Water, Water Everywhere

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Last week we talked about fire. So let’s assume your museum/house/secret lair has had a fire and now the fire has been put out. What is the majority of your clean-up activity going to be focused on? That’s right, dealing with water damage. I mean, the stuff that burned is gone baby gone, but the damp and soaked items? You can still lose them all if you don’t act quick. Other reasons you may have wet items to salvage in your museum/house/secret lair: Broken pipes, leaky roof, or a local flooding event.

Wet items have to be dried carefully in a controlled manner as quickly as possible to prevent mold and additional damage. Water-sodden items will be more fragile than normal and heavier than normal. Take care to stabilize items when moving them. DO NOT MOVE WET CARDBOARD BOXES WITHOUT STABILIZING THEM IN A WATERPROOF CONTAINER FIRST. You never know when the wet cardboard will give way damaging items and injuring people.

The first 24 hours are pretty crucial. You need to clean up as much water as possible. Use wet-vacs, pumps, and mops to get rid of as much water out of the area as possible. Items should be spread out to dry and rotated frequently to avoid damage.Try to get good airflow in your drying area by using fans to circulate air without pointing them directly at objects. If you have the misfortune to have a flood event involving contaminated water such as a broken sewage pipe or saltwater items will need to be rinsed prior to drying in containers of progressively cleaner water.

If you have too many items to process before they start drying, many kinds of items can be wrapped in clean paper and frozen to be processed later when you have more time and people. If you have more items than available freezer space, time, or people, it is crucial to call in professionals as soon as possible to prevent as much damage and loss as possible. Many salvage companies have industrial machines and access to freezers that can help immensely.

 

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Museum Monday: Fire Bad

Large_bonfireA lot of the things that cause deterioration in museums are things most people don’t think of as being destructive. Fire, on the other hand, is pretty easy to explain how it cause things to deteriorate. Quickly. Into non-things.

There have been at least two structural fires of off-site buildings that have destroyed items from my museum collections. I am still trying to determine WHAT items were in which locations that no longer exist. Both fires pre-date my tenure at the museum by decades. We’ve also had two almost fires while I’ve been there. A ventilation fan older than either of my parents ran out of lubrication one time and came very close to combusting, and an incandescent light fixture shorted and started smoking.

I also run into collection items like: strike anywhere matches, live ammunition, flammable liquids, and various potentially unstable chemicals, that could all be potential ignition sources. I’ve also had donors attempt to donate such items to the museum which has led me to craft a policy that if the US Postal Service won’t let you mail it, I can’t accept it for donation. There are two mindsets for potential ignition sources within existing collections. One is to isolate the items and remove all sources of oxygen and fuel, thus making it impossible to ignite. The other (and my preference) is to safely and legally dispose of the item. (NOTE FOR PEOPLE FINDING THIS PAGE OFF OF REALLY SCARY GOOGLE SEARCH QUERIES: Your local police department will assist you in disposing of old ammunition/gunpowder/etc. contact them via your local non-emergency number for information) I don’t get hazard pay and there are too many objects and not enough space/time/resources for me to safely store and monitor hazardous objects. Another object that can be a source of ignition or exacerbate fire situations is cellulose nitrate film. Now, clearly I’m not going to willy nilly get rid of all film I’m unsure of the chemical process of, but living in a very temperate climate our building is unlikely to reach the temperatures at which it combusts even if our HVAC fails in a power outage. Small desert climate museums may not have this luxury so these items should be kept in a cold storage situation to minimize the fire risk.

Arson is always a risk for any structure and special care not to leave combustibles in accessible locations outside the building is an important safety precaution.

Fire can also lead to smoke damage, and water damage due to sprinkler systems or fire fighting efforts. This water damage can even happen in areas not affected by the fire.  My building pre-dates sprinkler systems so we don’t have to worry about them activating when there’s smoke… on the other hand, holy crap we don’t have sprinkler systems… AHHHHHHHHHHH.

