Monthly Archives: October 2012

Skeletons in Your Closet?

Thanks to Stephen Claggett, State Archaeologist, for the following guest post.

Or, how about human teeth, or bones re-worked into smoking pipes, or even women’s hair braided into watch fobs?

They’re all human remains, in the biological sense of being physical parts of (most likely) deceased people. And while the presence of such things in museum collections may not be uncommon or even surprising, how they are handled may present ethical, moral and even legal challenges to curators and other professionals working with museum collections.

So, how do any of us deal with bones and other human remains in our custody? First, you should be aware that North Carolina laws exist (as in many other states) that condition what we may or may not do with these objects. Federal laws may also be in play, including the oft-cited—and mis-cited—Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (25 USC 3001) which addresses Native American remains already in museum collections, or that may be encountered on federal (think National Parks) and tribal (think Cherokee Reservation) lands.

State laws here in NC extend protection to cemeteries, gravesites and their contents, and are used often by property owners, descendents, law enforcement and other officials to avert or address the disturbance, destruction, defacement, vandalism or desecration of caskets, human remains, grave markers or “any repository thereof” of human remains (NC General Statutes §14-148 and §14-149). Illegal disturbance of graves, and felony-level violations of those laws by people seeking bones, Civil War uniform buttons, ancient pottery and such items unfortunately is something that the Office of State Archaeology, medical examiners and law enforcement must deal with on an all too common basis.

But that addresses only the “final resting places” of our dead citizens. What of the human bits and pieces that have been obtained legally through archaeological excavations or other means like biological supply businesses? Again, NC law allows professional archaeologists to recover (“dig,” in the vernacular) human skeletal remains found during planned excavations of Indian villages, colonial farmsteads, and old family cemeteries. Burials likewise can be excavated in the course of recovering remains inadvertently revealed during farm plowing, construction projects and natural erosion of stream banks or ocean beaches. The law (NC General Statute 70, Article 3) that covers such situations is the “Unmarked Human Burial and Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act,” or, more simply, the “burial law.”

Germane to this discussion are the “prohibited acts” embodied in the burial law (§70-37). It is illegal in our state to knowingly acquire human skeletal remains, knowingly exhibit or sell remains (more on that in a moment), or retain remains for scientific analysis beyond defined time limits. There are several things to note carefully here; that law applies only to remains from “unmarked burials in North Carolina after October 1, 1981,” the date the law came into force. It may not apply to remains from marked graves, or those from other states, or that were obtained before October 1, 1981. (Other state and federal laws prohibit interstate transport of human remains obtained from outside NC, that were procured in violation of other state and federal archaeology laws, including the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, 16 USC 470).

So, while archaeologists, medical examiners, and law enforcement officials may gather and keep (at least temporarily) human remains, where does that leave museum professionals? It is clear that museums may legally possess bones and other remains acquired through donations of private collections, and even through purchase. It is less clear, however, how curators should properly care for, much less exhibit human remains (perhaps not a good idea, in the moral sense, and especially in the court of public opinion). Determining the original provenance and, especially, the age and ethnic relations of human remains is often difficult, even with able assistance from archaeologists and forensic anthropologists. Even the hint of Native American origins may complicate things (cf. NAGPRA); and with only very rare exceptions, DNA analyses of bones, teeth, hair, skin flakes, or nail parings will not give you quick and easy answers to who’s in your collection, and are they related to Miss X, or Group Y. It’s easy in the television world of CSI, but not in real life.

The aforementioned braided hair watch fobs likely fall out the equation for curators, as such things are not expressly addressed in the laws mentioned. If items incorporate Native American hair or similar elements, they could fall under the purview of NAGPRA, but the typical majority of Victorian-era ornaments or collages should be safe to display.

The best practical, and perhaps experiential, advice I can offer is this: if you have, or even think you have human remains in your collection, do not openly advertise that fact. Don’t store or handle those items in a careless or disrespectful manner. Do not plan to display any human remains—even with caveats about the legality of how they were obtained—either as original objects, photographs, digital images, or—heaven forbid—decorated art objects. Unless, of course, you’re willing to defend openly your personal and institutional insensitivity to cultural norms, and the feelings of real or claimed descendents.

