Northern States Conservation Center

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

Collections Caretaker

Collections Caretaker (February 25, 2012)
February 25, 2012   
Northern States Conservation CenterNorthern States Conservation Center

The Collections Caretaker e-Newsletter

Collections Management and Care         
In This Issue
Museum Stores
Regional Workshops
Storage and Preservation
Collections Stewardship
Upcoming Classes

March 5, 2012


MS 103: The Basics of Museum Registration 


MS 108: Fundamentals of Museum Volunteer Programs  


MS 201: Storage for Infinity  


MS 205: Disaster Plan Research and Writing  


MS 243: Making Museum Quality Mannequins   



March 19, 2012


MS 001: The Problem with Plastics  


How does a museum store fit into your organization?

by Karl Hoerig       


The Dalai Lama said, "Shopping is the museum of the twentieth century." Reflecting this wisdom, most museums include some sort of retail operation. In contemporary American society, many visitors expect to have an opportunity to take something material home with them along with the experiences and knowledge that they gain. For better or worse, shopping is a key component of contemporary American recreation. When done correctly, a museum store can contribute in important ways to your overall organizational mission.


Before deciding to add a retail shop to your museum, or to include retail in the museum that you are planning, think critically about why you should (or shouldn't) have a store.
  • What are the demographics of your visitors? Will they want to shop at your museum?
  • Will a retail store compete with other existing shops?
  • Will a retail store serve your community?
  • Will a retail store provide outreach opportunities?
Most museums operate on very limited budgets. Maintaining a retail operation can supplement the organization's bottom line. But retail is not magic. Very few museums, small or large, enjoy operations revenues (shop profits, plus admissions, program fees, etc.) that are enough to support the entire organization. Retail has significant costs of its own in terms of facility space, staffing, and cost of sales. It might be worthwhile to talk to an economic development expert, analyse your visitors and create a business plan to determine whether it makes sense to open a store.

If your visitor base includes wealthy tourists who enjoy collecting art or books about different lifeways, your plan will look very different than if your visitors are fourth grad field trippers.

If there already exists an abundance of arts and crafts retailers, or local curio shops, or book stores in your community, do you want to compete with them? Remember, a museum relies heavily on the good will of its community.

Museum stores can provide valuable outlets for the sales of traditional (and contemporary) art produced by community members, thus encouraging the perpetuation of these arts and providing income for the artists. In the case of the White Mountain Apache community, our museum store provides the only consistent local outlet for artists. Are there active or aspiring artists in your community that you might serve?

Education is probably the most important reason why museums should support retail operations: Museum stores contribute to museums' educational missions by providing visitors the opportunity to take home books, media, art, and other materials that they can use to continue learning and to share their museum experience with others. Your retail store can - and should - become an expansion of your exhibitions and public programs.

People often refer to stores in museums as "gift shops." Museum retail professionals cringe when they hear this, and for good reason. I encourage you to think of your retail outlet as a "museum store." Making this distinction is important, as it plays a role in changing your visitors' (and your staff's) understanding of the store's purpose. When you think "gift shop," you probably think of souvenirs and trinkets. When you think "museum store," hopefully you think of things like knowledge, authenticity, or art. A gift shop has no heritage perpetuation or education mission. Simply selling stuff is not adequate reason to dedicate valuable and limited museum space to sales. Unlike gift shops, we want to choose merchandise that visitors will enjoy because it relates to their experience at the museum and will expand that experience in a meaningful way. The merchandise at a museum store is reflective of the museum's subject matter. It provides opportunities for visitors to expand their understanding of the museum's themes.

Museum stores have an additional responsibility as representatives of the museum as an institution. Visitors expect that museums are sources of truth and knowledge. Museum stores must sell items that are authentic and of good quality. Museum stores must accurately and honestly identify their goods. If visitors perceive a museum store's goods to be shoddy - or worse, inauthentic or dishonest - it will cause them to think less of the museum as a whole. In other words, if you sell junk in your store, visitors will be less likely to trust your exhibits and educational programs. Museum stores should only sell merchandise that promotes the mission of the museum. Museum stores should try to emphasize merchandise that has an educational value for visitors/customers.

To determine what kind of store your museum wants, you need to step back and consider your institutional focus. What is your mission statement and how does your store contribute to that mission?

Excerpt from MS 254: Retail Store Management for Small Museums.

Karl Hoerig is director of Nohwike' Bágowa (House of Our Footprints), the White Mountain Apache Cultural Center and Museum, in Fort Apache, Arizona. The position requires multifaceted involvement in the community, a mix of museum tasks, heritage promotion, cultural heritage resource protection and management, capacity building, economic development and enhancing sovereignty. Karl Hoerig has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Arizona. Karl Hoerig teaches MS 254: Retail Store Management for Small Museums.
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
Gawain Weaver

Photograph Care and Identification Workshops

  • Mar 26-29: New York, NY
  • Apr 23-26: Can Francisco, CA
  • Jul 16-19: Austin, TX
  • Aug 21-24: Wash, DC 
  • Sep 17-20: Philadelphia, PA
  • Oct 15-18: Atlanta, GA 

Collections Management Boot Camp 

  • May 14-18 2012: Estes Park, CO

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
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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.
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, Minneapolis
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
Wells Fargo History Museum, Minneapolis.

