Category Archives: collections care
Two of our institutional partners in the NC mountain region have been moving mountains—of collection materials, that is—in May.
May Day moving was once tradition, from the colonial period to WWII, in urban areas characterized by a high portion of rentals, such as New York and Chicago. This 1865 political cartoon pokes fun by connecting the tradition to the April surrender of the Confederacy by depicting government leaders packing up and leaving Richmond on May 1.
The Mountain Heritage Center of Western Carolina University is also packing up and moving. Staff members deconstructed exhibitions in late April – early May and have been re-configuring spaces to accommodate more artifact storage. By the end of the month they will move their offices to the campus library, where a new exhibition space will open in August–in time for the academic year.
The Carl Sandburg Home in Flat Rock, part of the National Park Service, began packing its collection of approximately 50,000 objects, ranging from furniture to archival materials, in the historic house in January. This month staff began moving boxed artifacts to an off-site storage facility in preparation for substantial renovations to the structure. Staff decided that rather than closing the house to tourists during the move, they could use the event as an interpretive opportunity. According to the site’s preservation webpage:
During this packing process visitors on tour will have an opportunity to see museum object preservation in person. The home’s interior will start to look more like the Sandburgs are just moving in with boxes still packed as the year goes on. This will be a fun time to visit the home to see the activity and to feel like the Sandburgs when they first moved to Connemara.
The move has also become a way for the site to connect with its social media audiences. Staff has been posting interesting collection finds on instagram, as well as a view into the tracking process. A collection inventory is a necessary and time consuming part of the move. Sharing a bit of the process with online audiences helps the public understand the meticulousness of preservation procedures, as well as engaging viewers with collection discoveries.
Need help planning a future collections move? The Science Museum of Minnesota has reported its experiences and advice for a major collections move, “Moving the Mountain,” and made the guidebook available as a PDF online. Beginning on page 66 are some helpful and well illustrated suggestions for fairly simple artifact mounts that could be used to move the artifact and continue as safe, permanent storage thereafter. Anne Lane, collections manager extraordinaire at WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center, will be instructing C2C’s Box Making Workshop next month where she will share her impressive skills for creating custom storage mounts and enclosures and update participants on her institution’s recent moving process.
This week and into May, cultural heritage institutions of all types will be actively promoting preservation. Even though our C2C team is always preaching preservation, we try to make an extra push at this time of year. The American Library Association has decreed the last week in April Preservation Week. We are recognizing the campaign by meeting with the Mountain Area Cultural Resources Emergency Network at NCDCR’s Western Office in Asheville on Monday. MACREN formed 15+ years ago after the Wolfe Memorial fire and has been a model for us as we’ve tried to help establish regional mutual-aid networks for disaster recovery across the state. We’re excited to have the opportunity to help reinvigorate this group and tell them about CREST’s recent deployments in the mountain region.
This year MayDay synergistically falls on Friday, the end of ALA’s Preservation Week. Organizations that promote disaster preparedness for cultural heritage collections urge staff to “Do one thing” on May 1st to improve your institution’s disaster preparedness. It doesn’t have to be huge or involve much advance planning; you can still accomplish a worthwhile MayDay task. A few simple ideas with lasting benefits are:
- Update your institution’s emergency contacts on MayDay each year.
- Tune into the Foundation for the American Institute of Conservation’s FREE webinar this Friday, from 2:00 – 3:30 on disaster preparedness. http://www.connectingtocollections.org/after-disasters/
- Contact local firefighters to schedule a pre-plan for your institution, if you have not already been through this process.
- Order a Knox Box through your local fire station.
For groups involved with building preservation, May is Preservation Month. Old Salem and Historic Forsyth are offering a multitude of free preservation programs this month. Our state historic preservation office has organized a window workshop later in May in Black Mountain. The NC Museum of History has planned a Preservation Day for Saturday, May 9. The event will correspond with the museum’s quarterly Conservation Assistance Day and will include displays by representatives from preservation organizations from across the state (including Edgecombe CC’s Historic Preservation Technology Program) as well as special exhibits on the topic.