Over my professional career, I’ve excavated, analyzed and handled hundreds of human bones (and even greater numbers of deer, raccoon, bear, bird and fish skeletons). And it doesn’t bother me to do so. My performance stays within the letter and intent of the laws, and the bounds of my professional ethics. Museums and their accrediting bodies must have similar expectations of curators who deal with a plethora of object types and materials. Human remains may be among them, but there’s no reason to be inordinately afraid of the skeletons in your closet.


Safe and Simple Repairs for Wooden Artifacts

Although these tips should not substitute for a conservator’s inspection and/ or treatment, the following advice has been recommended by conservators in the event that circumstances (often lack of funds) prohibit conservation in the foreseeable future. Remember that as far as artifact treatments are concerned, less is usually more, and it may be best to leave the artifact alone, while documenting its condition problems. However, there are several preservation-appropriate materials and techniques that can safely prepare a wooden piece with distracting losses for exhibition when necessary.

  • cracks and splits in doors, floorboards, and window casings: Reid Thomas, Restoration Specialist for NCDCR’s Historic Preservation Office, recommends filling voids in wood with linseed oil putty. Unlike common wood epoxies which often contain polyvinyl acetate (PVA), linseed oil putty will expand and contract at a similar rate to the wood, consequently inducing less stress on the artifact. You can mix your own inexpensively or purchase pre-mixed from a few online suppliers.
  • failed joints or pieces and veneers coming un-adhered: The risks of dissociation or further loss (in the case of delaminated veneer) may outweigh the risks of gluing with preservation-appropriate materials. We’ve discussed this dilemma and a possible solution earlier in a post about high tack fish glue. Since that time we’ve also experimented with another type of liquid hide glue that many conservators use—Titebond. Given our trials of both of these products, Titebond has several clear advantages: 1. It can be purchased off the shelf at several hardware stores, thereby eliminating special ordering procedures and shipping charges. 2. It is less reactive to changes in temperature and humidity than the fish glue. Consequently its bond is more secure and longer lasting. This could translate into less reversibility than the fish glue has, but there is more of a chance that the broken or delaminated piece will stay with the whole.
  • scratches or losses with unfinished areas left visible: Sometimes there are scratches or finish losses in places that detract from the experience of the artifact. This can be especially true with framed pieces where a nick in the frame becomes noticeable and distracts the viewer from the central image. Never use wood-colored magic markers to “touch up” these spots. Somewhat less harmful is advice to use wax crayons to fill in areas of loss.  The safest option, recommended by Conservator Perry Hurt at a recent C2C workshop, is to use watercolors to in-paint the unfinished wood area and camouflage the loss by matching the paint color as closely as possible to the wood finish surrounding it. Watercolor paint is most likely to be reversible if a conservator is ever able to treat the artifact.

Archives Week Commemorates Civil Rights

State Archives collection N-77-4-137

This is Archives Week, a time to raise awareness about the importance of preservation and public access for historical documents and imagery. By holding exhibit openings, workshops, lectures, open houses, and other related events during Archives Week, North Carolina’s archives community can make a concerted effort to bring the importance of our profession to our state’s citizenry and public leaders. The Society of North Carolina Archivists  (one of C2C’s project partners) invites any agency that deals with archives and historical records in North Carolina to participate in Archives Week.

Civil Rights in North Carolina is the theme for this year’s Archives Week events. The State Archives has several programs planned for the week, including a mini-exhibit on Civil Rights in the search room today. The 1964 photograph above, documenting a sit-in at Brady’s Restaurant in Chapel Hill, is part of the Archives’ display.

The theme is an apt reminder of our state’s nationally significant history during the mid-twentieth century. As many historical organizations across the state focus on the Civil War Sesquicentennial, let’s not forget about the events of 50 years ago that ended the Jim Crow era and forced the integration of schools and many other public settings. The Greensboro sit-in and the formation of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee at Shaw University had ripple effects across the nation and beyond. Photographer Elliott Erwitt’s scene of segregated facilities in North Carolina (shown above) became an iconic catalyst for change. (The image made #5 on this list of the world’s most influential photographs.) Opportunities to commemorate some of these events, which many current members of our communities lived through, can be tough but also engaging and worthwhile.

