Monthly Archives: November 2014

Promoting, Prioritizing, and Preserving Active Collections

If you skipped the AASLH conference this year and you don’t follow the Engaging Places blog, you may have missed the “Active Collections Manifesto.” It’s a strong stance on promoting quality over quantity in collections and argues for a discriminating approach to resource expenditures. The Manifesto’s writers have an impressive record of professional accomplishments in the museum field and their ideas are worth considering and debating.

The Manifesto calls for prioritizing collections into different levels and providing a corresponding tiered standard of care. In many ways, collections stewards already do this by default. The objects relating to research requests are usually documented more thoroughly and stored in positions of greater accessibility. In other ways the differing values placed on collection items are more deliberate. Our workshops always promote selecting 5-10 priority artifacts that are crucial for the institution’s mission or community identity as a disaster preparedness measure. Sorting collections into tiers of significance and/ or stakeholder interest and concentrating documentation efforts and scare preservation resources on the upper tiers could have multiple benefits beyond disaster preparedness. Would a field for priority codes in systems like Past Perfect be useful? Prioritizing collections is something those in the library/ archives field already do deliberately and it makes a lot of sense for museums to take a tiered approach to collections too.

Here are two additional great ideas the Manifesto promotes:

  • emotion-provocation as a criterion in assigning an object to a tier
  • a deaccession special task force: As we’ve seen with assessment programs, outside experts can be convincing for boards and stir up the stagnation that is all too often a dominating force.

As a former curator for a state history museum, I do have some concerns with mass-scale deaccessioning, however, and I’ll share a story from my previous position to explain. As the Manifesto mentions, audiences’ needs evolve and the stories stakeholders want to tell change over time. Some lower-tier artifacts may jump to a higher tier, depending on the story, so in my experience, mass deaccessioning projects need to be undertaken with great care.

Courtesy, Louisiana State Museum

Courtesy, Louisiana State Museum

One part of my job was managing a historic row house, and I researched those who lived in the house during one decade—the 1850s. That had never been done before because heads of household were tenants, rather than owners, and had been overlooked in earlier interpretations. (This new research approach also uncovered a lot of great information on slaves, but that’s another story.) Anyway, imagine my surprise and delight when I did collections database searches on all the tenants’ names and discovered a pair of shoes that had once belonged to the final tenant of that decade! The pair had probably never left a storage box since its donation in the 1920s, and in a tiered approach it would have been placed on a low level. Once a new interpretive direction came to the fore, the shoes launched into a higher tier.

Similarly, masses of WWI stuff that seemed fairly low priority 20 years ago are undergoing a dramatic shift in significance now in collections across the country as institutions commemorate the centennial.

To learn more about deaccession issues and recommended procedures, consider tuning into AASLH’s upcoming StEPs webinar. Or join us for a FREE webinar viewing party at the NC Museum of History.

Professional standards in preservation have risen to such great heights in the last few decades that very few history museums can keep up. A tiered approach to management could really help by considering those standards only for the higher priority level(s). Thanks to Rainey Tisdale, Trevor Jones, and Elee Wood for their bold decree and for supplying more food for thought on collection topics.

Adrienne Berney, C2C Collection Care Trainer


Mold Recovery

Earlier this month, C2C partnered with Iredell Museums to host a Mold Recovery Service Learning event at the institution’s Gregory Creek Homestead site in Statesville. Months ago, Director Debbie Newby discovered mold growing in a building used to store overflow accessions. Remember that mold grows when the relative humidity is above 65% for more than 36 hours. The flood-prone masonry building traps moisture and Iredell staff recognized the need to relocate collections objects. They reorganized areas in a climate-controlled collections storage building to accommodate salvaged objects. However, they needed help learning how to assess whether mold is active or inactive and what steps to take to clean inactive mold from artifacts. C2C organized a staff training event and then invited others from NC’s cultural heritage institutions to join in to share knowledge on mold prevention and practice recovery techniques, such as vacuuming and wiping with rubbing alcohol.

Two staff members from the Davidson College Library dry clean a tricycle.

Staff members from Davidson College Library dry clean a tricycle.

