Monthly Archives: December 2011

Merry Cultural Heritage Christmas from North Carolina

decorating at Brunswick Town state historic site

 Fresh fruit and evergreens brighten up sites on the Coastal Plain.

Volunteers at the NC Cotton Museum in Pikeville, Wayne County, handmake these cotton angel ornaments and sell them each Christmas to raise money for the museum.

A North Carolina-themed tree enlivens the reading room at the NC State Library in Raleigh.

At the Duke University Medial Center Library, campus fire restrictions prohibit placing lights on Christmas Trees.  Instead, staff created ornaments and garland out of discarded medical books.  The white paper accents brighten the darker evergreen.  Paper for this ornament came from a discarded copy of Dorland’s Medical Dictionary.

Santa visited the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum State Historic Site in Sedalia, Guilford County.

courtesy, Dan Routh

The Shiloh Memorial Association hosts a Christmas tea each year at Shiloh Church in Troy, Montgomery County.  Randolph County photographer Dan Routh captured the beauty of this year’s candlelit tea alter.

The Penland School of Crafts in Asheville selected ceramist Lucy Dierks’ avian figures as its 2011 Ornament of the Year.

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Consider Consent Agendas

"Of the Blues: Carolina Shout," 1974 by Romare Bearden, collection of the Mint Museum, Charlotte

Getting all Board members up-to-date on what’s been going on with museum staff and various committees can often suck time away from discussions of future possibilities and plans.  One way to use limited meeting times more efficiently is for all members to review minutes from the previous meeting, as well as various committee reports, in advance.  If there are no points of disagreement in the accountings of past business, then these matters can be included on a “consent agenda.”  The Board can take one simple vote to approve the consent agenda at the meeting’s beginning and spend much more time dealing with current issues and strategic planning. 

Several years ago Board Source posted a useful description and recommendations concerning consent agendas.  But for many Boards, this helpful procedure has not yet caught on.  The North Carolina Museum Council is one local example of a working Board using the consent agenda successfully.  If your institutional Board is not using consent agendas, share the Board Source resource with leaders and help initiate a positive shift in meeting direction.

Do your Board meetings include consent agendas?  If so, do you have any advice to share with others in our NC cultural heritage community about their implementation?

Rewind to Refresh Formulaic History Exhibits

Beginning of "The Story of North Carolina" exhibit at the NC Museum of History

All too often history museums are compelled to tell “The Story” of the particular state, county, or town they serve.  On the one hand, this directive is understandable because:

  •  More people may experience a museum exhibit than will read a book on a particular topic.
  •  Studies show that more people trust the history they learn from museums than that which they read in books.
  •  The town or county may be small enough that a book will not be written on its history

 On the other hand, there are several difficulties with this approach:

  • Collections often do not relate to large portions of “The Story.”
  • The end result is often a “book on the wall” approach where text-heavy displays fail to maximize the potential of the exhibition medium.

 An interesting report on tracking and timing visitors’ behavior from the USS Constitution Museum highlights the reality of museum fatigue.  Remember the “streaker, stroller, studier” categorization of visitors and how the studiers usually comprise the smallest percentage of an exhibit’s audience?  According to patterns at the USS Constitution Museum, even the visitors who began touring the exhibit as studiers shifted to stroller behavior mid-way through the show.

If this is typical museum audience behavior, then history museums need to find ways to present their most engaging, biggest ideas in the earlier parts of the exhibition.  Most historical collections contain a wide variety of artifacts from the late 19th and 20th centuries and a relative paucity from earlier periods. Yet most history museums attempting to tell “The Story” strive to devote equal amounts of space to the beginnings of their town, county, or state, and exhibit materials representing the earlier periods are often less engaging for visitors.

 A walk back through time, starting with a recent part of “The Story” and winding down at the beginning, may be a more effective way for museum visitors to encounter the past.  More recent artifacts are often bigger, flashier, and can connect with many of the visitors’ own memories.   By the end of the exhibition, audience members who have time may be more willing to participate in activities that get them thinking about open ended questions on topics for which little evidence exists and/ or reflections on the overall message of “The Story.”

 Have you seen the rewind approach in a history museum?  Was it successful?  What ideas can you share to make “The Story” more engaging in exhibition form?

