Northern States Conservation Center

Providing collection care, preservation and conservation treatment services to collectors and collecting institutions.

Collections Caretaker

Collections Caretaker (April 11, 2012)
April 11, 2012   
Northern States Conservation CenterNorthern States
Conservation Center

The Collections Caretaker e-Newsletter

Integrating Preservation Principles
In This Issue
ICPC Scholarship
Regional Workshops
Integrating Preservation
Exhibit Mounts
You are invited to join a free online course with web chats broadcast in the American Institute of Conservation Annual Meeting exhibit hall

Integrating Preservation Into Public Programming  


 Monday May 7 to Friday May 11, 2012  

Chats on Wednesday and Thursday at 12 noon to 12:30 p.m. Eastern US Time 

for information: 

American Association of Museum Attendees and anyone else who wants to come

You are invited to our
15th Anniversary Party
at the Wells Fargo History Museum
Come meet the staff of
Northern States Conservation Center and
instructors from

 Tuesday, May 1, 2012, 5:00 to 6:30 p.m. 

Wells Fargo Building,
Sixth & Marquette, 2nd Floor (Skyway Level)

Minneapolis, MN 55479

Wells Fargo Museum
Enjoy an evening at the historic
Wells Fargo History Museum.

Upcoming Classes

April 16, 2012


MS 010: Condition Assessments  


May 7, 2012


MS 099: Integrating Preservation Into Public Programming (free course)   


MS 204: Materials for Storage and Display 


MS 211: Preservation Environments 


MS 212: Care of Textiles 


MS 215: Care of Archaeological Artifacts 


MS 233: Matting and Framing 


MS 234: Archives Management 


MS 238: Design and Construction of Exhibit Mounts 


MS 259: The Fundamentals of Museum Volunteer Programs II 


MS 265: The Green Museum 


May 21, 2012


MS 011: Gallery Guides 

ICPC Scholarship  


The Iowa Conservation and Preservation Consortium (ICPC) is offering a reimbursement scholarship of up to $500 for an individual located in Iowa who wishes to take one Northern States Conservation Center's online classes. The application deadline is May 1. Here is the registration form.


Eligible applicants are Iowa residents or college students in Iowa who are working or who have worked in a museum, historical society, library, archive, genealogical society library, government record office, or other institution that preserves the history and culture of Iowa. Eligible applicants must be an individual member of the ICPC, or from an organization that has an institutional membership with ICPC. Recipients are required to provide a report of their experience for the ICPC website and provide either a "tip sheet" or do a presentation at an upcoming SOS (Save our Stuff) or other educational opportunity for the ICPC membership.


Want a scholarship but are not a member of ICPC? Other museum service organizations could provide similar services. We would be happy to work with your regional organization to make this happen.

Regional Workshops
Where you can find some of our instructors this year:

Helen Alten 

Collections Management and Practice, AASLH Workshop

  • June 13-14: New Orleans, LA
Peggy Schaller

Collections Management Boot Camp

  • May 14-18 2012: Estes Park, CO
Security for the Small Museum: Practical Low and No Cost Solutions. $20 cost.
  • June 4, 2012, 8 am to 12 pm: Loveland Museum/Gallery, 503 N. Lincoln Ave., Loveland, CO
  • June 20, 2012, 8 am to 12 pm: Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, 215 S. Tejon, Colorado Springs, CO  
  • June 25, 2012, 8 am to 12 pm: Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center, 700 Broadway, Thermopolis, WY
  • September 19, 2012, 1 pm to 5 pm: Wyoming State Museum, 2301 Central Ave., Cheyenne, WY 
  • September 25, 2012, 1 pm to 5 pm: Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls and Toys, 1880 Gaylord St., Denver, CO 
  • September 28, 2012, 8 am to 12 pm: Golden History Center, 923 10th Street, Golden, CO
  • September 17. 2012, 10am to 3 pm: Animas Museum, 3065 w 2nd Ave, Durango, CO   

For more information:

Peggy Schaller
Toll free 1-877-757-7962

Gawain Weaver

Photograph Care and Identification Workshops

  • Apr 23-26: San Francisco, CA
  • Jul 16-19: Austin, TX
  • Jul 30-Aug 3: Los Angeles, CA  
  • Aug 21-24: Wash, DC 
  • Sep 17-20: Philadelphia, PA
  • Oct 15-18: Atlanta, GA 
Introduction to the History and Technology of Photographic Materials

Lin Nelson-Mayson 

"Making the Transition from Student to EMP" Career Cafe Session   

  • At the American Association of Museums Conference in Minneapolis, April 29 to May 2 
Steve Layne
"Ask the Experts" at AAM
  • Apr 29: Minneapolis, MN
Certified Institutional Protection Manager

  • AAM / May 3: Minneapolis, MN
Steal This Handbook

Steal This Handbook

is a comprehensive book covering emergency preparedness and response for every conceivable type and scale of disaster on historic and non-historic materials. Written by the Southeastern Registrars Committee of the American Association of Museums, we purchase it before it is bound and have it punched to fit in a three ring binder. Adding dividers, it becomes an instant addition to an institutional emergency response plan. Response professionals can add useful articles to the enormous amount of recovery information already provided in the book.
 Our Price: $ 25.00
Northern States Conservation Center sponsors AAMG Annual Meeting on Saturday, April 28 at the Weisman Museum in Minneapolis.
We hope to see you there! If you miss us at AAMG, come to our party on May 1 at AAM in Minneapolis (see the invite above) or come to our booth at AIC in Albuquerque, NM.
Join Our Mailing List
Quick Links

Northern States Conservation Center

Online courses in museum studies

About Us

Welcome to the Collections Caretaker e-Newsletter from Northern States Conservation Center. The newsletter is designed to bring you timely and helpful content that is pertinent to situations we all encounter in our museum and archives work. Feel free to let us know what topics you would like to see featured in Collections Caretaker or even contribute an article.
Integrating Preservation 

by Helen Alten   


Most donors - a slice of the public we serve - have misconceptions about museums. They don't understand why we hold so many materials that are never exhibited, they don't understand why something shouldn't be on exhibit forever, and they don't understand why we have such restrictive handling and lighting guidelines in place. It is our job to educate them, using a variety of methods, so they understand the reasons behind our rules. Our staff, from the desk clerk and janitor to the director, should also know the reason behind our rules.

If you don't know why the rules are in place, here is a brief review.

Preventive Conservation
Preservation is called preventive conservation by the American Institute for Conservation (AIC). Preservation is an activity of people. Through procedures such as regular monitoring and response to uncovered problems, damage is limited and controlled. The purpose of preventive conservation is to limit or eliminate the sources of damage. The goal is to slow or halt deterioration of the collection. Staff should understand that some deterioration might can not be halted without extreme measures, if then.

The Canadian Conservation Institute and other Canadian conservators codified the causes of damage in the mid-1980s into 10 Agents of Deterioration. You should learn them and be familiar with them. Each incorporates minor and major damaging events. For example, direct physical forces includes poor handling, dropping an object, an earthquake and vibration from trucks passing by the museum. As you can see, the level of severity and the level of probability vary. Rob Waller divides the agents further for risk assessment purposes, subdividing each agent by severity and probability for your region.

Public Programming 
Incorporating preservation in public programming  (1) educates your  public so they don't expect items to be on permanent display or ask why light levels are low, (2) allows the museum to provide broader services, meeting educational criteria in math and science, and (3) it creates an appreciation for preservation and museums in young people, who are the future leaders and decision-makers.

Here are some examples of public programming that can incorporate preservation principles. By no means should you be limited by this list. I am sure you will find other ways to incorporate them into your museum operations. Be creative and have fun with it!
  • web sites and blogs 
  • exhibits - traditional and visible labs
  • adult lecture series
  • store sales items
  • student programs and activities
  • educational camps 
  • fundraisers

Web Sites

Today most museums have a web site. It is relatively easy to add a page that lists the ten agents of deterioration. Go further, and explain to your public how they can use a knowledge of the agents of deterioration to lessen damage to their own treasures. Remember, those treasures may eventually be donated to your museum. 