We did not expect many folks to take advantage of the service learning opportunity, since mold poses a health risk, especially to those with previous respiratory problems. But we had seriously underestimated the generosity of our NC cultural resources community, and an additional 14 people came from 7 regional institutions to work with C2C and Iredell Museums’ staff. A special shout out to Davidson College Library for donating 6 staff members to the cause!

Personal protective equipment is critical when working with mold and working outside is safer, when possible. C2C provided N95 particle masks, nitrile gloves, and aprons for all participants. In more extreme situations, safety goggles and tyvek suits may be necessary.

woodMold2Our treatment consisted of both dry cleaning and wet cleaning for most objects. See a previous guest post on our blog for further instruction about cleaning moldy books. For dry cleaning, brush the object in the direction of the vacuum nozzle. A nylon screen cover prevents sucking tiny pieces and parts into the vacuum. Plastic baggies are useful to have on hand to collect any loose pieces that dry cleaning dislodges. Necessary supplies include:

  • natural bristle brushes
  • vacuum (HEPA filter needed for indoor work)
  • soot sponges
  • groom/ stick paper cleaner or absorbene
  • microfiber cloth

ChairMoldDetailWet cleaning supplies include:

  • rubbing alcohol
  • swabs
  • paper towels

There are several useful mold recovery resources available online:

  • The national Connecting to Collections organization produced a free webinar on mold recovery. View the archived version here.
  • The Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts has posted guidelines for managing a mold invasion. Upload available here.
  • Information from the Canadian Conservation Institute offers more information here.
  • It’s a useful reminder that not all white growth on artifacts is mold. Metal corrosion can be white. Anything with fat content, esp. dressed leather, is prone to fatty bloom as it ages. A good resource with more information and identification help is the “What’s That White Stuff?” website from Alaska State Museum conservators.

For most finished wood and metal there’s an additional mold recovery and prevention step you can take after the dry cleaning and wet cleaning steps. Microcrystalline wax—we use Renaissance wax— contains mineral spirits, which is another spore-killing and tarnish-reducing solvent, and works to even out finishes that mold or corrosion has left spotty. It’s also a thin coating on the object to deter mold spores from settling.

Several of our participants had previous experience working with various mold recovery products. Here are two they recommend:

  • One of our participants is a building engineer and consultant who also works with the Burke County Museum. He suggests an affordable mold test kit. For $169 you can test an area, submit the results, and receive professional lab reports.

What strategies can you share for preventing and/or recovering from a collections mold attack?

Polk Kitchen Fire

This weekend the James K. Polk State Historic Site will celebrate the reopening of its visitor center as well as the 11th President’s birthday. The building’s exterior and interior have been fixed up, along with updated exhibits about Polk, who was born on November 2nd 1795 in Pineville, an NC backcounty town not far from Charlotte.

Further renovations will be necessary to the Site’s kitchen building as a result of a disaster at the site last month. On October 9th fire broke out in the roof. According to Site Manager, Scott Warren, the building dates to circa 1800, but had been moved to the site in the 1960s. Staff had outfitted the interior with period artifacts to use in kitchen demonstrations. Unfortunately, after putting out the hearth fire once the demonstration ended, a sparking ember got caught within the chimney and the old wood continued to burn inside, until a fire broke out at the attic level after staff had left the site. Firefighters responded quickly and were able to salvage the building’s lower floor. This fire, however, presented a new artifact recovery challenge–fire fighters put out the fire with suppression foam. Foam is a relatively new product/ technique in firefighting and may require an altered process for artifact recovey. In the Polk instance, however, firefighters removed all artifacts from the kitchen and attic before applying foam.

PolkFireIn this screen shot from the local news coverage, the fire suppression foam is visible coating the floor of the kitchen, after firefighters had evacuated the artifacts from the building.

But what if the foam had contact with artifacts? In addition to soot and ash damage, those involved in recovery would have to consider the effects of foam residue. It turns out that conservator-recommended recovery procedures are similar, with vacuuming first and then wet cleaning with water and a mild detergent. Soot sponging is the recommended 2nd step after vacuuming, but may not be as applicable with foam residues. When foam is involved, rinsing may be a necessary step for most artifacts, rather than a last resort, as conservators recommend in other cases.

