Often when we’re putting together sample supplies to hand out at workshops, we wish we had multiples of a fairly common item that we could use to store products with limited shelf lives. Clean glass baby food jars, for instance, would be great to store and/or distribute small amounts of Renaissance Wax, which dries out and hardens quickly in many types of plastic containers. These jars could also be good to contain silica gel beads. By piercing the metal lid with an awl, the gel could work within a microclimate (such as a storage box or exhibit case) to either dessicate or buffer relative humidity, depending the optimum environment for the artifact materials inside. The clear glass would allow quick visibility for color indicating silica gel, which looses its orange pigment upon becoming saturated with moisture.
One museum audience engagement expert has remarked upon wish lists as participatory experiences. Collecting materials that would otherwise be cast off is an additional way for community members to contribute to your organization. Have you considered issuing wish lists for preservation and/or public program supplies at your institution?
Several of our workshop partners and participants have had success collecting preservation and other supplies this way. Bob Hopkins, of the NC Transportation Museum and exhibits workshop instructor, maintains a wish list that includes empty pill bottles (with prescriptions removed for privacy). Volunteers bring these in for Bob to store variously gauged stainless steel mounting pins. Director of the Orange County Historical Museum, Brandie Fields, has engaged volunteers with collecting silica gel packets from their leather goods, pharmaceuticals, and electronics to donate as a preservation supply. Fields can bake the donated colorless silica beads at a low temperature to regenerate them and then mix them with the samples of orange-indicating beads she’s received at our workshops.
In addition to babyfood jars, pill bottles, and silica gel, a preservation supply wish list could also include ethafoam. Electronics often come packaged with good ethafoam that can be carved into shapes for artifact storage or even display mounts. We want to avoid styrofoam, since it is not preservation appropriate, but the more malleable poly ethylene foam is normally safe (unless it’s light pink anti-static foam which contains residues that can harm some artifacts) and can be a great preservation tool.
What other common products could be put to good preservation uses? What supplies have you had success collecting from your institution’s community?
Thanks to one of our project partners, NCPC, for this guest post.
North Carolina’s Most Endangered Artifacts is a statewide preservation awareness and fundraising campaign sponsored by the North Carolina Preservation Consortium that promotes the survival of tangible heritage in our state’s archives, historic sites, libraries, museums, and other collecting institutions.
From North Carolina’s mountains, through the Piedmont, to the coast, artifacts attract students, scholars, and tourists. Native North Carolinians and newcomers enjoy a quality of life enriched by artifacts of history and culture. Artifacts are used for education by school teachers, college and university professors, and people engaged in life-long learning. These artifacts include paintings, sculpture, ceramics, furniture, textiles, rare books, manuscripts, documents, maps, photographs, films, sound recordings, natural history specimens, monuments, and historic structures. Connecting with an artifact can be a transformative experience so significant artifacts are placed in the stewardship of cultural institutions. We trust that artifacts there will endure.
Unfortunately, many artifacts in our state’s cultural institutions are in danger. All artifacts decay over time due to the internal vice of their composition. Temperature, humidity, light, and pollution are harmful. Hurricanes, fires, and floods are also risks. Even long-term exhibition and handling can damage artifacts.
Conservation can save damaged and decaying artifacts for future generations. Professional conservators apply art and science to their craft. However, it can be costly. North Carolina collecting institutions need your help. Many do not have the funds to pay for conservation. Without intervention these artifacts will perish.
To nominate an artifact for NCPC’s new campaign, click here.
We thank Brandie Fields, Executive Director of the Orange County Historical Museum, for this guest post.