State Archives collection N-53-15-6711

This 1946 photograph is also a part of today’s exhibit in the State Archives. It shows the Ambassador Theater on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh with a separate “Colored Entrance,” just to the left of Adler’s Slipper Shop. Earlier this year the News & Observer posted an article about the theater and Lauren Jones of Raleigh responded by sharing a vivid memory.

 I was born in August, 1958 at Raleigh’s Saint Agnes Hospital, so I am 53 years old now. When I was a child, the ravages of Jim Crow still haunted Raleigh, and the Ambassador was not immune to the stench of segregation. My first memory of that theatre was going with my mother to see The Sound of Music in 1965 when I was a first grader at Crosby-Garfield School. All of us who were then called colored or Negro had to sit in the balcony; only whites could sit in the main auditorium. I didn’t mind because I was six; I could see both the big screen and, if I leaned forward just right, I could also observe the people seated on the first few rows from my vantage point. But my mother was grimly resigned to the absurdity of it all. I remember she never cracked a smile the whole time we were in the theater.

Like Jones, members of your community may be willing to share their poignant stories of this time period.

Does your organization have activities planned for Archives Week? Do your collections contain Civil Rights-related materials? There is still time to plan 50-year commemorative activities for the Civil Rights Act (1964) and subsequent integration.

Understanding Copyright Restrictions

Do not let uncertainty about copyrights derail your museum’s potential project. There are now many resources online to help you answer questions about public domain, fair use, foreign copyright laws, and calculated risks.

  • The public domain may be bigger than you thought. Everything published in the United States before 1923 is in the public domain. Works published between 1923 and 1964 without copyright renewals are also public domain. Works created by federal government offices or by federal employees as part of their job duties are also public domain. For more details and copyright categories, click here.
  • The American Library Association’s office for Information Technology Policy has recently made two helpful resources available online. The digital slider is a quick tool to gauge whether a piece is in the public domain. The ALA has also developed an interactive site, the “copyright genie,” where you can type in information about the work in question, your institution, and the purposes of the potential reproduction. It’s “fair use evaluator” allows you to print out a time-stamped, color-coded fair use evaluation document, which may be especially helpful to keep in your project files as an example of due diligence.
  • Works published in other countries have different copyright rules. Here’s an online source with information about copyright laws around the world (though often not in English).
  • Calculated risk: After reviewing these resources you may be able to determine that your reproduction project is risk-free. If questions remain, then exercise due diligence in attempting to contact the publisher or other potential copyright holder for permission, and finally, take a calculated risk in using the work.

The Library of Congress offers some reassurance about worst case scenarios for reproduction in its online guide to risk assessment: “The Library is aware of a few cases where a user was told by someone claiming to hold the rights to images in the Library’s collections to ‘cease and desist’ publication of the images. When the users requested proof of rights ownership, however, the matter was dropped. The Library is unaware of any lawsuits involving the use of its historical images.” Finally, a take-down policy can be a useful back-up in situations where you must take a calculated risk. If someone, who can prove copyright ownership, complains about your use of an image or other work, be willing to remove it from an exhibition, website, etc.

Of course, regardless of copyright status, it is always a good practice to cite the source of any material you reproduce, whether image or documentary. This credits the holding repository, while guiding potential researchers.

Has your organization ever had to take calculated risks with projects involving reproduction? Has it ever run into problems? Or shied away from projects because of copyright uncertainties?

Shake Out!

Most of us do not consider North Carolina to be a major earthquake zone, but we are. On average, our state experiences 5 minor earthquakes each year. Most of these are very minimal on the scale and cause little damage. But we need to be prepared for the one that will be significant.

At 10:18 a.m. on October 18, 2012, millions of Southeastern residents will “Drop, Cover, and Hold On” in The Great Southeast Shake Out, the region’s largest earthquake drill ever! All museums, libraries, parks, science centers, and other public venues are encouraged to participate in the drill. An earthquake could happen anywhere you work, live, or travel in the Southeast. The “Shake Out” is your chance to practice how to protect yourself, and to help prepare everyone in your institution. The goal is to prevent a major earthquake from becoming a catastrophe for you, your organization, and your community.