Does your institution have any special preservation-related activities this week or in May? How can you engage your community with this topic for next year? Take advantage of some of the programs other groups are offering now and use these ideas as a launching pad to plan next year’s preservation promotions!
Last week C2C conducted our 6th and final fire recovery workshop at the Fayetteville Fire Training Center. Overall, the process of setting up and burning the mock museum replicated that of earlier workshops. Our “artifacts” experienced a range of damage from a level of charring that would lead to deaccession to a light level of soot and ash to the absorption of smoky odors. The scenario gave our staff and participants a rare opportunity to witness the protective powers of various storage materials and the effectiveness of simple recovery treatments.
This event offered reminders of 3 preservation techniques we’ve discussed before, both in workshops and in this blog.
- Textile interleaving helps protect artifacts. The vast majority of disasters involve water. Even fires usually end with the activation of sprinkler systems or water hoses. Although a fire’s intense heat often evaporates any water involved very quickly, bleeding dyes and sooty tide lines can remain. Participants in our “Collections Care Basics” workshops get to practice rolling textiles for storage. They are careful to interleave the object with acid-free tissue during each revolution and cover the rolled fabric with muslin, Tyvek, reemay, or tissue. In this case (shown above) the muslin cover appeared to protect the rolled textile inside but once opened, water damage became apparent. Dyes bled onto the muslin and interleaving tissue, which mitigated the damage from one layer of the textile to the next.
Plastic storage boxes are a protective option—even in a fire. We previously postulated the melting fate of plastic boxes in fires as disadvantage of that storage option. However, in this fire, the plastic box protected its contents similarly to the board box. We had placed a like array of materials (8 objects) in each of 4 boxes—2 plastic, 2 board. One plastic and one board box survived well on a lower shelf. Both the plastic and the board box on a top shelf experienced destructive heat. The fire melted the plastic and caused the board to char and collapse. In both boxes most materials suffered damage but could be recovered. Once cooled, melted plastic could be pried off the surviving objects fairly easily and board dividers and tissue inside the box protected much of the contents.
Deodorization chambers are effective as a recovery technique. Paper, textile, and wooden objects absorb smoky odors easily. The deodorization chamber we have recommended previously worked really well for the textile items involved in this fire. We placed two infant clothing items in the chamber overnight and all traces of odor disappeared. The Gonzo product needed recharging in the sun before the next session but then resumed absorbing effectively and deodorized two dresses that had been on the garment rack during the blaze.
Although every disaster is different, we learn lessons after each that help us mitigate risks and be better prepared. What lessons have disasters taught you?
Have you tried using magnets yet to construct artifact mounts? Over the past decade or so, conservators have come up with innovative and preservation-appropriate designs using both small rare earth magnets and flexible magnetic strips. Here are a few reasons that magnet mounting systems can be safer for the artifact:
- Traditional textile mounts include stitching and pinning, which can stress the adjacent fibers disproportionately. Magnets act as more of a clamp and magnetic strips distribute the pressure evenly across a border or other strip.
- Magnets can be a safer mounting method for paper with very brittle edges than adhesive corners. This example shows magnet mounts around poster borders, leaving a thumbtack-like appearance without the collateral damage to the artifact.
- Pins can leave permanent holes in some materials—particularly skins. Magnets are less invasive in such cases.
Conservators and exhibit designers across the country have come up with a variety of solutions for incorporating magnets into mounting systems.
- Find appropriate barrier layers to protect the textile or paper artifact from the magnets’ metal. Polyethylene filem (mylar) and Japanese paper are two safe possibilities.
- Magnets can be safely embedded inside archival museum board. In this example,the magnetic mounting system kept 3-dimensional artifacts mounted on panels for a traveling exhibit.