Publications = Access + Fundraising

At a recent workshop, coordinated by the Federation of North Carolina Historical Societies, presenters and participants shared tips about publishing local history research and collection images. Bob Crowley, Curator of History for the North Carolina Railway Museum in Bonsal, suggested that not only are publications ways to make research findings and resources broadly accessible, but they can also be profitable for Historical Societies.

Crowley has himself published several books, and at times he has worked with the nearby Chatham County Historical Society to publish material related to railway history.  Chatham County’s Historical Society has developed its own publication program by contracting with a local printing company. In Crowley’s experience, cookbooks are the publications with the most potential for fundraising.

Working with an established publisher can lead to a more professional product and allow your organization to tap into additional publicity and distribution networks. Some companies, such as Arcadia Publishing, specialize in local history.  Consider telling stories through pictures of objects in your collection, along with historic photographs. Monkia Fleming of Edgecombe Community College’s Historic Preservation Program has worked successfully with both Arcadia and History Press.  Both companies are based in South Carolina.

In order to encourage publication and to help off-set the start-up costs involved, The Federation of North Carolina Historical Societies offers members and others interest-free loans of up to $15,000 for the publication of books or pamplets or the production of historical audio-visual materials.  Loans must be repaid within a year.  The Federation has also compiled an extensive list of publications available through member historical organizations.

If you have gathered some interesting information about the communities you serve and can include a variety of images, then publication may be a great option for your organization.  Has your organization had success with publication?  Can you recommend any products or services to help others in these pursuits?

Adopt An Artifact

Thanks to John Campbell, Director of Collections at the NC Museum of History, for contributions to this post.

If you are considering adopt-an-artifact programs for your institution’s collections, several North Carolina examples may be useful to review.

The North Carolina Museum of History began an Adopt-An-Artifact program in 2007. The idea was for groups or individuals to choose artifacts which appealed to them and were in need of conservation. Often the costs of conservation are more substantial than the museum’s budget will allow. The adopters underwrite those costs, and thus make the artifacts available for exhibition and study, which promotes understanding of the history and heritage of North Carolina. An additional reason this project is so attractive to the public is that 100% of the conservation funds raised by outside support groups goes into the conservation treatment of the object; the museum pays all administrative costs.

flag unveiling ceremony with members of the 26th Regiment North Carolina Troops

The best example of the success of this program to date would be the conservation partnership between the Museum and the Society for the Historical Preservation of the 26th Regiment North Carolina Troops, Inc. to preserve the Museum’s Civil War flag collection. In practice, the Museum and the 26th NCT mutually choose a flag from the collection as the preservation project. This information is transmitted on the 26th NCT website and at meetings so the reenactors can raise conservation funds within their community.

Once the Museum reaches its fundraising target, it contracts with conservation specialists to preserve and frame the flags. When the flag returns, the Museum schedules an unveiling ceremony for members of the fundraising group. This provides a nice reminder of the purpose of the fundraising and showcases the accomplishments of their organization. The 26th NCT has raised funds to conserve 7 flags, which NCMOH would not have been able to exhibit without their support. They have also inspired other reenacting groups to fundraise for conservation as well.  It does take time to form partnerships with fundraising groups, but the opportunity to conserve significant artifacts is well worth that time committment.

portrait of Eliza Estes Evans, available for adoption through the Orange County Historical Museum

While NCMOH’s most successful adoptions have involved partnerships with fundraising groups, its website program description targets individuals.  Appeals to individuals are also the focus of the Orange County Historical Museum and the Museum of the Albemarle adoption programs.  The Orange County Museum has several levels of recognition for adoption.  The top level ($500 or more) allows for donor names to be included on the artifact label whenever that piece is on display, and donors receive a copper leaf on the museum’s Donor Tree. Base-level donors ($25 – $100) are listed on the museum’s Honor Roll.  The Museum of the Albemarle also promises to list names of artifact adopters in its quarterly newsletter

The very premise of an “adoption” program is an emotional attachment to something, an implied sense of nurture in sponsorship.  Although individual adopters probably do not want an unveiling ceremony of the kind that NCMOH holds for its re-enactor fundraising groups, tangible benefits would make adoption programs much more attractive.  Why not set a minimum adoption fee and send small packs of notecards with photographs of the conserved piece to each participant in the adoption program?  Captions on the backs of the notecards could promote the program further.  Theoretically, the adopter would spread at least some of the cards among close associates, folks who may also be sympathetic to your institutional cause.  Notecards are simple and fairly inexpensive to produce using online services like Snapfish or local printing companies.  They would also be a tangible benefit for individuals participating in your adoption program and would further solidify the personal connection the donor likely feels for the artifact adoptee.

