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.