I try to maintain a good relationship with the Fire Marshal and assist the local fire department in having maps of our building, keeping our emergency exits clear, and alerting them to the location to any known hazardous collection items they might need to be aware of in a worst-case scenario.

Fire Bad. Prevention Good.

Fire Prevention Good. Bears Wearing Pants Bad.

Adversary: Confusion

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Have you ever lost your keys? I know I have. Probably a few times a week on average. Well, maybe that’s not a great example, because we use our keys all the time and tend to carry them around. Have you ever gone looking for something where you thought you knew exactly where it was but you hadn’t actually looked for it in a few months and when you went to where you remembered it being, it just wasn’t there?

Yeah… well, I hate to say this, but this happens in museum collections too. Less often than in my normal every day life, but often enough. See, there is a written record of where everything should be… but it’s dependant on someone actually updating the records as things get moved. Luckily for me, one of my predecessors was fairly anal about updating records… but if the object was moved in the time after their tenure, I often have to make an educated guess as to where it might have ended up. After working at the museum for six years, my educated guesses have gotten a lot better. There’s this thing called “institutional knowledge” which is the memory of staff and volunteers. Institutional knowledge can be the thing that saves your bacon when you just can’t make heads or tails of the cryptic note left in the catalog.

People move objects around. Sometimes it can be as simple as needing to move an object to get to another object and forgetting to put it back in place. It can be more catastrophic when records are “going to be” updated by a staff member who… suddenly stops coming to work with no explanation and now no one knows what they were working on, where their notes are, or how to go about picking up the pieces.

If I got hit by a bus right now, my coworkers would be taking my name in vain for YEARS. My paperwork and records are nowhere near up to date. Everything works FINE as long as I’m there… but if anyone else had to figure it out… Ooof. So I’ve shifted my schedule to be at the museum on Mondays when it’s closed so I can dedicate a full day to nothing but updating records and cleaning house.

I’m hoping to get everything up to date in a few weeks, so wish me luck!

My Adversary: Apathy

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If you can’t make people care about objects and the culture they represent, you can’t save them. You can preserve them, but you can’t save them. To make people care, you need a story. When the objects don’t come with a story of their own, it has to be hunted down and attached to the object like Peter Pan’s shadow. 

This is a gross oversimplification, but a lot of objects come to museums when their owners can no longer care about them due to death, illness, or no one in subsequent generations will care about them so the current owner goes looking for a new custodian. Most of the time objects come to the museum after someone has died or as someone is sorting out their belongings after a health scare. It’s not 100% of the time, but it is the vast majority. I do a lot more grief counseling than you’d imagine in a given year. I was lucky in that my first boss was also a chaplain so I had a good role model and assistance when I needed it as I was getting my footing. 

I give the donors an opportunity to tell me the stories (if any) that accompany the items. I wish I could tell you that the majority arrive with a story, but they don’t. Usually all I get is the name of a previous owner and a brief description of how they believe it was used. Sometimes that’s all that gets recorded and then it goes into storage. If the object inspires curiosity I will attempt to go all history detective on its ass. About 2 out of 3 times I turn up no further information or hit dead ends. But that third time I hit pay dirt and discover a story I can tell using the object to inspire the public to care about the object and its story. 

Objects that come with stories are the most valuable objects in any museum collection. A museum without stories is just a building full of stuff. 

 

 

Museum Collections: Slowing Down Time

 

As catchy as the song is, Museum Conservation isn’t about turning back time, or even stopping it. Museums are all about making things last as long as possible without erasing the marks of their past use and still being available for the public. It is a constant balancing act between preventing further deterioration of an object with making sure the object isn’t being protected to the point that it has no value to the public. It’s also tricky because you can’t think on a normal scale of time. You have to think about years, decades, or even centuries.