What other benefits could your institution offer for participation in its adopt-an-artifact program?

Dimming the Light

Has your institution installed a light filtering system?  The acetate base of solar films breaks down in 8-15 years.  So even if the windows of your historic structures currently have protection, the filters will need to be replaced eventually.  In order to guide your research into the best product for your institution, the National Park Service (NPS) has published a Conserve-O-Gram on the subject, charting its test results for a variety of types of solar films.

 The NPS standard is to block all ultraviolet radiation exceeding 50 microwatts per lumen (roughly the amount generated by an incandescent light bulb).  Advances in technology have allowed the production of new solar films that filter UV even more effectively.

 Both visible light and ultra violet radiation must be controlled in order to protect your collections responsibly.  Of course, in most exhibit circumstances, light should not be blocked entirely and is important for the authentic appreciation of historic interiors.  Before climate control, heavy drapes or shutters worked to subdue direct light.  These methods are still effective at reducing light’s damaging effects on the irreplaceable artifacts within our cultural heritage institutions.  UV films do not eliminate the need for museum staff to adjust shades throughout the day, depending upon the sun’s path.

 Many of the films NPS staff tested blocked significant amounts of visible light, while others were only effective at filtering UV.  Use the NPS Conserve-O-Gram’s test chart to identify film varieties with lower than 50 in UV measurement and significantly lower than 1000 foot-candles.  Remember that 1200 foot-candles was the amount of natural light in the test window, so films registering below that also offer some visible light control.  Unfortunately, some of the most effective UV blocking films had little effect on natural light.

 Twelve of the fourteen 3M products in the NPS test scored well (below 50) in the UV category and also functioned to reduce visible light.  3M film is no longer available at large hardware stores, but there are local businesses that both sell and install the products.  One of these is Carolina Solar with branches in Raleigh and Wilmington.

An added feature of some of the films aids in disaster preparedness by impeding the glass from shattering.  At the time of the NPS testing, however, these types did not block UV radiation effectively.  As new types of film are developed, they may include all three advantages: shatter protection, UV blocking, and visible light reduction.  Although there is some cost up front for this collections preservation solution, solar film may end up paying for itself in climate control savings during the warmer months.

Have you had good results with your light filtering systems?  What products or services can you recommend to others in our North Carolina cultural heritage community?

Potholders

This post is by Anne Lane, an extraordinarily talented and experienced collection manager from the Charlotte Museum of History.

We’re not talking that irregular square of brightly colored knitted loops woven by your kindergartener. Nor that beautifully quilted and padded device you bought at the farmer’s market. Nor the high-tech square of silicone rubber that doubles as a trivet, capable of protecting your hands or your granite countertops from pots fresh from a gazillion degree oven.

 No, this is something much simpler. When you work in a history museum, you often have to handle ceramic containers. These have a tendency to be round. When you have to look at and photograph the bottoms of them, or look down their throats, you have to lay them on their sides. They show a distressing tendency to roll off the table. When you try to brace them with things laid to either side, the things either try to roll away or, if they’re heavy, they may mar your ceramic piece. What to do?

 Enter the potholder. This is so low tech, it’s embarrassing. You cut two lengths of polyethylene backer rod, a cylindrical foam material used in the building trade. You use some stout string or cotton tying tape and tie the two pieces together near one end.

You spread the two free ends apart and lay your pot between them. You bring the ends together below your pot and tie them together with another length of string. The pot is cushioned and it stays in place.

editor’s note:  Anne will be sharing more of her expertise on object storage and support solutions at C2C’s Box-Making Workshop at the Charlotte Museum of History on February 27th.