Most conservation exhibits are of short duration or are adjuncts to larger exhibits. Often they do not get advertised or promoted. Instead, one stumbles on them while visiting an institution. I have seen a number of these exhibits over the years, including an excellent exhibit analyzing objects (The Getty) and a front entry exhibit about the damage caused by handling (Minneapolis Museum of Art). How can you bring preservation into each exhibit you present? You could hi-light a conserved object, discussing how it was damaged and then what was done to preserve it. Or you could have mini-exhibits on each agent of deterioration. Some museums have conservators work in front of the public. Our public is fascinated by preservation and conservation.


Adult Lecture Series

If you have an established annual lecture series, consider adding a lecture segment on the business of museums, how we operate and do what we do. Incorporate preservation tidbits in other talks. Remember that your board is part of your public. Fifteen minute educational talks to the board may help them understand the importance of preservation for preserving the museum's greatest asset - its collection.


Museum Gift Shop 

Those who visit your museum do so because they love material culture. Often they have their own collections and yearn to know how to care for them. Give them something to purchase in your museum gift shop. Consider carrying acid-free boxes and tissue paper, reputable "how to care for (a specific material)" books, and special gift sets. For example, a muslin bag and padded hanger might be sold to store wedding gowns and christening gowns. If you don't want to carry the inventory, consider an online gift shop, ordering the supplies if an order comes in for that product. 



Zoos have been fundraising using an "Adopt-an-Animal" approach for years. Museums haven't embraced the idea, but it might be well worth trying. There are a few institutions that do ask for funds for specific items to be treated each year. Others fundraise for a specific project, such as a mural that needs stabilization or conservation of an area of the collection.

Opening up the invisible part of the museum - the important behind the scenes work of cataloging and caring for the collection - opens up the public's understanding of the costs of doing this work. The more you can make the business of how we do business accessible, the more your donors will understand requests to fund acid-free tissue and boxes. One option is to make behind the scenes tours a perk of membership. Once a year, open up the guts of the museum to members, making sure areas are heavily staffed so there won't be any theft or vandalism.

Student Programs and Activities

The Agents of Deterioration bring physics, chemistry and biology into your museum, even if you are an art or history museum. Integrated pest management and pest biology, humidity and wood swelling, light fading and the energy spectrum, pollution and increased metal corrosion are all ripe for experiments and curricula additions. For example, a discussion of light leads to experiments with energy. There are great tools - UV changing beads, light sensitive papers - to help children understand how light damages collections.  


Create a treasure hunt game for children. Can they find the dataloggers, light monitors and other preservation tools scattered throughout the exhibits?  



Students are the future leaders of our world. When they are young, they are malleable. So consider giving them the tools to understand the importance of preservation by having an interesting camp where they learn how to preserve special materials. Sabanci University in Turkey believes strongly that today's children are tomorrow's leaders. Cultural Heritage and Preservation Projects include programs where young children make objects, break them, and then repair them. 



Preservation cannot be left to one person. It is not solely the curator, registrar or conservator's responsibility. Preservation is the responsibility of ALL museum staff. The janitor must be looking for pest evidence and careful about wet mopping around items resting on the floor. The front desk person must be knowledgeable and able to respond to questions about light levels or access to collections. The director and board allocate money and set priorities. Collections preservation should be high on that priority list, given that the collection is the museum's largest asset. In short, the whole museum must always operate with an awareness of preservation principles.

By educating the public, the museum will decrease the need to explain why donations can't be on permanent exhibit or why light levels are low in the gallery. An informed public becomes an advocate for preservation and an ally to the museum in the work it does to preserve the past for our future.  

Helen Alten, is the Director of Northern States Conservation Center and its chief Objects Conservator. Helen currently conducts conservation treatments and operates a conservation center in Charleston, WV and St. Paul, MN.  She has been working with small museums throughout the US for over 20 years. Helen teaches a number of courses online, including the free course MS 099: Integrating Preservation Into Public Programming, and the upcoming MS 204: Materials for Storage and Display.


 Exhibit Mounts Protect Objects While Providing a Striking Display

by Tom Bennett  

Brass H-mount holds artifact.

