“Expendifacts” for Living History

At last week’s Collections Care workshop in Charlotte, organized by the Mecklenburg Historical Association, one of our participants asked a great question. She explained that her organization maintains a log cabin with no environmental controls.   When possible, she has replaced old objects with reproductions, but there are still many antiques at the site. Interpreters and visitors handle and use some of these in demonstrations of blacksmithing, cooking, and more. What should she do?

living history program at Iredell Museums

living history program at Iredell Museums

Coincidentally, this same question came up last week on the Connecting to Collections online discussion forum. According to Museum Consultant Ron Kley,   “This has long been a topic of discussion…There is general agreement in the field that the use of original period artifacts in such circumstances is ultimately consumptive, and that the use of replicas is…preferred.” Kley also notes “persuasive counter-arguments…that certain artifacts — machines in general being a good example — are [better off] through prudent use with appropriate maintenance rather than sitting in storage under ‘benign neglect’ conditions.” Kley recommends ALHFAM, the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums, as a good resource to learn more about this issue and to gather supply sources for suitable reproductions.

In addition to reproductions, some old objects may be okay to continue using in these programs. Fully equipping historic environments with reproductions is not likely to be affordable for most organizations. Although those of us working for non-profits and public institutions are bound to preserve collections according to the best practices available within budgetary limits, some objects within the museum can be considered expendable. Kley uses the apt term “expendifacts”  to distinguish such objects from those that require care for perpetuity. Staff should designate an education collection that includes both reproductions and expendifacts (some museums even track these categories separately). Accessioned objects should not be used up for programs unless first transferred to an educational collection, and the transfer process typically involves Board approval.

How do we decide whether an artifact should be considered expendable? Here are some questions to consider:

  • Does it have a good story, especially one that relates to the institution’s mission? If yes, then the object should be accessioned or remain in the permanent collection and its handling limited.
  • Could it be replaced easily through purchase? If yes, then the object may be appropriate for the educational collection.
  • Is the object a machine or musical instrument that warrants (and possibly benefits from) periodic, limited use? If yes, and public program use is occasional, then it may remain in the permanent collection, as its use can be considered preservation-appropriate.

How does your site handle using artifacts for public programs? How long does it take before the objects break down? We’d love to share your examples here!


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 February 11, 2014, in collections access, collections management, Connecting to Collections, historic houses, historic sites, public programs, workshops and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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