Experts from the Bureau of Land Management offer the following advice:

Foams may hasten rusting on metal surfaces by removing protective coatings and may cause wood to flake due to swelling and contracting…[the] retardant should be washed off important structures as soon as possible. Pre-soaking, then hand-brushing with water and a mild detergent may work for sandstone or painted wood. Metals and glass may be wiped with water and a mild detergent.

Fire suppression foams are proprietary and their chemical compositions may differ. Historic Sites Curator Martha Battle Jackson was concerned about chemical residues the foam may have left behind and ways it could react with cleaning solutions staff would use in the building after the fire. Firefighters provided her with the manufacturers’ safety data sheet (MSDS) for the product they used, ThunderStorm® FC-601A 1% or 3% AR-AFFF concentrate. (download available here)

Suppression foams work by creating a film or membrane to act as a barrier, preventing the release of fuel vapor. Regardless of the fuel type, the foam cover excludes oxygen and drains the liquid composition of the membrane. Additionally, the water content of the foam produces a cooling effect. The ThunderStorm® product promises to be biodegradable and low in toxicity–reassuring information for the Polk recovery efforts.

Our hats are off to Pineville firefighters and Historic Sites’ staff for their quick and effective artifact salvage, as well as introducing us to innovations in firefighting technology. Have you encountered fire suppression foams before? Do you have any advice to share about artifact recovery after its use?

Welcoming Participants with Disabilities

Visitors to a temporary exhibit at the NC State Fair

Visitors to a temporary exhibit at the NC State Fair

A few weeks ago, the Gathering Place Project hosted a session on modifying our cultural heritage institutions to become more accessible to individuals with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires publically funded organizations to make “reasonable accommodations” for access. Of course, “reasonable” is a subjective term and depends a great deal on the organization’s capacity, staff and financial resources in particular. Another challenge in compliance is that needs vary tremendously. There is no one set of access measures that will allow access for all disabilities. Accommodations for someone who is blind differ from those for someone with intellectual disabilities and again for someone with impaired mobility. Online guidelines can help cultural organizations navigate toward accessibility improvements.

Some suggested modifications are physical: ensuring ramp access to entrances, providing family bathrooms, creating signage in large sans-serif fonts. Other modifications require welcoming attitudes and the development of new procedures to accommodate a wider range of physical and intellectual abilities. Every cultural organization is required under the ADA to assign one staff member the responsibility of functioning as a point person to handle access requests. Upon receiving requests for services to individuals with disabilities, avoid saying “No, we can’t do that.” Instead, get contact information to get back in touch. Brainstorm possibilities and discuss them with other staff members. If you can’t meet the initial request, suggest alternative activities or other ways you can be welcoming.

Most people with disabilities want to focus on what they can do, not their limitations. When they come to participate, ask “How can I help you?” and “What can we do to make your experience more comfortable?” The experience of this Charlotte family, denied access last summer at a historic house museum in Savannah, is a cautionary tale for all of us. Avoid making assumptions about how to proceed. Listen to the patron and present as many access options as possible.

Many counties across the state have service organizations for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Wake Enterprises operates in Wake County and supports employment in addition to coordinating social and learning opportunities for its constituents. These county-based groups could be an untapped audience for many history museums.  Participants may need activities on a children’s educational level but can be sensitive about having child-like content. Tactile opportunities such as learning from an educational collection which they can touch can be especially effective and enjoyable. If special tours at your site are impractical, Wake Enterprises has had success with travel trunks, especially when a museum staff member or docent comes to the organization and offers a program. If you can imagine developing an appropriate special tour or program, please get in touch with a staff member at your local county organization to discuss possibilities.

The NC Arts Council offers a range resources for arts inclusion here. Arts Council staff are available to offer advice on accessibility assessments and plans for improvement. Access to cultural heritage institutions is challenging, especially for those who live with disabilities every day. But the opportunities to build deep and meaningful connections to diverse segments of your community can be rewarding. What can your organization do to welcome new audiences?