Monthly Archives: January 2013

Silver Care

silver epergne on a dining table at Historic Edenton's Cupola House

silver epergne on a dining table at Historic Edenton’s Cupola House

Silver should be polished as infrequently as possible. Of course, historic house managers want to avoid silver turning black, gold, or purple. Although frequent polishing may do more harm, significant tarnish will suggest a lack of collections stewardship. If silver objects must be exhibited, then staff should practice the gentlest possible polishing methods. Several materials are available to help block tarnish-inducing sulfides from silver artifacts in storage.

1. Rub gently with lint-free, white cotton knit rag dampened with ethanol (denatured alcohol). This will remove any old wax or oily build-up that may be on the piece and clean off some, if not most, of the tarnish. (It may then be possible to skip steps 2-3.)

2. Mix a thin paste of precipitated calcium carbonate and distilled water. The paste should be a cream consistency. Dip a rag in the solution and rub silver as gently as possible. A pointed tool may be necessary to work with incised borders and decoration. Gently rub crevices with a toothpick.

3. Wipe with a clean rag, moistened with distilled water. A moistened, rag-covered point may be necessary to wipe crevices free of polishing paste. It may be necessary to dip pieces in distilled water to rinse and then blot with dry rags.

4. If piece will be exhibited, use a natural hair brush or a dry cotton rag to apply a small amount of micro-crystalline paste wax onto the surface of the piece.

5. Quickly buff with a clean, dry rag. (Do not allow much time to elapse between steps 4 & 5.)

6. Consider lacquering as a conservation treatment for silver objects on permanent exhibition. Waxing should last about a year before tarnish re-appears; lacquering should last about 10 years. Remember, even the gentlest polishing materials and methods remove trace amounts of the artifact, which may add up to a noticeable loss over time. (For a list of metals conservators, click here.)

7. Make corrosion intercept film covers for silver on exhibit. Try wrapping hollowware and flatware with intercept during times the exhibit is closed to the public. This material will absorb tarnish-producing gases and need to be replaced when color turns black. This method should reduce the need for polishing. If silver is exhibited inside a case, 3M anti-tarnish strips contain activated charcoal pollutant traps that will adsorb sulfides and help protect the silver.

8. Store silver in boxes or drawers lined with Pacific silver cloth. Or create individual wraps or pouches. Intercept films and bags are also silver storage options.

If you are interested in practicing some of these silver care methods, join us for a collections care basics workshop in Greenville, NC on February 25th.


Collections Care Nightmare

Thanks to Mary Douglas, Curator for the Kamm Teapot Collection, housed in Sparta NC, for sharing this collections story.

Sprague05.19The preservation of mixed media pieces can be especially challenging, and this art sculpture/ teapot is a “nightmare” for Kamm Teapot Foundation  Curator, Mary Douglas. Sculptor Mary Sprague created the “Locked Teapot” in 1993 and it became part of the Kamm Collection in 2005. In response to concerns over the piece’s preservation issues, the artist wrote:

 “Since it’s message is about time, deterioration and loss ([one] reviewer called the work ‘elegiac’) and is made of rubber bands, waxed linen string, and sawed-off locks, among other things, it is designed so that over time the varnished rubber bands shrivel to make this point. It has been shriveling successfully since 1993 and is still structurally solid, while the skin is deteriorating nicely. I think it will hold together for a long, long time. I suppose the work might be a curator’s nightmare if permanence and [no] change are a goal, but it reminds me of a mummy.” – Mary Sprague

Although permanence may not be the artist’s intent, once a work enters a collection held in public trust, that collection’s stewards have a responsibility to care for it according to the best possible standards. Douglas must use the resources available to her to provide the best preservation conditions she can for this piece. She reports that the piece sheds when handled. The cause may be that the varnish the artist applied onto the rubber is now flaking off or it may be the embrittlement of the rubber itself. In either case, the piece should be stored in such a way as to limit handling.


Parks Library preservation experts custom made this box with a hinged side attached with velcro tabs.

Parks Library Preservation image

Since the piece’s dimensions are 14” h x 10 ¼” w x 6 ¼” d, it would fit into a standard sized document storage box, set on its side, opening forwards. It would be ideal to customize this box and make a tray to place at the interior base of the box, so that the piece can slide out without handling. An ethafoam cradle or volara padding could also be attached to the tray and/or sides of the box, supporting the piece’s metal protrusions. A front-opening lid would allow access and could be attached at each side. Here’s a similar example by one expert artifact-box-maker who used Velcro to attach a hinged front.

