Monthly Archives: October 2013

Clarification: CREST – not just a toothpaste & *ACREN – not just a city in Ohio

CRESTbag3

While in Western North Carolina a few years ago, I heard an old Mountain idiom that went: “Yep – those directions was just about as clear as mud.”  I think that is what is happening with the new disaster recovery organization structure here at C2C.  So I am going to try to clear up the mud hole in regards to the structure and purpose of CREST and the related sub groups for emergency salvage of artifacts in the event of a natural or man-made disaster.

CRESTCultural Resources Emergency Support Team

Breaking down the letters of CREST, acknowledges that the group originates here at the NCDCR.  The purpose of forming a statewide team is to be able to respond to any library, museum or historic site in North Carolina that has a disaster or crisis.  CREST participants would provide the manpower and the supplies to begin immediate salvage and recovery of artifacts and collections at the site.  It is an “all hands on deck” for the people who are signed up as part of the CREST team to respond as quickly as possible.  Here in Raleigh, we will maintain a cache of recovery supplies that might be needed. Supplies are stored here in large tubs ready and waiting for a call to respond. Examples of the supplies are soot sponges, wax and parchment paper, tarps, Tyvek tags and pens, drying racks for small and medium sized textiles, rope, close pins, clean water, fans, extension cords and numerous other items we can stockpile.  Should a call come to Raleigh of a crisis, we will deploy CREST persons with the tubs of supplies to that facility.  All CREST team members receive an individual “Go-Pack” of personal safety equipment and immediate triage supplies to get started.  Items in the go-pack include a safety helmet and vest, masks, gloves, flashlight, simple tools, and other items.  (See photo)

On the local level, there are regional groups that support the CREST team. The letters of the regional groups stand for Area Cultural Resource Emergency Network.  So far, there are three groups. They are in the Triangle, Mountain and Piedmont sections of North Carolina. Add the first letter of the region to *ACREN and you have TACREN, MACREN, and PACREN.  These regional groups are the first responders to their regional area that is experiencing the disaster. The CREST team will arrive as quickly as possible with trained personal and specialized supplies as backup.

Both CREST and *ACREN members have been trained in personal safety, recovery of artifacts and organizational procedures in a disaster.  Workshops and classes emphasize an immediate triage and joint effort to stabilize the condition of the collection.  The goal of quick response to a disaster is to prevent further long-term damages until the items are evaluated for future conservation and restoration by professionals.

Anyone who is trained in artifact recovery can be on either the regional *ACREN group or the statewide CREST team.  Actually, a participant can be on both because the training is the same.  The differences lie in the ability to respond.  A CREST member must be willing to respond anywhere in North Carolina.  (And of course in their region as well.) However, a member of one of the *ACREN groups only responds to help their colleagues in their geographic area.

We are striving, through workshops and training to empower library, museum and historic site staff in all regions of the state.  There are dreams of a CACREN, (Costal) WACREN (Wilmington) and OBX-AREN. (Outer Banks)

If your area is interested, we will be more than happy to provide training, workshops and burn recovery to collections.  We would love to have a long list of *ACREN groups ready and prepared to assist each other.  Hopefully, this clears up the muddy mess to at least a watery mess.  Stay safe and continue updating the inventory list.

Lyn Triplett

Disaster Preparedness Coordinator

NCDCR – C2C

Raleigh, N.C.

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Polishing Silver

Kathy Ruse of the Joel Lane House polishes a spoon during a C2C workshop in 2010.

Kathy Ruse of the Joel Lane House polishes a spoon during a 2010 C2C workshop.

Our first rule on polishing silver is to avoid it. Not because collection managers are lazy, but because each time we polish to remove tarnish, we rub away a microscopic layer of the material. Over time polishing can diminish and even deface the historical material. Most of us have seen incidences of this where the engraving on silver artifacts has become barely visible after many years of polishing. Silver plated objects can loose their shiny metal casings readily with polishing and reveal patches of copper or another base metal beneath.