For example, a watercolor painting is actively destroyed by light exposure. The best way to preserve it would be to put it in a light free environment and never show it. That’s also totally useless. The better solution is to keep it away from sunlight (windows), possibly cover the painting itself with UV protected glass or plastic, and only show it for a limited amount of time before putting it back into dark storage for a time. The public still gets access to the painting, the length of time it can be displayed over its existence is lengthened by precautions, and its limited display time further extends the number of years the painting will exist.

I personally think the most important thing to remember in Museum Conservation is that you can’t save everything. If museums tried, they’d fail to save almost anything because their resources would be spread too thin. The most important resource is also the scarcest: staff time. I am currently the only Collections person for the entire museum I work at. Our collections span hundreds of thousands of objects in multiple locations. I only work part-time, so even if I spent 30 seconds with every object… well, even if you’re as bad at that math as I am, you can tell it doesn’t look good. I have volunteers and help so it’s not quite that dire, but the truth is most collections problems could be solved with more time. I joke I have job security, but the truth is, I can never, ever catch up. It’s just not possible. Even working full-time I could work the rest of my life on these collections and never fully catch up on every bit of preventative care, record keeping, etc.

Living with that knowledge and to keep on working anyway, is one of the hardest things in Museum Collections. I don’t wish I could turn back time, but sometimes I wish I had a time-turner.

Museum Archives

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As most of you know or realize, my day job involves museum collections at a small to medium sized museum. Lots of stuff, not a ton of funding. Today I’d like to talk a little bit about museum archives and what kind of stuff you might find in them. I’m writing this specifically for writers in mind, so if you have a question about the topic I don’t address please ask it in the comments, send me an email, or @message on Twitter.

Archives are collections of historical documents. Diaries, books, letters, articles, advertisements, genealogies etc. are all the sort of things that tend to fall under archives. One thing we have at our museum that seems to be more common to small museums are newspaper clipping archives. I’m going to guess this is common in archives established before the 1990s. It ends up being a gap-filled analog version of the internet. Predating my time at the museum our clipping files were sorted into Subject Files and Family Files. This was to facilitate use by researchers. Usually researchers are seeking information on a specific person, family, or subject.

A lot of this information can now be obtained easier on the internet, but nowhere NEAR all of it. Even though the local newspaper has been digitized… no one has yet to go through and catalog the articles by subject or name. You need the date and issue of the paper to find the digitized information. If you don’t have that information the newspaper clippings are a great place to start your search. The archives also contain magazine articles, related advertisements, stray documents and correspondence. Looking into a subject file can be a bit like falling down a TV Tropes internet hole. Sometimes you hit gold, sometimes everything you read is fascinating but useless. There’s no way to know except looking through every piece of paper in a given file.

In the Family Files we generally have their membership information, which due to the early 20th century founding of the museum is often a handwritten card or photocopy of it. They often have florid handwriting, that drives my coworker who never learned cursive nuts trying to read. The cards give personal information including: spouse, parents, and children. If the person was a service member there is usually a self-reported history of their military service with branches, dates, and ranks. Anything that has been given to the museum relating to that person or family is also included either as a document or a note cross-referencing an object. Photographs are commonly found in Family Files, though we’re trying to put them with photographs and just cross-reference them now. You’ll also find partial or complete family genealogies, local articles the person appeared in (such as local awards or recognition). Sometimes there will also be correspondence from the person themselves. One of the things I’ve found most interesting over time, is that any correspondence from family members or descendants seeking information about the person or family is also kept in the file. This initially seemed ridiculous to me. I mean, why keep this at all, let alone with the file of the person they’d requested information on. However, I’ve had more than a handful of people who were completely excited because this allowed them to connect with a shoestring relation also interested in genealogy or found out about a living relation they were completely unaware of.

This is far from an exhaustive look at archives and what might be in them, but I’d like to reiterate that museums rely on donations. That means that they largely only contain what people bring them. A lot of records are lost because no one thought to keep them.