Why is a drop-cover-hold on drill important? Just like “stop, drop, and roll” in fire prevention, to act quickly you must practice often. You may only have seconds to protect yourself in an earthquake before strong shaking knocks you down or topples something over.

FEMA and North Carolina Emergency Management are co-sponsoring the event, along with other state and regional preparedness organizations. Institutions as well as individuals can register their Shake Out plans online at In addition to visiting the website for helpful information, here are a few activities you can do at your institution to participate in Shake Out.

  • Check your emergency supplies and equipment; make sure they are accessible and functional.
  • Conduct a drill.
  • Talk about what you would do (table top exercise).
  • Inspect your facilities for items that might fall and cause injury, and secure them.
  • Make sure critical staff members are prepared at home so they can report to work or stay on duty.

Has your institution ever experienced an earthquake? Have your facilities or collections been damaged in any way?

The Beauty and the Grit

Reynolda House interior

What impulses drive some of us to try snatching glimpses of the past by visiting historic houses? For some the past seems purer, less corrupted by the regrettable influences of our contemporary lives (however the beholder may define those). For others, beautiful buildings and objects created in the past are more accessible when they are held in the public trust. Those of us who spend time in grand historic houses can be dazzled by decorative arts and architectural details that most of our ancestors never dreamed of. We may not be able to afford lavish displays in our own living spaces, but we can enjoy them, if only for awhile, by visiting—or working in—these majestic interiors.

Those who seek the beauty may especially enjoy candlelight tours and special events with receptions. Some may even appreciate volunteer opportunities to clean and handle the collections and to absorb the space’s ambiance during quieter times.

outhouse at Aycock Birthplace

For others, the gritty truth of the past has value and visiting historic sites can make its reality more present. Disease, vermin, and outhouses are a few of the daily conditions that modern technologies have nearly eradicated or sanitized. Learning about and imagining the ways people lived in the past (before air conditioning, for instance) broadens our perspective on the human condition.

Those who seek the grit may revel in the stories that an historic house setting can evoke and that interpretative materials can relay. Groups of reenactors flock to North Carolina’s many battlefields and try to imagine and to present the brutality of war, as well as the lack of provisions,  injuries, diseases, and other hardships of camp life. Similarly, stories of Thomas Wolfe’s father’s drunken violence and accounts of his own sexual escapades enliven visits to his Memorial State Historic Site in Asheville.

What attracts you to the cultural heritage institution where you work? What attracts various audiences to your site? Is it the beauty, the grit, or the synergy of those elements?

IPM Tools and Trials

As we’ve discussed here previously, monitoring for pests with sticky traps is an important routine for integrated pest management (IPM) in museums. Unfortunately, a great deal of damage may have already occurred by the time sticky traps show evidence of a heritage-eating pest population. Especially for moths, but in other pest species too, the larvae are the voracious heritage eaters. By the time you see an adult, there are probably numerous eggs lurking and larvae feeding somewhere nearby in the dark.

If adult moths are visible, as they have been in our team’s office cluster, try to pinpoint the area with the highest concentration. That can help you narrow down the source of the infestation. In our case, the preponderance of moths was on the ceiling of one office, so staff members began cleaning out everything in that space. Larvae were all over old NCECHO files in one particular file cabinet. NCSU’s Entomology Extension Service  identified our problem (via this photograph) as an Indian meal moth infestation. Despite the available descriptions of this species as eating grains and other food stuffs, the larvae in our office area thrived on old paper products, with no apparent food around.

Wanting to avoid pesticide sprays, we began a trapping/ killing campaign. This had already begun with our “splat!” swatter, and once we had a definite ID on the species, those in charge of our building could order the appropriate pheromone traps. Because our infestation was in file cabinets, rather than artifact storage, we used Allure traps that attract adult males. If you find an infestation in artifact storage, your problem requires urgent treatment and you should probably consider a newer kind of “moth suppression” trap that includes a female attractant. These are significantly more expensive, but killing female insects is a much more efficient way of treating a pest problem.

After one month of trapping, we replaced the pheromone trap and our need to swat has declined drastically. Though our pest problem persists, there’s hope for a moth-free future.

