Escape the Cocoons

Common advice for museum storage once included wrapping all artifacts in archival tissue and then placing them in archival boxes. This method of storage not only limits access for both staff and researchers but it also poses several dangers to the artifacts inside the cocoons.

  • Collection inventories should be conducted periodically, necessitating periodic unwrapping and rewrapping of each object. This level of handling, without the artifact’s visibility, heightens the risk of mechanical damage to the artifact.
  • Depending on void space left in a box, staff may stack multiple cocoons in one box with the idea that the tissue will provide sufficient padding for each object. Overtime, however, the tissue compresses and many collections objects, such as baskets and dolls, can suffer from the pressure of other artifacts.
  • Problems resulting from insect infestation, inherent vices, or failing joints can occur and will not be visible during regular inspections of the storage areas.

Layers of wrapping are still important for object transport, but for the above reasons, conservators have moved away from the cocoon as appropriate for long-term storage.  Tissue and other padding materials such as stockinette, batting, and ethafoam are still necessary to support and cushion the bases of some artifacts and for interleaving textiles.  Most 3-dimensional artifacts, however, do not need to be wrapped and boxed.  Enameled metal cases with buffered gaskets are ideal for artifact storage. These are available with windows so that much of the collection inside the case is visible. Unfortunately, the cost of case storage systems is prohibitive for most history museums. Boxes, then, are still important as both supports and RH buffers for most collection materials.  In order to increase access to boxed artifact storage, try one or more of the following:


  1.  inventory lists, along with thumbnail photos, documenting each artifact a box contains
  2.  interior trays to support multiple layers of smaller artifacts
  3. mylar windows
  4. side-opening boxes

The custom-made side-opening box allows inspection of a boxed, shelved object and eliminates the need to move the box on and off a shelf and lift the artifact out to inspect. If the artifact must be removed, a side opening allows better hand guidance for removal. This method is especially appropriate for fragile artifacts such as baskets.

While both interior trays and boxes with mylar windows are available from prominent conservation suppliers, both can be custom-made according to your collection needs. Anne Lane, a skilled collections manager, is well versed at building custom housing for artifacts. She graciously shares her expertise across the state and beyond and will be conducting a box-making workshop for C2C at the Charlotte Museum of History on February 27, 2012. Consider joining us then and learning these important preservation and access techniques.

Once you have worked out ways to make more of your boxed collection accessible, you can begin to strategize collections outreach opportunities in your storage area. Some museums have had success with special tours of storage. If all collections are cocooned, however, there is not much to tour. With increased access, staff and visitors alike can learn even more about your institution’s collection.


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on January 20, 2012, in collections access, collections care, collections management, Connecting to Collections, public programs, storage, workshops and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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