicacy, as folklorist and historian David Cecelski describes. Fall was the peak time for menhaden fishing and the Core Sound Museum has put together a wealth of oral history resources on the menhaden, or “pogy” way of life.  More images and information are also available in Our State magazine’s recent article, “The Fish that Built Beaufort.”





Herring is yet another species that was once a dietary staple, especially in Northeastern NC, and harvested commercially during their early fall spawning runs. At left is an image from the 1930s, marked “herring boat at plant of Perry-Belch Commercial Fisheries.” Fall fishing was so abundant that in September of 1861 Harpers’ Weekly printed a coastal scene to showcase these activities. The view of “The Fisheries of Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, North Carolina,” pictured both shad and herring boats. Like menhaden, herring fishing is no longer what it once was along the NC coast.

Kudos to NC’s cultural heritage collections and their community partners for preserving the stories and artifacts that relate to fishing traditions, which once defined the fall season for coastal communities.



Fire Grenades

Thanks to John Campbell, Collections Management Section Chief of the NC Museum of History and CREST member for this guest post.

fireGrenade1fireGrenade2Recently a colleague forwarded to me a string of emails about a potential danger lurking in museum collections,  fire grenades.  These items were sold from the 1870s until the 1950s and were used to put out a small fire in an enclosed area quickly.  The idea was to throw the glass bottle at the base of the fire, where it would shatter and the contents would smother the fire.  Early versions were filled with salt water, and later the chemical of choice was carbon tetrachloride.

I was familiar with these beauties; in fact I think I put the number on the bottom of the red one years ago during processing.  We knew at the time that the contents of the grenade were still intact, but we did not know what they were. As it turns out, carbon tetrachloride is not a nice chemical to have around.  According to the EPA:

The primary effects of carbon tetrachloride in humans are on the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system (CNS).  Human symptoms of acute (short-term) inhalation and oral exposures to carbon tetrachloride include headache, weakness, lethargy, nausea, and vomiting.  Acute exposures to higher levels and chronic (long-term) inhalation or oral exposure to carbon tetrachloride produces liver and kidney damage in humans.

At the NC Museum of History, we decided that we would deaccession these items from our collection because we did not have the proper facilities to store them.  Several people have suggested trying to remove the contents in order to keep the glass bottles in the collection, but that is not a good idea. Even if you are successful in not breaking the fragile glass, how would you safely handle and dispose of the dangerous carbon tetrachloride?  Our best advice is to seek out someone qualified to handle hazardous materials, like your county waste disposal director and see what options you have.

You can find additional information in these articles and more images of different types.

The good news is that new 3-D printing technologies may allow museums to tell this interesting story without the threat of dangerous chemicals.

The Great Debate and NC Insights

A few months ago we blogged here about the now-prominent view among historic preservation experts to shutter historic house museums with low visitation and/or revenue and shift them to private ownership with protective easements. Last month, in an article entitled, “The Great Historic House Museum Debate,” a Boston Globe journalist introduced these arguments to a broad audience and highlighted the contrary ideas of William Hosley, a New England-based museum professional. Hosley offers important cautions about privatization that add to our own about limiting access to the wealthy.

Hosley discusses small historic houses as grass-roots community history institutions. He argues that historic houses should be valued as specimens of cultural diversity in the same way that our society seeks to protect endangered species for the sake of biodiversity. Moreover, old buildings and the artifact collections they present work to preserve the distinctiveness of locales and express the idea that history-creation is a basic civic right.  As other public history leaders have discussed, history-creating activities (although not a specific reference in the Bill of Rights) strongly relate to the 1st Amendment’s call for freedom of expression and the right to assemble. Telling stories of the past is an essential function in human society, and gathering places and objects enliven and enrich these histories.

Although most of the well attended and well funded house museums reflect the history of the elites, grass-roots organizations continue to found and struggle to sustain vestiges of humble circumstances. Two highlights from different parts of North Carolina are notable. In the Charlotte area, the Belmont Historical Association has restored a 1920s house inhabited by mill workers from Parkdale Mills. Like Belmont, a committed group of volunteers keeps the Penderlea Homestead Museum open one afternoon each weekend in Burgaw, north of Wilmington. Penderlea is a restored Depression-era farmstead, which the federal government made available to poor farmers who passed an approval process.  Both sites stand as testaments to the trials and tribulations of the past. The volunteer staff opens their doors to help interested visitors learn more. No, they don’t have the same dazzling effect and popular following as the Biltmore, but they do offer insights into 20th-century textile mills and farm life.

An impressive group of folks from each of these communities has invested its time, passion, and often money to preserve these buildings, artifacts, and local history. If we subscribe to the view that “America does not need another house museum,” then we limit the possibilities of future lifestyle interpretation. Some of these micro-museums may not ever undertake the capacity-building initiatives that allow them to professionalize. Others have hired some professional staff but then cannot sustain activities that meet professional standards. The energy and support levels of the governing boards combine with market forces to determine which house museums will grow, stabilize, or falter. Leaders should regularly consider alternatives to current operations, but remaining a micro-museum may be the best possible service for some localities.