Museum people don't often talk about making mounts and installing art, but both are important. Well thought out and produced mounts present objects in ways that make the exhibit striking and professional. 


Mount makers aren't exactly curators, not quite conservators; more often we're designers and artists, we are certainly crafts persons. We install the stuff you see in galleries, museums, public spaces, homes and businesses. (Mount making is coming into its own. Two international mount making forums, one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast of the United States, were held in the last few years.)


We are gypsies who travel to the art and artifacts, carrying our tools and equipment with us. Since we are often visitors to an institution, our work habits must be neat and considerate, always taking care to protect the objects.  


Our job is to realize the vision and wishes of the exhibit or museum designer in close association with the conservator, curator, registrar or collections manager. The choice of materials is not always ours to make, so we work within parameters given and give our own advice tactfully and graciously.  


When we are being asked to make those choices, we use professional judgment to decide if an object is suitable for display, if its presentation is most effective standing out from a wall, on the deck of a display, or on a riser or pedestal. Conservators are our best friends in exhibits. They are dedicated to understanding the physical nature of objects, how and why they change over time. They are as broad in their range of knowledge as we are in our discipline and they will advise us well.  


There is much for us to consider in any display. Of what material should mounts be made? Brass has great strength and fabricating flexibility, but may not provide enough surface for the object's safety. Plexiglas provides more surface area but can distract the viewer's attention. I've had occasions to use two or three materials to make a good mount. What will best enhance the overall exhibit design? What affect will mount materials have on the object over the long term? Does the object need a padded surface to rest on or need extra security? Will building vibrations or earthquakes be of concern? Time, practice and consulting with others will make judgments less intimidating. Use every resource at your disposal.  


The field is loaded with rules and guidelines designed to protect objects, all with good reason - usually derived from the mistakes of others. Mount making simultaneously demands creativity and a certain amount of rigidity. We balance the visual trickery of theater with the limits of physical science. 


The Environment

There are ten agents of deterioration that cause degradation to objects. The Canadian Conservation Institute describes them in detail. Physical forces - vibration, earthquakes, drops, and the pull of gravity - is the main agent that a good mount combats. Although you should be familiar with all ten of the agents of deterioration, you should fully understand Physical Forces.

Another agent of deterioration that affects our choice of mount materials is Contaminants or Pollutants. We choose materials that will not deteriorate or contaminate the objects. This means the mount materials do not corrode, stain, run, or produce damaging fumes. You may need to learn how to test materials or work with a conservator for an approved list of rigid materials, adhesives and tie materials.

For example, vinyl, or PVC, is made into a soft, clear tubing that just begs to be used for a tie and barrier. However, PVC deteriorates to form hydrochloric acid, which would corrode and stain artifacts. Over time, this soft tubing turns yellow and dark brown, oozes an acidic liquid, and becomes sticky and eventually brittle. Not something you want next to those precious objects.

The Purpose of a Mount


Mounts provide support for: 
  • Objects that are inherently weak or deteriorated.
  • Objects that need to be displayed in a specific orientation.
  • Objects that are too fragile to be handled.
  • Objects are too flexible and need a rigid support to not distort.
Mounts fail in their function if:
  • The points of support are poorly placed, resulting in distortion or damage.
  • The object is precariously balanced.
  • The points of contact cause damage. Narrow or unpadded contact points may cause abrasion or permanent distortion.
  • The mount is made of an unsuitable material.
  • The finished mount is obtrusive. The mount should be aesthetically attractive and minimally visible.
Materials chosen for a mount should be:
  • Strong enough to support the weight of the object.
  • Stable or compatible with the object.
  • Padded where in contact with the object.
  • Without sharp edges.
  • Non-abrasive.
  • Colorfast.
  • Economical and durable.
Mount Design
When designing the mount for each object, a number of factors are considered, either consciously or unconsciously. Usually the object is balanced on the mount using its center of gravity. Determine where this is by holding the object in your hands, if you can, and gauging its balance points. If you can't hold the object, it is more difficult to determine, and may involve some guess work. With time, finding an object's center of gravity becomes second nature to you.