Several storage materials can prevent tarnish by blocking sulfuric pollutants from coming in contact with the silver. 4 products are especially effective:

Still, even with methods to prevent tarnish, there are times when silver artifacts must be out on exhibit, outside of protective cases. Perhaps this is most common within historic house museums, where silver often gleams from table settings and sideboards. When polishing becomes necessary, collection stewards should use the gentlest methods and materials possible. In the past, our “Collection Care Basics” workshops have included practicing with silver plate utensils, and this activity has been one of the hands-on components participants have enjoyed. We have followed the directions outlined in the National Park Service’s Conserve O Gram on silver polishing. First wiping pieces down with cotton rags dampened with ethanol and then stirring a polish made from precipitated calcium carbonate mixed with distilled water to form a cream consistency. (Click here and scroll to page 3 for more complete instructions.) Other great online resources are two videos that the Nebraska State Historical Society’s GeraldR. Ford Conservation Center produced—one on polishing (solution varies slightly from the NPS recommendations) and another on applying microcrystalline wax as a protective coating.

Now, as our C2C project focuses more on disaster preparedness and recovery, our Basics workshop will concentrate more on storage methods as disaster damage mitigation. We will use the hands-on time previously spent on silver polishing to practice creating storage cradle mounts from ethafoam instead. We hope the online resources we have suggested, along with whatever personal guidance we can offer, will help you through the polishing process. NC metals conservator, Jane Bynon, is another local resource and is one of the few experts in the region who has the capability to lacquer objects–another tarnish-preventing option for silver on long-term display.

What methods for preventing and/or removing tarnish have been most successful for the collections under your care?

Foundation Funding Sources

Last week members of our C2C team completed the fundraising course through the Connecting to Collections Online Community. If you are interested in learning more about this topic and were not able to participate in the course, many materials, including archived webinars, are still available on the course page. Also, make plans to attend an upcoming affordable face-to-face learning opportunity. Next month the Federation of NC Historical Societies will be holding a workshop on fundraising in Raleigh on Friday morning, November 22nd. Click here and scroll down to the workshops section for more information and registration links.

In most institutions funds available for collections care either do not exist as a separate budgetary line item or have not kept up with increasing professional standards for storage and exhibition. Even the low-budget and “on a shoestring” strategies we try to devise and promote often come with a cost. Consequently, all collection stewards need to familiarize themselves with fundraising.

Many of us have tried our hand at grant writing. C2C Project Director, LeRae Umfleet, has written about “Finding Funding” and set up a slide presentation you can access here on various grantors to consider for collections funding on the local, state, and national levels. While grants are an important component of fundraising, those monies, on average, make up less than 20% of non-profit budgets. Individual giving—either by institutional members or benefactors—comprises 80%. Grant writing, though time consuming, is worthwhile; successful grant applications can help leverage individual gifts as well as raise the status of your project or your institution within your community and professional organizations. However, focusing more on raising funds from individuals will do more to sustain your institution. David Winslow, a successful fundraiser for cultural heritage institutions in NC, will be sharing some of his tips for cultivating individual donors at the Federation workshop in November.

Logo from a current exhibit at the Greensboro Children's Museum, produced with support from a corporate foundation with local connections.

Logo from a current exhibit at the Greensboro Children’s Museum, produced with support from a corporate foundation with local connections

Foundations are a potential source of funding that form a middle path between grants from federal and statewide grantors and individuals. Some have formalized grant applications; others are smaller and can be family run. Forging personal connections with foundation representatives in your area can help your non-profit achieve its goals. The Foundation Center’s free online database  allows you to look up basic information on individual foundations and to search by location. Focus on those foundations in your communities that have substantial capacities to give and missions that align with that of your organization or special project.

foundation Center free networkYou can also get free access to the full database of information at the Foundation Center’s Funding Information Network Centers in NC. They are, from east to west:

  • Onslow CountyPublic Library, Jacksonville
  • New HanoverCountyPublic Library, Wilmington
  • Braswell Memorial Library, Rocky Mount
  • Olivia Raney Local History and Research Library, Raleigh
  • Chapel Hill Public Library, Chapel Hill
  • Durham County Public Library, Durham
  • Greensboro Public Library, Greensboro
  • High Point Public Library, High Point
  • Forsyth CountyPublic Library, Winston-Salem
  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, Charlotte
  • Blue RidgeCommunity College, Flat Rock
  • TransylvaniaCounty Library, Brevard

Picric Acid

The dangers of picric acid may be old news now, as a flurry of various museum staff members discovered picric acid in their collections two years ago, but the warning is worth repeating. Especially since our outreach efforts are focusing more and more on disaster preparedness, we have to be mindful of the potential disasters that collections themselves may harbor.

picricAcidPicric acid is a pale yellow, odorless crystal that is normally packaged as a solution with 10%+ water. The chemical was once commonly included in first aid kits and other medical supplies, especially around the turn of the 20th century through about 1950. [The example here on the left is part of the online “Museum of Menstruation’s” collection.] The substance becomes hazardous over time as the water evaporates and dry, yellowish crystalline particles remain. The dry acid crystals are an especially volatile chemical, which combusts easily from changes in temperature or friction. The crystals react to metals and alkaline materials, such as plaster or concrete, to form explosive picrate salts, becoming even more dangerous.

Several of the 2011 incidents were in Colorado (notably the PioneerMuseum) and another in Oklahoma.  When museum staff members identified collection items laced with picric acid (guaze pads in some cases) and called authorities, bomb squads came to the institutions. Officials evacuated visitors and staff and then detonated the materials.

Have North Carolina collections stewards verified that 50-100+-year-old medical supplies are free from this danger? Do you know of any institutions in our state where staff has discovered and disposed of this hazardous chemical?

Collections Access: Open the Door Wider

Thanks to museum audience engagement expert, Nina Simon, for first posting this opinion piece by C2C team member, Adrienne Berney, in last week’s Museum 2.0 blog.

NC Museum of History 1988.39.4

NC Museum of History 1988.39.4

Followers of Museum 2.0 are well versed in new ideas for audience engagement and committed to opening up their institutions to increase public access. But this is not always the first priority for professionals in the museum field. Some collections stewards, steeped as they are in professional artifact-protection standards, are reluctant to shift toward the more open version of institutional access that engagement advocates promote. Do these two directives and perspectives have to be at odds? Can collections access be a way to entice new audiences?

Recently, several subscribers to the RCAAM (Registrar’s Committee of AAM) listserv posted concerns about professional photographers and museum visitors taking photographs of objects on exhibition. One announced her intention to seek legal recourse against a photographer, and another warned that in the past her institution’s legal council had dissuaded that museum from seeking action. “Unfortunately,” that subscriber advised, there are no legal avenues to stop visitors from photographing objects or images in the public domain in public spaces where photography is allowed.

To me, this seems both discouraging and ungenerous to visitors. I stirred up a debate by raising the question “why not allow access?” I believe the museum field as a whole should do more to encourage reproductions of collection objects and images, regardless of whether reproducers hope for profits. I then encountered strong push-back on the listserv, with one subscriber calling my fitness for my job title, “collections care trainer,” into question. Respondents flexed their protective muscles to limit access to the artifacts they have pledged their professional lives to preserving. I’m listing most of the concerns voiced in that debate so that readers can assess the severity of each obstacle and can help generate ideas for surmounting them, toward a goal of more open collections access.

