Monthly Archives: September 2011

Less is Usually More

Those who have been in the museum field awhile have surely noticed an evolution in professional standards over time.  Conservation know-how is one area especially prone to obsolescence.  For instance, years ago a conservator recommended polishing brass with wenol to one of our staff members who then worked at an historic house.  Current advice, however, acknowledges that wenol contains ammonia, which is harmful for brass. 

This example of fatty spew or bloom is from the Alaska State Museum and can be found at

Dressing leather with neatsfoot oil, or some other product, used to be a routine part of professional care.  In contrast, conservators today have documented the build-up of grime and outbreaks of fatty bloom as potential effects of these treatments years after application.  Most now recommend preventative conservation measures for leather, such as storage in a regulated environment and dusting with a soft brush.

Similarly, our recent Wood & Metals Workshop participants heard from Conservator Jane Bynon that problems with decades’ old archaeological treatments have prompted British conservators to rethink unearthing materials in the first place.  It may be best to leave known artifacts in the ground or under water in an environment that has allowed their preservation thus far, rather than removing them and initiating a series of treatments.  As careful as conservators try to be, loss is often involved in treatments.  The ideal of reversibility frequently translates into the reality of re-treatability.  Some in the archaeological branch of the field question whether routine cleaning is ethical.  Even the simple process of brushing dirt off a shard removes irreplaceable contextual information and evidence of the artifact’s history.

 For those responsible for museum collections, then, the lesson of obsolescence should not provoke mistrust in conservators.  Rather it should be a caution to undertake any kind of treatment without education, research, training, and experience.  Seek advice from those you know to be knowledgeable; gathering multiple opinions will inform your decisions more thoroughly.  Most importantly, work to establish storage environments that will promote preservation: managing light, temperature, and RH levels and protecting artifacts from pests and pollutants.  With good collections care practices, artifact treatments will still be necessary, but less (handling and solution applications) is usually more.


Demystifying Artifact Cleaning


There are two types of cleaning processes to consider when a dirty museum object confronts you: 

dry cleaning = mechanical process                          wet cleaning = chemical process

 Dry Cleaning 

First determine whether accretions on the artifact are a result of the object’s history of use.  For example, at our recent Wood & Metals Workshop a participant brought in a metal flour measure with white residue around the rims of the piece.  Our guest presenter, Conservator Jane Bynon, recommended leaving the piece as-is.  To clean the flour residue would be to eliminate an important part of the artifact.  If by remaining on the artifact, the historic accretion poses a danger to the supporting material, then cleaning it off may be the best option.

 If potentially damaging dust and/or grime coat the object, try one or more of the following three products and methods for removal: 

1. electrostatically charged dust cloth:  We’ve written about “dust bunnies” made from tyvek in an earlier post; these are worth trying as well as other effective dust cloths.  The electrostatic charge allows the cloth to attract particles without the use of sprays or oils. 

2.  brush and vacuum: a soft natural bristle brush like this Japanese hake brush, made from sheep hair is ideal for smaller objects. (If a brush has a metal ferrule, it can be covered with tape to protect artifact damage.)  A larger, horsehair brush from Uline is a good option for larger, less delicate pieces.  Cover the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner with cheesecloth, a nylon screen, or even polyester stockings; hold the covered nozzle close (but not up against) the artifact; and brush toward the nozzle.  If possible, invest in a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter vacuum for collection care, as it will trap most mold spores, pollen, and dirt particles.

3. soot sponge:  Unlike other sponges, you should not rub with a soot sponge.  Just press gently on the object’s surface and the sponge picks up some stubborn accretions (like soot) that other dry methods will not.  Because soot sponges are made of rubber, they are a tarnishing agent and their use around tarnish-prone metals should be avoided.

 Wet cleaning

Identify the composition and condition of the material you want to clean.  Ideally, consult a conservator for advice on methods and products to use in wet cleaning.  Orvus paste soap or flakes of ivory soap dissolved in distilled water are appropriate for wet cleaning for artifacts that meet the following material and condition requirements.  Be very careful in the selection and use of solvents. 

  • If the material is wood, be sure it is painted or stained and the finish is stable before attempting wet cleaning. 
  • Textiles must be rather sturdy, cotton or linen, and undyed
  • Distilled water and ethanol are appropriate for cleaning most metals with no evidence of active corrosion.  For example, one of our workshop participants works in a coastal NC museum that recently acquired a large collection of 19th– & early 20th-century tools.  The pieces had been stored in a rodent-infested area before coming to the museum.  Of course, she wants to be able to disinfect the pieces—ethanol, or denatured alcohol, is a safe solution for many of them.
  • Ceramics must be glazed, without cracks or chips, for safe wet cleaning. 

