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Museum Struggles?

Calling all museum, library, and cultural staff members!  With the goal to continue a dialogue, I want to start with a question.  What are some of the biggest struggles facing your museum or library today?

Some museums have overcrowded storage areas, and struggle to find additional storage space.

Some institutions  have struggled with funding for collections care in the economic downturn.  Some may struggle to train staff or educate their board of trustees.

Others may be testing new ways to attract and engage more visitors. 

So, let us know!  What is one of the primary struggles at your cultural institution?

Suppose you get a phone call today from a major museum donor.  “Great news!” this individual tells you, “I have a wonderful piece I’d like to donate to your collection!”

While museums often receive many important pieces as donations, museums should be careful when considering what donations to accept.  Simply because an object is donated does not make it “free” for the museum.  In addition, some objects that are offered to your museum might not fit into the collection goals.  To determine what objects to accept, a well-crafted accession policy is essential for museums large and small.

To determine whether to accept a donation of a museum object, most issues can be summed up in three questions:

1. Does the object fit the museum’s collecting goals?  For example, a museum of Renaissance art would probably not accept a gift of a cowboy painting by Frederic Remington (even if it was an excellent piece).

2. Does the museum have the space and facilities to adequately care for this object?  Many donors might not realize that there is a cost involved in storing a new object.  Maintaining safe, climate controlled storage and exhibit areas is expensive, and becomes more expensive as the collection grows. 

3. Is the object in good condition?  Some objects in poor condition might not be suitable for display, and would not be accepted by a museum.  Worse, some pieces in poor condition might represent hazards to other museum objects or to museum staff.  For instance, many historic objects can contain dangerous chemicals: old film can release toxic gasses, old taxidermy mounts might contain arsenic as a pesticide, and archeological items can contain lead or toxic pigments.  The condition of an object should be a top consideration when museum staff decides to accept or decline a donation.

Fortunately, there are some excellent free online resources on museum accession policies (and on hazardous materials-see Conserve-o-Gram no. 2/10).  Both the American Association of Museums website and the National Parks Website contain numerous pages on Museum accessions.

What difficulties has your institution faced with accepting donations of museum objects?

Public/Protected

A constant dilemma for museums, libraries, and historic sites is the issue of PUBLIC versus PROTECTED.

When museum objects are placed in a public space, such as a well-lit gallery with minimal glass, rails, or barriers, visitors can comfortably see and experience one-of-a-kind objects up close. However, if even a small percent of visitors reach to touch the object in front of them, they can cause irreparable damage. The light can slowly fade and degrade many materials—causing changes that can never be corrected or erased.

Most museum objects would be the best protected and preserved in an environment similar to an Egyptian tomb—with no light and no change to the atmosphere. When objects are kept in complete darkness with a constant temperature and humidity, they are extraordinarily safe—but impossible for visitors to see.

Museums constantly hover somewhere in between making their collections available to the public, and keeping their collections protected.

To protect collections from light damage, many museums will rotate light-sensitive objects between exhibit and storage areas, minimizing the overall light exposure. Many museums display delicate objects in cases to prevent curious visitors from getting too close. These are two ideas from dozens of methods museums use to make their collections accessible and protected at the same time. How does your museum or library navigate this constantly shifting compromise?

What exactly do you find when you search for archival supplies?  Nearly every museum and library needs long-lasting archival materials to safely store and exhibit objects.  A quick Google search for “archival materials” will reveal a seemingly endless list of sites offering supplies that are “acid free” or “museum quality” or “archival safe.”  However, when it comes to archival supplies one must remember caveat emptor—let the buyer beware!  Many items that are advertised as “acid free” or “archival” are far from being safe for a library or museum, and might possibly damage objects in a collection.

For example, “acid free foam board” consists of a foam core covered in acid-free paper.  Because the foam is covered in an acid-free material, companies will claim it is a perfect material to use in conservation framing.  However, while the acid-free paper does not pose a problem, the foam edges of the board will continually off-gas, exposing objects to additional chemicals that can speed degradation.  Thus, “acid free foam board” is far from being a true archival material.