  • Increased risks for deterioration: most of us are familiar with the agents of deterioration and understand the varying risks to collections materials that access poses, especially as a result of increased handling and light exposure. Digitization can help offer safe access to collections.
  • Staff time: allowing access can be labor intensive for those in charge of collections. Institutions may not want to invest work hours into providing access for visitors who may then turn around and sell reproductions for their own profit. But if collection reproductions are a potential cash cow, then why aren’t more institutions pursuing product creation? Some history museums, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Sandy Springs Museum , have implemented innovative programs inviting artists into storage and galleries to create new works with collection items. But what about the potential creator who happens into an exhibit, gets an idea, and takes a picture? What if objects are already on exhibit and their reproduction involves no additional staff time? Should the museum impose a fee on reproducers or limit their pursuits in other ways? Keep in mind that enforcing limited-access policies requires significant staff time too, along with possible legal fees.
  • Copyright infringements: A large portion of historical collections are in the public domain. The Library of Congress advises collection users to go through a risk assessment process for each image they seek to reproduce. The LOC provides open access as a public service and the user assumes whatever risks may be involved in reproduction. Why can’t all collecting institutions take this position?
  • Misrepresentation of the artifact: I’m not sure what this means, perhaps reproducing only a portion of an artifact or splicing its image with another. If the reproducer includes a reference to the original source, does that offset the concern or increase it? In the case of documents, historians regularly argue about the meanings of various passages. If a scholar misrepresents a document, it’s his/her reputation on the line, rather than the repository’s. Why should museums arbitrate or otherwise limit creative vision?
  • Relatedly, poor quality images of artifacts in collections may harm the reputation of the museum and do a disservice to the original donor. In a footnote in her Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections, Malaro mentions that a museum might not want to be listed as the source of an image in certain reproduction applications for fear of appearing to endorse the product or its creator. A risk assessment may help clarify the danger: Is it riskier (in terms of failing to fulfill a museum’s mission) to allow access, with the potential for audiences to generate poor quality products, or riskier to keep tight control over collection materials? Can you think of any cases where a reproduction harmed an institution housing the original?
  • Contractual issues or donor restrictions: These are red flags for placing an artifact on exhibit or an online database. Experts advise museums against accepting restricted donations, and they are rare in history museums. The most likely donor restrictions prescribe access and call for “permanent exhibition.” In addition, some museums have worked with native tribes or other descendant groups to establish access guidelines for sensitive anthropological materials. Do you know of other donor contracts or restrictions (besides copyright) that would allow the display of an artifact and disallow its reproduction?
This image, created by artist Courtney Bellairs by photographing an object in the Sandy Springs Museum collection, was for sale as a limited edition giclee print in the museum's gift shop for the duration of the related exhibition and remains for sale via the artist.

Artist Courtney Bellairs created this image in 2013 by photographing an object in the Sandy Springs Museum collection. It was for sale as a limited edition giclee print in the museum’s gift shop during a related exhibition and remains for sale via the artist.

Given that public and non-profit private institutions hold collections in the public trust, and that a large portion of collections (at least in history museums) are public domain materials, and that most donors give with the expectation of preservation and access for perpetuity, museum professionals should have a wide range to engage the public with collections. Allowing for exceptional cases where limited access would be necessary, can’t most of the above concerns be managed within an over-arching open-access approach to collections?

Without broad access, why should any community or institution go to the trouble and expense of preserving artifacts? Visitation has decreased significantly at historic sites and institutions since the 1980s and yet artifact-featured forms of entertainment like collector reality television shows and auctions have proliferated. Potential audiences feel connections with artifacts, so why don’t they participate in or support collecting institutions more often?  The Rijksmuseum of the Netherlands sets an exciting example by providing high quality collection images online and encouraging product creation. By allowing open access for creative reproduction, I suspect institutions could become more welcoming for those groups, and collections can function more fully as relevant and engaging resources.

How has your institution balanced collection concerns with its efforts to engage audiences? Do you view collections as a problematic juggernaut to avoid, or an indispensable resource base, or both? How can we safely steer the reflexive “no” toward a “probably” and open the door to more collections access?

Thanks to Allison Weiss, Executive Director of the Sandy Springs Museum, John Campbell, Collections Section Chief of the NC Museum of History, and RCAAM listserv respondents for their contributions to this post.