Time to Apply for Assessments

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go! Mark you calendars for October 3rd for the release of the 2012 Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) application. The deadline for applying is December 1st.  Administrators evaluate applications in the order they are received, so it’s in your institution’s best interest to sign up now to receive the application as soon as it’s available and to complete it as soon as possible. 

If your museum is in need of an up-to-date assessment of preventive conservation practices and procedures, then a CAP may be just right for you. A current conservation assessment could benefit your instition in three vital ways: 

  1. formulating long-range conservation plans
  2. gaining internal support for collections care projects
  3. obtaining conservation grants

Please contact the CAP staff at or 202-233-0800 to be added to the application notification list.  Let the CAP staff know whether you would like to receive an email notification of the release of the application online, or whether you would prefer to receive a paper copy of the application.  (CAP hard-copy applications will only be mailed to those who specifically request them.)  Heritage Preservation administers CAP through a cooperative agreement and support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  

CAP is usually free to the awarded institution.  There may be small costs involved in hosting assessors’ meetings with board members and other hospitality incidentals.  Many museums in North Carolina have participated in the past—most recently, the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History in 2010, Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center in 2011, and Chapel Hill’s Charles R. Keith Arboretum in 2011.  This year the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington and the Orange County Historical Museum also participated in Re-CAP assessments, which are available 7 years after an institution received its first CAP. 

If you are considering an assessment for your institution, then you might want to contact someone in our North Carolina museum community with recent CAP experience.  Madeline Flagler, Director of the Wrightsville Beach Museum, heartily recommends the program.  Our office has a list of all NC participants over the years, and we can connect you with a museum close by or one similar to yours in size and/or type. 

If your institution’s collection needs are more general, or if your staff could benefit from expertise in other areas, then the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) is worth considering.  Administered by the American Association of Museums, the MAP application is also due December 1st.  This program targets small and mid-sized museums of all types.  There are four categories of MAP assessments: Organizational, Collections Stewardship, Leadership, and Community Engagement.  Contact AAM staff at or 202-289-9118 to discuss which type of assessment is best for your institution’s current needs and goals. 

If you’re not feeling ready yet to work with these programs but would like some expert advice for your institution, North Carolina offers several resources.  The North Carolina Museums Council offers a Free On-Site Consultation Service (FOCoS), with a current deadline of January 31, 2012.  Also, our own C2C office and the Federation of Historical Societies exist to help connect your institution and staff to resources, technical know-how, and useful networks.

Accidental Archaeological Discoveries

Another Artifact Anecdote by Assistant State Archaeologist, John Mintz

Sometimes an inadvertent artifact discovery captures the attention of site staff and visitors alike.  Such was the case on June 9, 2008, at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site, when four members of the United States Marine Corps Explosive Disposal Ordnance Team from Camp Lejeune uncovered a complete (albeit rusted and corroded) 1859 model Austrian Lorenz Bayonet. The EOD Team was searching for unexploded Civil War-era munition prior to an archaeological investigation into the construction techniques of the earthen fortifications at Fort Anderson by the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology.  Rather than finding explosives, the Marines discovered a firearm element specific to a key period of the site’s interpretation.

The quadrangle socket bayonet was attached by a diagonal mounting slot to the muzzle of a .54 caliber, percussion lock, muzzle loading, Austrian Lorenz rifled musket.  The Confederate Army issued as many as 100,000 of this type of musket to its troops.  It is probable that this bayonet and the rifled musket came to North Carolina’s coast along with troops initially stationed at either Fort Holmes on Baldhead Island or Fort Caswell, located on Oak Island.  Those soldiers retreated to Fort Anderson in mid-1864. 

The discovery and subsequent conservation of this bayonet were very fortuitous and timely.  The accidental find is slated to form the centerpiece of an exhibit at Fort Anderson, beginning in the fall of 2011, in recognition of North Carolina’s commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.

Seven Suggestions for Starting Up

So, you have a committed group of folks and a great idea, and maybe some objects to display and/or a building to host exhibits and programs.  Now what?  Here are seven suggestions to get you started in the process of creating a new institution.

             1.  Put objectives your group can agree upon in writing.  A mission statement for your organization/new museum is a good starting point and can guide further policy.  The process of writing a business plan will force you to think about whether similar groups in your area may compete for funds and volunteer support.  Assess whether your new organization/collection would be better off joining or partnering with an existing institution.  Avoid creating an institution that duplicates an existing one.

