Reports from the Field

June 1, 2010

Well, I’m back after a nice little trip to the west coast.  I will be providing some links to topics of interest I found enlightening while at AAM.  Hopefully this will shed some light on the current state of museums as well as some perspective on what keepers deal with on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis.

For instance,  Lynn’s assertion that space is a commodity in museums.  Truer words were never spoken.  Who gets  dibs on that space is a complex web of hierarchies that melds University and Museum politics and a general question of which part of our mission takes precedence over another.  One would think that the collections should take precedent.  After all, what is a museum without a bunch of stuff? As one session on collections storage pointed out, apparently no one is taking that question as seriously as they should.  Collections are not taking precedent when it comes to space in museums and it’s a real problem.  There is a great site by  Heritage Preservation  called the Heritage Health Index.

This should be required reading for everyone who works in a museum.  It really highlights the situation we are in terms of keeping the objects in proper storage conditions.  This can be difficult given budgets, space, missions, and personnel requirements.

Here is a link to the report they put out:  http://www.heritagepreservation.org/hhi/full.html

I will draw your attention to the Collections Storage part:  http://www.heritagepreservation.org/hhi/HHIchp6.pdf

Basically museums are really having a hard time taking care of their objects in storage.   A REALLY HARD TIME.  Only 11% of museums have ALL of their collections in adequate storage.  This is terrible.

Another great report is on Collections Environment: http://www.heritagepreservation.org/hhi/HHIchp5.pdf

For instance, 26% of institutions do not have control over light, temperature, and relative humidity for their collections.  27% of small institutions do not have ANY environmental controls for their collections.  Again, terrible, but not shocking.  It also throws a monkey wrench into the idea that what goes into a museum is there because it is meant to last for a longer time than it would outside of the museum.   The environment reports final recommendation:

Based on these findings, Heritage Preservation recommends that institutions give priority to finding solutions that will place as many of their collections in proper environmental conditions as possible.

This is what I and many of the keepers have been doing for the past twenty years and more so since the Mainwaring building was built.  I have to figure out which objects deserve to get priority storage space based on a number of factors.  These include material, value, research use, educational use, and size.  It’s not easy.  And moving objects around requires a delicate dance of interlocking spaces that require  objects to be moved three or four times before reaching their final resting place.

I encourage everyone to look over this report.  It’s part of what museums do when it come to cost benefit analysis of their mission and it’s something that our collections committee (weekly meetings from 9:30-11:00AM) discusses regularly.   It should also be in the back of everyone’s mind when we think about creating a museum that is sustainable and can do due diligence to our collections.  We owe that to the people who created them and entrusted them to our care.