- Magnetic strips can be camouflaged with a digital print (to-scale) of a textile’s pattern and that is adhered to the strip. (See example photo above.)
- Rare earth magnets can be painted with carefully matched paint so that their appearance blends with the artifact. (a barrier layer is still necessary with painted magnets.)
- Use a larger, strong magnet to remove magnets from the artifact in this case. Attempting to pry them away from brittle paper with fingers introduces more risk to the piece.
Small rare earth magnets and magnetic strips are affordable materials for mount construction. 100 thumbtack-size rare earth magnets are available for $6.85 here. This option for magnetic strips is $12 for a ½” width and 7 feet length.
[Thanks to T. Ashley McGrew for contributions to this post.]
With February’s onslaught of winter weather, another of our cultural heritage institutions needed help from CREST. A pipe burst in the Lees-McCrae College Library in Banner Elk on Friday night, February 20th. A member of the facilities staff called the library director Saturday upon discovery and reported the leak and damaged ceiling tiles. When librarians arrived Sunday (2/22), they found that the entire archives, containing “all the College’s history” along with additional materials of regional significance, had been soaking for 48 +- hours. CREST members Jeff Futch, Supervisor of NCDCR’s Western Office, and Heather South, Western Regional Archivist, responded to the CREST activation the following day and braved snow-covered roads to spend the next two days assisting with recovery.
Initial delays in beginning the air-drying process and inside temperatures well over 70 degrees brought difficult challenges to the recovery effort. Air drying requires a great deal of space so that materials can be spread out and benefit from as much air flow as possible. By the time Futch, South, and library staff had secured a work area, photographs had already begun to stick together or to the envelopes and plastic sleeves that housed them.
As with any disaster, there are always lessons to be learned and the burst pipe at Lees-McRae proved to be an unplanned test of the effectiveness of archival storage. One recovery advantage was that most archival materials had been well housed in boxes. These absorbed most of the moisture from the leak, leaving the artifacts inside mostly just damp and not sopping wet. Many of the boxes were the DuraCoat variety. DuraCoat is a thin layer of acrylic applied to the outside of archival boxes for moisture resistance. In the Lees-McRae case, wet conditions persisted over several days and the coating could not repel the volume of water. South noted that the coated boxes stayed wetter than the non-coated containers. Water was still able to seep into the boxes, and then the acrylic layer inhibited evaporation, keeping the paperboard and the boxes’ contents more moist. This disaster instance suggests that at nearly $2 more per box, DuraCoat is not a cost- effective product for more than a small leak.
In cases where photographs called for simple air drying, Futch and South were able to string a drying line and pin photographs to it—a measure that economizes on surface space and maximizes air flow to each piece. They set aside boxes with photos that had become more problematic and were able to bring them back to NCDCR’s Western Office for treatment. Somewhat counter-intuitively, wet recovery of damaged photographs often involves re-submersion in water. Because the photographic production process involves water, submersion in clean water for up to 48 hours is generally safe, when followed by thorough air drying. (Note that this is not appropriate for more recent digital prints.) Careful wet treatment allowed Futch and South to remove deteriorated plastic negative casings from the image film. By the end of the week Western Office staff and volunteers had completed the photo recovery tasks.
North Carolina’s Anne Lane initiated a discussion several months ago on an international blog—“Registrar Trek” about light damage and the usefulness of exhibit rotations for preservation. [We also picked up on this idea in one of our posts last spring.] Our whole C2C team is a fan of Anne’s; she is an extraordinary collections manager who is currently working at WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center and previously devoted many years of her professional life to the Charlotte Museum of History. She combines broad preservation knowledge with impressive hand skills and a helpful spirit, and we’ve been fortunate enough to benefit from her as guest poster for this blog, as well as an instructor for C2C box-making workshops. Anne’s Registrar Trek post elicited two useful responses from preservation experts. Both stress the need to assess of a variety of risks more holistically, rather than a singular focus on light damage. Instead of leaving them embedded in the comments section of Anne’s post, it may be helpful to our readers to see them up-front here.