The painting storage at OCHM bugged me ever since I started last September, and it came up again when I was planning for my inventory and internships this spring. Jon Zachman, Curator of Collections at the Greensboro Historical Museum, had been kind enough to stop by for a visit and help me brainstorm for the inventory and expressed his concerns over the storage of the paintings as well. I knew that we needed the space and needed to do something different with those framed objects. That’s why I was glad that C2C’s Painting Workshop with Conservator Perry Hurt was coming up so that I could ask him the best way to store them. Hurt showed us how to store framed works upright, and when I explained my situation to him, he suggested making painting racks with carpet until I could get a storage unit. (Keep your fingers crossed for that NEH grant to come through.) So, after setting all of the pieces upright in a little-used corner of the room, I went about finding materials and constructing these racks during our spare time.
- Wood– 2′ x 4’s Ours came from mysterious black posts I had found stored in the collection’s room (taking up A LOT of space). Turns out at one time they had been used to display textiles? I had a board member bring a saw and cut the bases off and the posts to ~ 2 ½ feet long.
- Carpet– I put out the call through our monthly e-newsletter for CLEAN carpet. Luckily one of my Board members recently did some remodeling.
- Foil– This was the only thing I had to buy. I wanted to put a layer of this between the wood and carpet, since I had no clue how old the wood was, what type it was, or what type of paint had been used on it.
- Staples and Staple Gun– Handy tool everyone should own, this is how we attached the carpet to the wood.
- Find Materials. I got lucky that we had most of the materials at the Museum and it didn’t take long for someone to come forward with some carpet. My backup plan was to find and beg local stores/companies that sell or install carpet. The only thing I had to purchase for the project was the foil. It wasn’t hard to find someone with a saw to cut the wood either, I decided on shorter pieces due to the space constraint in our collection room. Plus in the future, if I do get the painting storage unit I want, I can re-use the small pieces to make a platform for other collection objects.
- Remove hidden nails and cover with foil. I got 2 27sq. foot rolls from the local Dollar Tree and still have some left over.
- Measure and cut carpet. This was the most labor intensive/annoying part. We did not have carpet scissors or blades. We tried several methods, including box cutters, normal scissors and fabric scissors. My staff person decided that normal scissors, while cramp inducing, made a cleaner line and were easier to handle. We left ~1-2 inches more at the top and bottom. Initially we cut so that the carpet would wrap around itself, but when we began stapling we realized our staples were not long enough to go through 2 layers of carpet. After briefly considering tying them with twill tape, my staff person began meeting the two edges together and stapling them on the back side. So for the first few, the carpet bows out around the wood but once we realized what we were doing, we cut the rest to fit more tightly.
So overall, I would say it took us 3-4 hours to cut, foil, and carpet 14 individual units. Total cost for project: $2.14 for the foil; the rest we already had/was donated.
Staff at most cultural heritage institutions describe their collections storage space as inadequate. Reconfiguring, re-housing, renovating, and building anew are all possible solutions. Obviously, space and budget present perennial challenges.
Square Footage: If you plan on building new storage estimate the space you’ll need by adding the square footage of your current storage space + estimated square footage for the last 10 years’ of accessions + an additional 20% of square footage. The second figure represents future growth at your current pace, while the third figure accounts for the sudden jump in accessions that is likely once your new space is complete. Potential artifact donors you have attempted to re-route by telling them you cannot accept, based on lack of storage space or an impending move, will try again. New donors will surface as the result of your new space’s publicity.
Budget: Building Museums: A Handbook for Small and Midsize Organizations by Herskovitz, Glines, and Grabitske (Minnesota Historical Society, 2012) suggests an important caution. Even if your building project includes energy-efficient systems, “potential savings may well be offset by the new facility’s larger size. Most expansion projects result in additional annual costs for employees, cleaning and maintenance, supplies, [and] insurance.” (p. 16) To read about several museums which built beyond their capacities to sustain, click here.
Most cultural heritage collections could use additional storage space, but institutions are unlikely to fund capital projects, especially in the current economic climate. Here are 3 ideas to increase storage space within your current storage area.
1. Deaccession: If you maintain a regular inventory cycle, you have a good idea of what is in your collection and what objects have either a weak relationship to your institution’s mission or severe condition problems. Depending upon your collection policy, you may be able to deaccession some of these materials, leaving more space for storage.