             2.  Engage your group in board training.  The Foundation Center offers a free online tutorial “Establishing a Non-Profit.”  See  This resource will educate you in the legal, ethical, and fiduciary responsibilities involved in governing a non-profit 501(c) (3).  Consider a regular readings discussion (book group) for your group to become familiar with museum governance topics and how they apply to your particular project.  The Southeastern Museums Conference sponsors Jekyll Island Management Institute (JIMI), an 8-day intensive course on museum management.

            3.  Familiarize yourselves with professional standards on collections care.   Our C2C website provides guidelines and links to many state and national organizations that can help you envision the staff needs and storage capacities of your site.  Draft a collections policy to guide your group as it acquires relevant artifacts.  Form a collections committee to review potential acquisitions.

             4.  Make long-range plans for your collection’s care in perpetuityAvoid building your collection with long-term loans!  Secure deeds of gift for any artifact you bring into the institution, unless it is for a specific short-term purpose, such as a program or exhibition.  Thorough record keeping will help your group avoid future pitfalls.

             5.  Consider your facility.  Will it provide climate control and protection for your collection?  Will it be ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant?  How much work will it require to comply with all relevant codes?  If you have an historic building, you may want to review the National Park Service’s guide for rehabilitation.

             6.  Consult knowledgeable professionals.  North Carolina is well endowed with nearly 1,000 institutions containing cultural heritage collections.  Scan the NC ECHO directory  to find institutions near you and stay connected to those professionals close by who can help.  The North Carolina Museums Council (NCMC) offers a Free On-Site Consultation Service (FOCoS).  Take advantage of this early in your museum’s establishment process.  

            7.  Be prepared.  Disasters can affect any institution.  Insurance can mitigate loss, and staff with specialized training can mitigate damage.  Create a disaster plan to be enacted in the event of fire, flood, or other catastrophe.

Fish & Hide Glue

High Tack Fish Glue is another appropriate product for artifact preservation that our C2C workshops recommend and use in hands-on practice.  It is fairly affordable and accessible, sold online by Lee Valley Tools.   

A one-liter bottle costs $19.50, but a little goes a long way for most collections repair needs.  The vendor also offers a ½ ounce, nail polish-style brush bottle for $3.50 (shipping charges additional).  Unlike granulated hide glue, liquid forms do have a limited shelf life, so consider ordering a small bottle or distributing a larger amount amongst your regional cultural resources network.

This product is completely reversible with ethanol, and several conservators who work regularly with wood recommend it for our C2C audience.  David Beaudin, Frame Conservator at the NC Museum of Art, first introduced high tack fish glue to us as a good solution for a common collections care problem.  Often in working with wood collections, both furniture and frames, small bits of carving or veneer detach—either by becoming unglued or by a mechanical break.  In an institution with a fairly large collection, the risk of dissociation is high.  It is much safer for the perpetual care of the object to re-adhere the piece using appropriate and reversible materials.

 Animal hide glue is a well known as a conservation product, but the expertise and equipment used to cook and apply the glue and clamp the parts may seem too daunting for many collections managers to undertake.  Consequently, a North Carolina furniture conservator reported that he once had to drive several hours to a museum just to re-attach a small piece of wood with hide glue.  With the right products, such as a ready-to-use liquid form of hide glue, museum collections workers can safely accomplish simple repairs.  Even if efforts result in some misalignment, the glue’s reversibility ensures that a conservator can correct the problem, if need be, at a later time.

 We will be distributing and practicing with high tack fish glue in our upcoming September 26th workshop, “A Closer Look at Wood and Metals.”  In addition, conservators Jane and Mark Bynon will present on the special challenges these materials pose and describe their treatment strategies. 

Collecting Dogwood

Before 1941 there was no clear consensus on the flower that should represent the state of North Carolina.  References in the 1910s listed either goldenrod or the ox-eye daisy as state flowers.  By the 1930s many other state legislatures had voted to select official floral emblems, including Virginia, which voted on the dogwood in 1918.  Worrying about lagging behind, garden clubs across North Carolina began organizing annual State Flower Conventions.  Before the State Senate voted on the dogwood with the State Garden Club’s support, others had made strong, but unsuccessful, appeals for both the Venus flytrap and the flame azalea.  A prominent Raleigh nature writer of the period praised the legislative outcome and referred to the dogwood as “the plant personality of the South.” 