1. Mark H. McCormick-Goodhart, Director, Aardenburg Imaging & Archives: I don’t know of any materials that rejuvenate from light induced damage in dark storage. I do know of materials that continue to degrade due to light-induced damage after removal from display and subsequent dark storage. I also can cite materials that can recover from some discoloration by fresh exposure to light, but it’s kind of a catch-22 as some components (e.g., inks on paper) in the artwork are being further degraded while other components (e.g., color of the media) are being improved by further exposure to light.
The key knowledge to be acquired by curators and conservators is not easy to gain in many instances, but it is how the light fade resistance compares to other degradation pathways. When a material is very light sensitive, it’s pretty much guaranteed that light exposure on display will be a major factor of concern, but with materials of moderate or high light fade resistance, then other weak links like gas fade resistance, thermal and humidity degradation, etc., may prevail in such a way that worrying about amortizing the time in the light on display may be totally irrelevant. Policies for storage and display need to be decided based on better understanding of all the likely variables of decay and not just one variable only since the variable in question may not be anywhere close to being the weak link in the chain.
2. Robert Waller, Ph.D., CAPC, FIIC, President and Senior Risk Analyst for Protect Heritage Corp.: Mark makes an excellent point about needing to evaluate light damage relative to other risks to the collection in order to understand its importance. It would be a shame to keep objects from view only to have them degrade in other ways or be lost to fire, flood, or theft long before their useful display life has been used. Recognizing the importance of considering risks in context is the driving force behind leading institutions now embarking on comprehensive collection risk assessments. If there are one or more risks other than light damage that dominate the risk profile to a collection then there may be little point to rotating which objects are on exhibit.
It is also important to realize that rotating objects from the collection on and off exhibit does not reduce light damage to a collection as a whole but simply alters its distribution. In some cases distributing light damage more broadly through the collection will result in greater loss of value from the collection. The change in object value seldom has a simple, straight line relation to extent of light damage. Usually the change from a “pristine” state to a “just noticeable change” results in a much greater loss in value than a just noticeable change step somewhere in the mid-range between pristine and completely damaged. This is generally recognized by herbaria who, knowing that dried plant specimens are extremely light fugitive, will choose only one page of a bound herbarium to be opened on exhibit. In this way light damage to the contents of the book is restricted to a single page. The remaining pages remain in the near pristine state for occasional viewing. In contrast, if the book has 100 pages and a different page is displayed each month then it would only be a matter of decades, if not just years, until every plant specimen in the book was severely faded.
Agnes Brokerhof and colleagues presented this issue well in their 2008 paper, now available in book form.
Thanks to Anne for getting this conversation going, and thanks to Mark and Rob for such an insightful discussion and their willingness to share it with our audience.
In our efforts to nurture a sense of community across our statewide network of cultural heritage practitioners and beyond, our C2C team has bravely plowed ahead into the social media realms of blogging and Facebook. By offering preservation tips and sharing stories from NC’s cultural heritage collections, we have carved out a fairly small online niche. We have 240 followers and another 30+- Facebook followers view our posts each week. Followers’ online addresses suggest that about 2/3 of them hail from NC. Though small, our audience extends across the globe, with over 3 thousand views in 2014 from other English-speaking countries and scattered views from 112 additional countries on every continent. We appreciate all of our readers and especially those who take the time to offer feedback and share any useful or interesting tidbits they find on these posts with colleagues.
The wordpress forum provides quantitative information about blog use by tallying the number of times viewers click on a given post. Sometimes we can infer more qualitative data about topics readers found the most helpful. As a result, here are some superlatives for posts based on views during the past year.