A Microchamber box, whether pre- or custom-made, would be the ideal housing for this piece. Because rubber emits sulfites as it deteriorates, and because sulfites are metal-corroding agents, Microchamber’s pollutant traps would help mitigate the teapot’s inherent vice by adsorbing the sulfites.

Environmental conditions are also important for this piece’s preservation. A box will act to buffer changes in relative humidity (RH), which is important because rapid fluctuations may cause the rubber to crack as it changes dimensionally after moisture absorbtion and release. Cold storage will help preserve the rubber but RH must be kept low, especially with rust-prone metal components. Freezer compartments of frost-free refrigerators may have too high an RH, so the cool temperatures and lower RH of the refrigerator section may be the best bet for the longevity of the “Locked Teapot.” For more on rubber and plastics preservation, read this CCI leaflet here.

Any other suggestions to help keep the “Locked Teapot” as intact as possible in perpetuity?

Traveling Trunks Reach Audiences Beyond the Doors of Your Museum

Thanks to Kaitlin Lloyd, Distance Learning Coordinator at the North Carolina Museum of History, for this guest post.

At the North Carolina Museum of History, we aim to provide educational programming for all of the citizens of North Carolina. We offer tours, classes, festivals, and concerts for the visitors that walk through the doors of the museum. However, North Carolina is a big state, and with school and family schedules and budgets being tight, not everyone has the opportunity to travel to the museum in Raleigh. We think it is important to find ways to reach these people, particularly schoolchildren and teachers, so that they can benefit from our programs without ever leaving their classrooms. We do this through our traveling trunks, called History-in-a-Box Kits.

Our History-in-a-Box Kits are large plastic boxes filled with hands-on objects and a notebook with background information and lesson plans. The hands-on objects go along with the lesson plans, and are typically costumes, craft supplies, or reproduction artifacts like cotton cards, haversacks, or K-ration meal kits. Teachers request to borrow a Kit for a three-week period, and can either pick up the Kit at the museum, or have it shipped to their school. Currently, we offer nine different Kit topics, and have ten to fourteen copies of each topic. When writing lesson plans for the Kits, we use the curriculum standards established by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which most public teachers in North Carolina follow. While our Kits focus on a history topic, we work to make them multidisciplinary by incorporating math, science, language arts, music, and visual arts into the activities. We try to make the lesson plans fun and interactive, so that students will enjoy learning about history.

Since we serve students and teachers that live all across the state, we ship the Kits via UPS almost every week. They experience a significant amount of physical wear and tear, and it has taken some experimentation to find the best way to package the Kits to prevent damage to the objects and to the Kit boxes themselves. We used to use plastic file tote boxes that we bought from an office supply store. These boxes, made from polypropylene, proved to be so rigid that they cracked easily and required replacement frequently. We switched to polyethylene Rubbermaid Roughneck Storage Boxes, which are very sturdy, but flexible enough to withstand being jostled around in the mail.

When we prepare a Kit for mailing, we line a cardboard box with a layer of bubble wrap, and wrap the plastic box with bubble wrap on all sides. Bubble wrap has proven to be a useful tool in protecting both the plastic boxes, and the objects inside the Kit. Despite the drawbacks and the potential for damage, we still choose to include some fragile objects, such as pottery, drinking gourds, ceramic models, and plastic echo microphones. We understand that students may handle the objects roughly, so when choosing objects we usually use reproduction artifacts, as opposed to originals. We buy the objects in bulk so that we will have plenty of extras.

Even though the objects are not original artifacts, we still try to protect them as best we can. In the past, we tried using thick squares of foam that lined the bottom of the Kits that had cutouts in the shapes of the objects. We thought this might protect the objects, and help the teachers see how to repack the Kits correctly. However, in our experience, these have not withstood wear and tear, and teachers frequently did not put the correct object in the correct cutout. We understand that teachers are busy, and so we try to make the repacking process as easy as possible. We instruct teachers to wrap all of the objects with the bubble wrap, and to fit the objects back inside of the Kits however works best. We also have small, loose objects with many pieces, such as jacks, marbles, and coins. We package these in plastic sandwich bags with clearly marked labels, to help teachers repack correctly. We laminate most of the paper resources, to protect them from being torn.

Traveling trunks are easy to modify, depending on the volume of use, and the type of visitor borrowing your trunks. For instance, if museum staff members are going to take the trunks with them while they do a presentation, and will be able to supervise the objects, you may be able to use original artifacts. If you plan to make the trunks available for pick up and drop off at the museum, instead of going through the mail, you might not need a heavy-duty storage box. You could get creative with your packaging, and send your lessons and objects inside of a steamer trunk, a soldier’s haversack, a rolling wagon, or a suitcase. A traveling trunk program can be a great way to provide an artifact-based hands-on learning experience to an audience that is unable to visit your museum. Just start with one topic, a few lesson plans, and some objects, and then build your program based on the response you get from your users. Each museum does traveling trunks a little differently, and you can tailor your program so that it works best for your organization.