What IPM tools and methods have been most helpful in your institutions? Have you tried one or both kinds of pheromone traps?

Seasonal Drift

Autumn is here and the falling temperatures that accompany the falling leaves can boost your collection’s preservation. Rather than recommending a year-round temperature target of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, preservation experts are now acknowledging the need for, and even benefits of, seasonal drift. Environmental conservators suggest gradually scaling the thermostat downward for collections storage areas and historic houses during the cooler months. In many cases, temperatures can drop to just below 60 degrees safely. Managing seasonal drift, then, can be an economical solution to many climate control problems.

Of course, human comfort should always be a concern when determining appropriate temperatures. But in storage areas that do not need frequent or prolonged access, lower temperatures may be reasonable to achieve during the cooler months. Visitors coming to historic houses are usually already bundled up on cold days and cooler indoor temperatures can be comfortable for them. Some smaller museums and historic sites are not climate controlled at all. For these buildings, staff should try to seal cracks and gaps around doors and windows to keep temperature and relative humidity as stable as possible, while allowing for gradual seasonal changes.

Changing relative humidity (RH) can be a more immediate threat to artifact collections than changing temperature. Seasonal temperature adjustments are an important way to help control RH—keeping it fairly stable at levels below 65%. (Higher RH levels for more than 48 hours or so encourage mold growth.) Cooler air can hold less moisture and consequently the dew point (temperature at which air is saturated with moisture) is crucial to avoid. Dropping temperatures below the dew point will lead to condensation, metal corrosion, mold, and swollen wood.

There is now a wonderfully handy new online tool from the Image Permanence Institute. Its dew point calculator is a great way to become familiar with the interrelationship between temperature, relative humidity, dew point, and the preservation prospects for your artifacts. This is a web-based application, so no downloading is necessary. As you are monitoring temperature and RH changes at your institution, simply move the sliders up or down and watch as the gauges, the dew point, and the preservation index also change. Regular monitoring and checking the dew point calculator can help alert you to when your artifacts are in the danger zone. Add IPI’s dew point calculator to your favorites and stay cool (for awhile anyway).

Holiday Ornaments

There is still time to create and/ or consign holiday ornaments as special souvenirs that your site can offer to visitors, while generating revenue. As we’ve discussed here previously, customizing affordable products from your collection can be a form of public access. Consider working with local artisans or larger manufacturers to design unique objects. Regional arts councils and festivals are good sources for finding craftsmen nearby.One ornament maker in Pinnacle, NC uses okra pods, shells, cotton bolls, starfish, gourds, and sweetgum balls to create santas, angels, lighthouses, and animals. The emphasis on local materials could help promote the distinctiveness of your site. Check with such artisans to find out whether consigning their wares in your giftshop is an option. This arrangement allows your institution to sell unique, locally made items with no financial risk.

Several of North Carolina’s cultural heritage institutions sell a range of brass ornament designs successfully. Both the North Carolina Museum of History and the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History offer ornaments with state and regional symbols and building motifs. Similarly, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum’s gift shop sells a very affordable ornament showcasing five lighthouses.

A Brevard, NC company called the Charleston Mint is one producer of customized brass ornaments. They welcome small quantities and promise a brief processing period.  If you start now, you can offer a unique gift for your institution’s supporters and potentially earn revenue in the process. Once a design has been approved, it will take only 4-5 weeks before your organization receives the ornaments. Pricing varies depending on quantity, packaging, colors, and dimensionality and can be anywhere from $6.00-$10.00 per piece. An order of approximately two hundred, then, will require a cash investment. However, if your institution’s board and other volunteers like the idea and can commit to purchasing a certain number of ornaments before ordering, then you can proceed with little financial risk to your institution.

The Mint Museum’s gift shop has successfully customized products based on museum artifacts in its “Collection Connection” series. Staff derived three brass ornament designs from an oil portrait, a frame, and a statue in the museum’s collection. In addition to the potential revenue such customized products can raise, your institution would be offering an additional form of access to its collections. As the Mint Museum’s website announces, buyers feel like they can “take home a piece” of the museum. At the same, time your organization would be promoting its mission by emphasizing the distinctiveness of  its collection, building, and/or locality.