A mount shows the object in its natural position, sometimes showing an object opened or closed. Mounts should not conflict with an object's original intended position. This helps visitors "read" the object and understand its function. The mount should also be compatible with display heights and angles in the display case or area.

A well-designed mount is invisible to the casual observer and does not interfere with the aesthetic appreciation of the object shown in the mount.

Mounts are protective supports and thus help reduce damage rather than add to it. Long term effects from the pull of gravity, such as droop and sag, will be prevented by a fully supporting mount. Look at the object in its mount and visualize arrows pointing downwards. Are there areas that are unsupported and will move over time?

Similarly, a good mount design dampens vibration effects. One support rod may cause the object to whip or move if there are vibrations in the gallery. Two support rods may eliminate this possibility. Padding absorbs small vibrations, reducing the effect on the object. For traveling exhibits, objects might be transported in their mount. Then you might design the mount so there is support from more than one direction, eliminating shifting or movement during travel.

Make sure objects are easy to remove from their mount when necessary.

Design the mount so that the object's weight is supported by mechanical joins rather than adhesive joins.

And, finally, design considerations include a reasonable fabrication time for each mount. It is easy to over think and over complicate the process, which leads to excess time, and possibly materials costs, for the mount construction.

Holding the Object

Although the object is balanced on the mount using its center of gravity, it is also secured with ties or tabs. These prevent the object from toppling off the mount. They should not be too tight and should be padded and non-abrasive.


Ties and tabs are not permanently attached. Thus, the object can be easily removed when necessary.


As stated earlier, the ties and tabs should be unobtrusive. Since they are usually at the front of the object, where it is viewed by the visitor, making them unobtrusive is an art. Options are:
  • Making them of a clear material (plexiglass, polyester film (Mylar or Melinex), fishing line in a clear tubing.) Often there is a problem with shine and reflectance.
  • Painting them to match the color of the object (use acrylic paints, and take the object out of the mount before painting the mount).
  • Choosing material colored to match the object (embroidery floss is a wonderful example of a soft cotton that comes in many colors and can match most objects).
  • Making them as small and narrow as possible, without risking that they will cut into the object.

In Conclusion

Closely observing the entire makeup of the object, its condition, documentation, placement in an environment and whatever long-term effects that environment may cause are part of the job. This applies whether you are an installer, picture framer, producing artist (protect your work's future) or collector.


This is not to say that you must know every minute detail about the object, only that the more you take time to know, the better protected the piece will be.


Also bear in mind that underneath it all we are educators taking part in presenting the past and present. This is a big thing for me. Today's museum exhibits now compete with instant gratification. Bringing to life a wonderful historical object in a challenging, educational manner, all in a visual scan time of a few seconds, is extremely difficult. Personally, I dislike this "few seconds" approach to education, but let's face it; every day we have more to learn and teach in the world, so it is up to us to accept the challenge and make it work as best we can. Hopefully we can give people the idea that slowing down for further investigation is well worth the effort.

Tom Bennett, Museum Manager at the Heritage Museum at Wells Fargo in Anchorage, Alaska, has worked as a professional museum mount maker for 25 years. He attended the University of Victoria British Columbia, Heritage Preservation Program's basic mountmaking course and learned the rest of his skills on the job. His mounts appear in the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, the Alaska State Museum, the Museum of the Aleutians, the Washington Historical Society, the Monterey Historical Society, the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, the Port of Seattle (Seattle-Tacoma Airport), and National Park Service and US Forest Service visitor centers. He has worked for five different museum exhibit design and fabrication firms as well as being the former director of the Alaska Museum of Natural History. Tom Bennett works in a variety of materials, including Plexiglas, brass, wood, and polyethylene foam. He teaches MS238: Design and Construction of Exhibit Mounts.

Northern States Conservation Center (NSCC) provides training, collection care, preservation and conservation treatment services. NSCC offers online museum studies classes at in Collections Management & Care, Museum Administration & Management, Exhibit Practices and Museum Facilities Management.


Helen Alten, Director

Brad Bredehoft, Sales and Technology Manager


P.O. Box 8081, St. Paul, MN 55108   Phone: (651) 659-9420

© 2002 Northern States Conservation Center

Updated 24 January 2012