For the past seven decades, then, the dogwood has been North Carolina’s floral emblem and has become a recurring motif in the Department of Cultural Resources’ collections.  Three examples stored in the NC Museum of History highlight a diversity of important craft traditions in our state.


NC Museum of History 2006.23.21

A bowl with three dogwood flowers represents the Jugtown pottery tradition.  Ben Owen Sr. created the piece between 1960 and 1972.  He had been a principal potter at Jugtown for decades.


NC Museum of History 1975.22.1

In 1975 the Fellowship Homemakers’ Club of Wake County (a girls’ organization) presented this quilt to the museum.


NC Museum of History 1981.235.1

Edd Presnell, a dulcimer maker from Banner Elk, created this state-symbol-themed dulcimer for the NC Museum of History’s collection in 1981.  Carved dogwood branches decorate the sides of the piece, while antler-inlaid dogwood flowers dot the fingerboard. Presnell also included a mahogany-inlaid cardinal and carved the pegs in the shape of dogwood flowers.

 What dogwood-themed objects does your collection contain?  How have other state-designated symbols influenced your collection?

Lighten Your Laundry Load

A few weeks back Museum-L was abuzz over washing white cotton gloves.  Conservation experts posting comments seemed to form a consensus that museum professionals should wash gloves only with Orvus detergent and take care to use washing machines that have not been contaminated by any other products.  One post admitted the difficulty of securing these conditions and consequently recommended disposable nitrile gloves in all handling instances where gloves are appropriate. 

In our Collections Care Basics workshops we usually advise cotton gloves for handling metals and textiles and nitrile for most other materials.  Rubber emits sulfides as it deteriorates, which in turn, tarnish silver.  This was the reason cotton gloves were recommended for metals handling.  Nitrile, however, is a synthetic rubber and does not pose the same threat to metals.  Consequently, it’s probably fine to use nitrile with all materials.  We buy nitrile gloves for our workshop participants from Uline and they are inexpensive. (200 for $22 + shipping)  Especially for most of the smaller institutions in our C2C audience, without the luxury of collections-specific laundry equipment, nitrile gloves may be the best choice for protection during handling. 

Another new-ish product that can reduce collections-care-related laundry is the dust bunny.  This is an electrostatically charged dust rag made from tyvek, a cloth-like polyethylene (preservation-appropriate plastic).  These rags can be washed and re-used several times, until their electrostatic charge disappears.  The most convenient point about dust bunnies, as opposed to other types of dust rags, is that they can quickly and easily be hand washed in your office sink, ideally using either Orvus or plain Ivory soap.  Their soft-textured tyvek fabric allows the rags to air dry rapidly.

 Of course, cotton rags still prove useful in many other collections-care tasks, such as silver polishing, but these newer products are worth a try for convenience and lighter laundry loads.


Preserve a Piece of Mary

Self-taught artists are often treasures of local cultural heritage.  They seem to develop their artistic sensibilities organically, growing out of a particular place, and a certain calling compels them to express themselves creatively.  The themes of their art frequently reflect their connections to a distinct locality.  Moreover, many use found objects as the raw materials of their creations, and in these cases, the materials themselves can tell stories about time and place. 

NY Times photo by Jeremy Lange

Let’s celebrate, then, that the town of Wilson has funding to move ahead with its whirligig park, filled with Vollis Simpson’s creations.  What a wonder of personal vision, resourcefulness, and wind-powered whimsy for the town to corral and promote!

Yet another self-taught artist from North Carolina’s Coastal Plain has received a good amount of publicity over the last few years.  “Mary’s Gone Wild” is the name Mary Paulsen has given to the “museum” she has built near Holden Beach.  Several documentaries have been produced about her and her work, and touring sites, such as Roadside America and Atlas Obscura, also feature her.  But unlike Vollis Simpson, whose creations also grace the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Mary’s work may not be currently represented at local or statewide cultural collecting institutions.  

 Mary Paulsen has a unique story of growing up in poverty in the Brunswick County beach area, as one of ten children in a local shrimping family.  As an adult she worked for many years waiting tables at a calabash seafood restaurant.  Her divine inspiration to begin painting on the reverse side of cast-away windows went hand-in-hand with an impulse to raise money for hungry children all over the world.  Examples of her work, then, could straddle art and history collections.  Her paintings and other glass art are cultural heritage artifacts that local and statewide history organizations should consider collecting. 

Red-headed mermaid in a bottle house, by self-taught artist Mary Paulsen