Read about another potential historic house in Tryon here. After the purchase of African-American singer, Nina Simone’s, modest childhood home, the buyer worked to restore it and turn it into a house museum. Costs have escalated beyond his means, however, and he’s hoping to sell the property with a subsequent buyer’s commitment to somehow continue efforts to preserve Simone’s history.

It’s worth pondering whether our communities would be the same without these tangible lessons in cultural heritage. Does having a space open to the public as a museum make the preserved past more meaningful than restoring a structure for private ownership?

STASH: A New Tool for Collections Management

The hands-on training and opportunities for networking and discussion that C2C offers in regional workshops are important collections care resources, but more and more collections professionals look to the internet for answers. Our team also strives to act as guides for our NC cultural heritage community in navigating the vast tangle of resources available online. In this vein, we urge you to check out a new website Weeks ago the Connecting to Collections online community hosted a free webinar in which Conservator Rachel Perkins Arenstein introduced this new resource and highlighted some of the storage solutions she considers to be the most practical. You can view the archived version here.

The acronym STASH stands for Storage Techniques for Art, Science, and History. This effort represents collaboration across the disciplines and those of us working in history organizations perhaps have the most to gain/ learn from our colleagues in these other fields. Science museums, especially, have developed storage systems that allow both preservation and access. Researchers analyze collection specimens in those institutions as evidence of ecosystem changes and/ or species-specific evolution. Storage systems must allow close inspection of specimens, while minimizing handling and providing thorough support for artifacts that are often very fragile. Many of these solutions are great examples for cultural heritage collections to emulate.

Of the three types, art museums are often the best funded and individual collection items typically boast a much higher monetary value than do historic artifacts. As a result, these institutions can more often afford professional conservation staff who have set professional standards for all types of museums, especially in climate control, filtering systems, lighting, and exhibition mount-making.

Our favorite examples from the STASH website include a discussion and list of disaster recovery supplies for every institution and a nearly comprehensive list of collections care supplies, along with suggested sources.  Several of the specific storage solutions are low-cost and simple enough to recommend to the cultural heritage institutions we work with. For instance, check out a quick and easy-to-construct tray system made with corrugated polypropylene board here. This system would work well with many types of lightweight artifacts and help maximize shelf or box space.

What storage techniques are successful in your space? STASH also includes an option for submission so you can share your ingenuity to a broad collections care audience. And of course, we’re always happy to provide a smaller-scale forum for your collections care stories here.

Pre-plan with Firefighters

FireAssocPatchWhen we bought our first house, it was directly across the street from a fire station.  My boys, ages 6 and 10 at the time, thought that the firefighters were the best neighbors we could have had.  Anytime the boys had friends over, it always included a visit to “the fire guys” and a display of lights, hats, sirens and such. Soon my boys knew all of them by name and by shift. Now some people might not like living across from a fire station.  However, it was great fun for us and they were the BEST neighbors. I love to bake and firefighters love to eat, so we had a great symbiotic relationship. We felt safe, secure, appreciated and were entertained by their comings and goings.  And no, they did not use the sirens at night – they were very respectful of the entire neighborhood. We were always impressed with their willingness to help anyone in the neighborhood whenever they could.  Those firefighters helped get cars started, changed tires, put luminaries out at Christmas, opened locked doors, cut trees after a storm, and displayed many other examples of their willingness to help their neighbors.

NC_Certified_Firefighter PathcSo, when I learned from the NC fire fighters we’ve done workshops with about their “pre-plan” program, I guessed the plan would be thorough and reasonable – but I did not expect it to be so incredibly easy. All it takes is one phone call to your nearest fire station (volunteer fire stations included) and they will come to your site and do a “pre-plan.”  The firefighters bring the forms, they fill out the forms, they measure, inspect, add details, and do it all for you.  They make detailed notes of priority artifacts, structure issues, storage placement and fragile items that need to be protected or handled with care.  They are especially interested in historical structures and artifacts.  Firefighters are eager to learn how to respond so that these treasures are preserved for future generations.

Do you have any of the following: antique glass in the front door or windows, stained glass windows, hand carved banisters, cemeteries, cupolas, wrought iron gates, or other special architectural or landscape features? What are the priority artifacts that need rescue in case of fire or flood?   The firefighters will mark and document all of these special areas so that when they arrive on the scene, they can react in the best way possible to save and protect our historical treasures.

One phone call is all it takes. You make the call; they come and do the work. So, how easy is that?  In addition, just for their tireless efforts, bake a cake and give it to them when they finish.

For another opportunity to discuss pre-plans, come to C2C’s next fire recovery workshop in Greensboro, where we’ll hear from battalion chiefs and other departmental leaders.

Lyn Triplett, C2C Disaster Planning Coordinator



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