2. Move office workstation to another area. This will not only free up space, but will also allow you to set the storage thermostat to a cooler temperature, at least during the winter months.
3. Install compact shelving: state-of-the-art mobile shelving units can be cost prohibitive for most institutions. Instead, it may be feasible to purchase sturdy industrial shelving on lockable casters. This is the system the Orange County Historical Museum uses (shown above). For many collection items, these shelves will allow you to achieve compact storage manually.
Establishing and organizing takes good planning and meticulous hard work. What strategies have proven helpful at your institution? Do you have additional advice to share?
Collections inventories are essential to harness both intellectual and physical control of an institution’s collections. Accurate information on a collection’s size and scope is a crucial element in discussions of an institution’s significance. The qualitative and quantitative data an inventory generates is especially useful when working with potential grantors, donors, and other stakeholders.
How often should an inventory occur? Appropriate intervals depend upon the size of an institution’s collection and the capacity of its staff: National Park Service standards include a random sample inventory each year to ensure the maintenance of good records and a 100% annual inventory if a site has fewer than 250 accessioned items or has a backlog of uncataloged objects. Some institutions have an inventory system that provides for the verification of records for a section or percentage of the collection each year. For especially large collections, a full inventory may be completed in 10-year cycles.
What is the best time of year to conduct an inventory? The answer depends on when your institution’s lowest visitation levels occur. For some institutions, winter may be the slow season, but for others, fewer field trips leave summer more open.
The Orange County Historical Museum staff is currently inventorying its collections. For OCHM, summer not only made sense as a result of fewer school field trips, but also because graduate students from local museum studies programs are more available to help with the project. Director Brandie Fields estimates that the museum houses 3,000 objects, including archival materials. The museum formally accessioned its holdings in the 1980s but the all-volunteer staff stopped keeping records in the mid-1990s. Over the last decade since the organization hired its first director, record-keeping has been spotty. Fields began in her position a year ago and gaining a more detailed understanding of the collection’s size and scope is one of her big goals for the inventory project.
A close second after the goal of intellectual control (knowing what you have) is physical control (being able to access it). Fields intends to establish accurate location records for each object in order to be able to find artifacts and fulfill various requests. A tertiary goal is to assess condition problems and flag artifact groups for future re-housing projects. Additionally, Fields and her staff have made small storage improvements as they proceed with the inventory. In some cases, they have been able to unwrap objects within boxes and create dividers between each one out of tissue and/ or archival board. This allows for increased visual access, less future handling, and more cushioning between each artifact.
How often does your institution conduct inventories? Can you recommend any inventorying techniques that may be helpful to others working in North Carolina cultural heritage collections?
Stitches count in both textile conservation and mount making. As part of our C2C “Textiles Intensive” workshop during Preservation Week, Instructor Paige Myers led our group in learning four different stitches. Myers, the Textile Conservator at the North Carolina Museum of History, explained why the herringbone stitch is the one she uses most often.
If your job includes any mount-making responsibilities, it may be worthwhile for you to practice this stitch. [Click here for a tutorial on the herringbone stitch.] It is a good way to secure a fabric layer to a substrate—like quilt batting—without having to bring the stitch all the way through the substrate layer. The stitch is also very flat, while being fairly strong. The flatter the stitch, the less pressure the historic textile placed upon it encounters. Another way to keep stitching as flat as possible is to avoid knots. A back stitch or a perpendicular stitch can help keep the thread tail in place without introducing a knot on the mount surface. To see photos of padding layers stitched to a mannequin and learn more about the process, see the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum’s discussion of preparing floating forms for a costume exhibition.