Fortunately, there are resources available that describe which archival materials are effective.  The “Conserve-O-Gram” leaflets published on the National Park Service website include reliable information on archival materials.  Conserve-O-Gram 4/9 describes buffered and unbuffered storage materials, and 18/2 describes safe plastics and fabrics to use for exhibit and storage.

In general, be skeptical of “archival” advertising and marketing, and research your options before purchasing archival materials for your museum, library, or home collection.

What part do museum visitors play in caring for museum collections?  Should museums play a role in helping educate the public about the issues facing collections care?

Some museum visitors may wonder why an exhibit area looks so dark.  Other visitors may miss seeing their favorite watercolor on view in a gallery.  Some museum enthusiasts wonder why a museum would keep a large percent of its collections in storage, completely inaccessible to the general public.

A museum can teach visitors about the effort it takes to preserve a museum collection by answering some of the frequently asked questions about collections care.  A small additional sign in an exhibit can explain that the lighting is dark to prevent objects from fading.  If museum staff members are educated about the reasons for rotating light-sensitive objects, then they can answer questions from visitors about why a favorite drawing or watercolor is in storage.

There are many other small ways to help educate the public about the effort involved in preserving a museum collection.  By offering learning opportunities about collections care, museums can help visitors further connect to their collections.

Does your museum or library have a good way to expand a visitor’s knowledge of collections care?

“Do Not Touch”

In museums, “Do Not Touch” signs are ubiquitous.  Yet, often in spite of signs,  rails, or security guards, many museum visitors still impulsively reach for the object in front of them.  After all, how much harm can you do with one gentle brush of your fingertips? 

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  Even if your hands are clean, the natural oils in your fingers are still there.  Many small touches can accumulate into a mountain of damage.  For instance, while many people might assume that metal objects are nice and sturdy, even gentle touching can destroy the surface patina on a bronze sculpture.  Once the surface patina is rubbed off, it is almost impossible to restore the original color.

We have a great example here at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center of an object that has been permanently changed by visitors touching the surface.  Bob Scriver’s sculpture Buffalo Bill – Plainsman stands in front of our museum entrance, and every single visitor walks past the piece on their way in the door.

From thousands of accumulated touches, the original patina on Buffalo Bill’s rifle has been almost entirely rubbed off.  You can even see where hundreds of hands have held the trigger on the rifle, causing one particularly shiny patch on the sculpture.

For other types of materials, touching can gradually add oil, dirt, and abbraisions to the surface of an object.  Museums use many different measures to discourage visitors from touching objects on display–including signs, rails, motion sensor alarms, or security guards.  What problems does your instituion face from visitors touching the exhibits?  What are some of the measures your institution takes to prevent visitors from touching objects on display?

Just last week, I had first-hand experience with the danger that dust, soot, and other “airborne pollutants” can inflict on objects in museum collections.  I spent several days cleaning a small plaster statuette that had been stored in an attic for decades.  Before I started treating the piece, it was covered in a thick grey layer of dust and soot.  The originals colors were barely perceptible.  Fortunately, I was able to remove much of the dirt with long hours of meticulous cleaning.  However, in several areas the dirt was too firmly imbedded to remove from the surface without causing serious damage.

 Treating a piece that had been seriously harmed by dust reinforced the need to keep both museum exhibits and storage areas dust-free.  Dust and other “airborne pollutants” can abrade or scratch a soft surface, cause discoloration, corrode metals, and attract pests.  Soot which is not immediately cleaned from an object will begin to bond with the surface, and becomes extremely difficult to remove.

While airborne pollutants can be very difficult to remove from an object, there are several simple steps to prevent collections from becoming dusty in the first place.  First, frequently clean exhibit areas and storage areas to remove dust.  Also, when opening windows be mindful of the dust and dirt that might come through into your building.  For more tips, see the page on “Pollutants” on the Canadian Conservation Institute website.

 Does your institution have any additional strategies for dealing with dust and airborne pollutants?