- Most curious: “Beware Carpet Beetles” received a tally of 3,500 views. Although it is important to learn about these heritage eaters for integrated pest management and collections preservation, it’s astounding that this post [from 2012] has been our most popular this year. Also perplexing is that there are rarely corresponding referral links or signs of readers clicking on a link the post provides. These statistics lead us to wonder whether the high number of views is the result of human activity or whether instead, the post has gotten attached to some kind of repetitive robo-visitation.
The following superlatives only had views in the hundreds, not the thousands.
- Best preservation tips: “Pros and Cons of Plastic Storage Containers” and “Sealing Wood for Storage and Exhibition“—a guest post by conservator Marc A. Williams went live in 2012 and 2011 respectively and address essential preservation concerns, applicable for even the smallest museums. This quilt from an NC county historical museum is a good illustration of the importance of sealing wood before using it to mount artifacts–especially textiles and paper. The yellowish, brownish lines on the quilt are the result of acid migration from a wood frame behind. A plexi cover over the quilt trapped the acidic vapors inside a narrow space. Although we can’t all have the in-depth preservation knowledge that many conservators–like Williams–have accumulated, we can learn enough to avoid such errors and strive to “do no harm” to the artifacts under our care.
- Cross-disciplinary: “Mineral Hazards” is a guest post by Chris Tacker, who is a curator at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, published in spring of 2013. That it is our 4th most viewed individual post in 2014 is a testament to the usefulness of Chris’ knowledge and the power of reaching out to colleagues outside our history discipline.
- Most popular 2014 posts: Both “Thinky-Drinky” & “Expendifacts” earned this title and both deal with hands-on experiences in historic houses and sites.
- Most collaborative: “Sleep Tight,” another guest post published this year, was written by a public history graduate student from the UNCG program who worked with staff from the High Point Museum to re-string a period bed at Blandwood Mansion. The group of four used a video that colleagues from Historic Hope Plantation developed for guidance. That’s a total of 6 NC cultural heritage practitioners and 4 allied institutions involved in the project that our blog has the privilege of showcasing!
We hope to continue to provide sometimes exciting and always informative content in 2015, so stay tuned and keep us posted on the challenges you’re encountering as well as what’s working for you.
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.
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.
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
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.
In 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?
According to recent reports by the Image Permanence Institute, the 70 degree/ 50 % relative humidity target for collections storage environments is not only outdated and unsustainable, it was never optimal in the first place. What started as a best guess, based primarily on human comfort, became accepted practice in museums and libraries for decades. However, “research at preservation science laboratories in the United States, Canada, and abroad provided data to show that wider fluctuations in relative humidity and temperature were not necessarily damaging to collections.” The old standard is “difficult to achieve, even harder to maintain, expensive and not always necessary.”
But where should collections stewards aim? The target is now always moving based on seasonal drift and material types. For instance, moderate temperatures are not appropriate for preserving certain materials. Most photographs and films should be chilled. For optimal preservation, different types of materials should be stored together and in smaller, customized environments where possible. These separate measure do not have to be costly. A frost-free refrigerator/ freezer can house a photograph collection safely. Many can be stored in the freezer section, while special types, such as glass plate negatives, can be stored in the refrigerator section. Polyethylene or polypropylene boxes with silica gel inside can provide affordable storage for humidity-sensitive materials such as leather and metals.
IPI’s “Quick Reference” guide can help to plot environmental priorities for various collection material types. Further, The University of Illinois Library is developing another tool to help collection managers make item-level and collection-level preservation assessments and identify actions to improve conditions. The Preservation Self-Assessment Program is a free online method to target solutions. The program is new and currently limited to library materials–books, papers, photographs, and film–but is worth exploring for museum collections too. The Connecting to Collections online community will introduce this tool more fully in an upcoming free webinar, scheduled November 5, 2014.
As collections stewards, we shouldn’t be afraid that the monolithic standard has been debunked. Preservation knowledge has grown more complex, but we are all crafty and resourceful enough to adapt to the new moving targets.