A great way to get an up-close view of herringbone stitches is to look closely at crazy quilts in your institution’s collection. Late-nineteenth-century quilters often used a variety of fancy stitches to join one scrap of fabric to another, while securing them to supportive layers. The herringbone stitch is one of the simpler stitches they used for crazy quilts and served as an important staple stitch. A detail from the Rebecca Wall quilt in the Orange County Historical Museum‘s collection shows herringbone stitches curving along the piece of red calico below the 1862 embroidery. Rebecca and her late fiance’s mother and sister made the quilt in 1883 to commemorate him and embroidered it with the year of his birth as well as many other symbols representing his life. Another example in the North Carolina Museum of History’s collection shows plenty of herringbone stitching throughout. Lina Gough of Lumberton made this quilt in 1890.
Do you have any techniques that work really well for making mounts? If so, please share them with our NC cultural heritage community. Also, consider joining C2C staff and Paige Myers at our upcoming Mount-Making Summer Camp in Yadkinville on July 9th. During the workshop we will share mount-making ideas, practice creating various mounts, and learn more about local sources for preservation-appropriate supports.
Thanks to John Campbell, Director of Collections at the NC Museum of History, for contributions to this post.
If you are considering adopt-an-artifact programs for your institution’s collections, several North Carolina examples may be useful to review.
The North Carolina Museum of History began an Adopt-An-Artifact program in 2007. The idea was for groups or individuals to choose artifacts which appealed to them and were in need of conservation. Often the costs of conservation are more substantial than the museum’s budget will allow. The adopters underwrite those costs, and thus make the artifacts available for exhibition and study, which promotes understanding of the history and heritage of North Carolina. An additional reason this project is so attractive to the public is that 100% of the conservation funds raised by outside support groups goes into the conservation treatment of the object; the museum pays all administrative costs.
The best example of the success of this program to date would be the conservation partnership between the Museum and the Society for the Historical Preservation of the 26th Regiment North Carolina Troops, Inc. to preserve the Museum’s Civil War flag collection. In practice, the Museum and the 26th NCT mutually choose a flag from the collection as the preservation project. This information is transmitted on the 26th NCT website and at meetings so the reenactors can raise conservation funds within their community.
Once the Museum reaches its fundraising target, it contracts with conservation specialists to preserve and frame the flags. When the flag returns, the Museum schedules an unveiling ceremony for members of the fundraising group. This provides a nice reminder of the purpose of the fundraising and showcases the accomplishments of their organization. The 26th NCT has raised funds to conserve 7 flags, which NCMOH would not have been able to exhibit without their support. They have also inspired other reenacting groups to fundraise for conservation as well. It does take time to form partnerships with fundraising groups, but the opportunity to conserve significant artifacts is well worth that time committment.
While NCMOH’s most successful adoptions have involved partnerships with fundraising groups, its website program description targets individuals. Appeals to individuals are also the focus of the Orange County Historical Museum and the Museum of the Albemarle adoption programs. The Orange County Museum has several levels of recognition for adoption. The top level ($500 or more) allows for donor names to be included on the artifact label whenever that piece is on display, and donors receive a copper leaf on the museum’s Donor Tree. Base-level donors ($25 – $100) are listed on the museum’s Honor Roll. The Museum of the Albemarle also promises to list names of artifact adopters in its quarterly newsletter.
The very premise of an “adoption” program is an emotional attachment to something, an implied sense of nurture in sponsorship. Although individual adopters probably do not want an unveiling ceremony of the kind that NCMOH holds for its re-enactor fundraising groups, tangible benefits would make adoption programs much more attractive. Why not set a minimum adoption fee and send small packs of notecards with photographs of the conserved piece to each participant in the adoption program? Captions on the backs of the notecards could promote the program further. Theoretically, the adopter would spread at least some of the cards among close associates, folks who may also be sympathetic to your institutional cause. Notecards are simple and fairly inexpensive to produce using online services like Snapfish or local printing companies. They would also be a tangible benefit for individuals participating in your adoption program and would further solidify the personal connection the donor likely feels for the artifact adoptee.
What other benefits could your institution offer for participation in its adopt-an-artifact program?