It’s Feedback Time!

It’s a New Year and time to re-evaluate this blog project. We now have 144 followers–more than half from North Carolina and many others with an interest in collections care across the country and even beyond! In addition, several dozen viewers check out our posts via our Facebook page’s automatic feed. We’re thrilled with these numbers, and the positive feedback we’ve received makes the work we put into research, writing, and coaxing guest posters worthwhile.

The blog also fulfills an important role as both a complement and supplement to our workshops. Sometimes we’ve reported on workshops in posts, affording those who are unable to attend the chance to benefit from our instructors’ knowledge. In other posts, we’ve been able to explain preservation materials and methods, and then we can provide links to relevant posts as one component of the workshop resources we provide.

We don’t want to diminish that synergy between posts and workshops, and we want this site to continue to be a resource for preservation tips and for our NC cultural heritage collections network. While we always value your feedback, we’re now seeking your opinion on the issue of posting frequency, specifically.

We will continue to supply a forum for North Carolina collections stories and we will continue to discuss collections care issues, but perhaps it is time for us to insert more pauses into our “collections conversations.” What do you think?

A C2C Badge?

A participant at C2C's 2011Fayetteville workshop made this badge.

A participant at C2C’s 2011 Fayetteville workshop made this badge.

One of the introductory activities we’ve been doing in our “Collections Care Basics” workshops is making badges with small copper sheets, an adhesive pin-back, sharpie pens, and fingerprints. The intended object of this exercise was to send each participant home with a souvenir lesson of the sensitivity of metals to hand oils—a persistent reminder to wear gloves whenever handling metal artifacts.

Badges are currently a hot topic of learning theory and possibly have the potential to challenge standardized learning credentials. Apparently, the C2C badge idea was ahead of its time and could serve, not only as a proper handling reminder, but also as an educational credential.

Recently, the American Alliance of Museums posted a discussion on the potential of badges for museums and described the badge programs of 2 museum organizations—one of which sees value in badges as a means to motivate audience engagement. The AAM post refers to badges both as something 3D, like those participants have produced in our workshops, and as a digital icon that participants receive and could potentially include in a signature (as many professionals now do with degrees or affiliations).

Would a badge from your institution motivate participants to be more engaged with exhibits and programs? Would an actual or digital badge or both be more effective? What types of badges might work? Institutional “Explorer” or local history “Expert” are two possibilities.

Digital badge systems have some demonstrated success as motivators in gaming arenas, in particular, and 3D merit badges have long been a part of activities like scouting. Less certain is the potential use of badges as signifiers of skill or educational credentials. If many organizations (like museums and C2C) offer badges as awards to participants for learning accomplishments, would the available multiplicity allow individual badges to have any meaning or would the quantity a person could accumulate generate the most credit?

Our organization could start offering “Collections Concepts Mastery” badges and “Disaster Preparedness” badges for participation and even distinctive ones for demonstrated skills and achievements in those areas. As a potential or actual C2C participant, would these be motivational? Would seeing this type of digital badge in an acquaintance’s email signature line heighten your respect for that person in any way? In other words, would a digital C2C badge serve as a meaningful professional credential?

13 Recommendations for 2013 Collections Resolutions

  1. Draft or update a 5-year strategic plan for collections improvements.
  2. Verify or update all staff and emergency response contact information.
  3. Develop a public program or staff development activity for Preservation Week.
  4. Attend C2C’s pair of May Day preparedness and recovery workshops.
  5. Make progress on your institution’s collections inventory.
  6. Consider assessment programs: CAP, MAP, StEPs,  FOCoS.
  7. Write a guest post for our blog and/or submit an artifact image and info to our “Treasures” pages.
  8. Involve one or more board members from your institution in collections activities.
  9. Renew or become a member of the North Carolina Museum Council and attend NCMC’s 50th anniversary annual meeting in Raleigh.
  10. Renew or become a member of the North Carolina Preservation Consortium (NCPC).
  11. Push your institution to renew or become a member of the Federation of North Carolina Historical Societies.
  12. Create a PReP plan for your institution.
  13. Take steps to strengthen or establish your own local network of cultural heritage practitioners for disaster response and/ or supplies & skills sharing.