Storage and Collections Preservation

by Helen Alten  


"By definition, museums have four classic functions: They collect, they preserve, they conduct research, and they present or interpret their collections to the public in light of their research. Preservation is the most fundamental of these responsibilities, since without it, research and presentation are impossible and collection is pointless. Conservation is the technology by which preservation is achieved." (Phillip Ward, 1986. The Nature of Conservation: A Race Against Time. Marina del Rey, CA: The Getty Conservation Institute.)   



What is conservation? The American Institute of Conservation defines it as a range of practices designed to preserve and maintain cultural patrimony. The conservator is an individual trained in the science of preservation. A conservator attempts to preserve the original object and the artist's intent as much as possible. A conservator observes material culture closely, examining its condition and the properties that lead to damage. Observations are documented in writing and with imagery. The conservator may decide to treat the object to stabilize its condition or to restore its appearance (more common in art museums than in history and natural history collections). Documentation includes details of anything done to the object and the result of that treatment. Photographs of condition before, during and after treatment preserve the process of change, but most of the work done by a museum conservator is preventive conservation. Preventive conservation minimizes further deterioration or damage by stabilizing the causes of damage, known as the agents of deterioration.


The youngest museum discipline, the term conservation has only been applied to the preservation of cultural patrimony since 1930. Phillip Ward makes a distinction between "preservation philosophy" and "restoration philosophy." In preservation philosophy, "museologists no longer accept deterioration as inevitable, but rather seek to protect their collections against damage from any cause." Museums without an in-house conservator have no one with the detailed knowledge to advocate for the collection. Thus, a restoration philosophy may prevail, where the expert conservator is only consulted when a problem occurs, instead of preemptively stopping the problem before it occurs.


In the United States, the most veteran conservators were trained through apprenticeship with other practitioners. Ensuring generations of conservators have received training in graduate programs that emphasize a melding of studio art, art history, chemistry, physics, materials science, mechanical engineering, environmental science and biology. Conservators tend to specialize in certain materials. The most common fine art disciplines are paintings, three-dimensional objects and works of art on paper. There are also conservators who specialize in architecture, sculpture, textiles, books and documents, religious icons, ethnographic materials, archaeological materials, baskets, clocks, modern materials, furniture...the list is as infinite as the objects we collect.


Collections Management 

The three key steps in collections management, as discussed by Robert Waller in his risk assessment workshops, are collection use, collection development, and collection preservation. All of these affect the collection. Collection use includes exhibits, research, and education programs. Collection development includes acquisitions and conservation treatment. Collection preservation covers activities that slow collection deterioration, including facilities upgrades, staff training, implementing preservation procedures, care about materials used to house the collection in storage, and stabilizing environmental fluctuations. Collection preservation is a key part of every museum staff person's position description. All staff, whether working daily around collections or not, should have annual training in collection preservation concepts. Why is this critical? Because the director determines budget allocations and develops the institutional long range plan, the public relations staff field inquiries about low gallery light levels, the cleaning staff mop floors in areas with artifacts and artwork, and the museum gift shop personnel talk to nearly every visitor touring the exhibits. Preservation will not occur if the museum depends on only one person to be responsible for it. Everyone must be aware of the importance and fragility of the collection held in trust by the museum.


When one considers that as much as 95 percent of a museum's collection may be in storage - with only 5 percent on display, storage is the key component of a museum's ability to preserve its collection. Smaller museums may have a larger percentage of their collection on display. However, a major proportion of the collection is, or will eventually be, in storage. Because most items spend the majority of their time in storage, safe collection housing significantly increases their useable life.  


Planning Storage

How much of your structure should be designated for storage? A general rule of thumb is 40:40:20. The space in the ideal museum is allocated 40 percent for exhibits; 40 percent for storage; and 20 percent for other functions (education, theater, corridors, staff offices). In general, museums that balance storage and exhibit space equally find it easier to store the collection without causing damage. 


When planning a storage area, calculate the size of the collection today and in 20 years based on annual donation and acquisition levels. Then calculate storage furniture needs today and in 20 years. Location is critical. Think about staff, public and object movement. Think about environmental risks. Consider handling frequency and its purpose, do you access collections regularly for exhibits or research?


Storage Room Basics  

Collection storage rooms need good air circulation and stable temperature and relative humidity. Storage rooms should be negotiable by wheelchairs as well as carts full of artifacts. In the United States, one can't discriminate against hiring people with disabilities. Because storage is a semi-public area, it must meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They must be made secure by limiting access and issuing only a small number of keys. Storage rooms also should be easy to clean. Place items on rolling pallets or store off the floor to make cleaning easier. Lifting everything 3 to 6 inches (5 to 10 cm) off the floor also lessens the possibility of insect and water damage to the collection. Finally, the storage room floor must be strong enough to bear the load of artifacts. 


Store collections separately from non-collections material. Exhibit props, freezers, museum store items, publications, cleaning supplies, paints, lumber, trash cans, lawn mowers and gas cans need their own storage location far from the museum's collections. Food, live animals and dermestid colonies do not belong in storage either. New acquisitions should be placed in an isolation room and examined for pest infestations before entering the storage area. If infested, they will need to be treated. Finally, staff should not be housed in storage area. Place staff offices outside secure storage areas rather than inside them.


Arranging Storage 

How should you arrange storage? A collection may be stored according to environmental requirements. Metal, for instance, needs a dry environment. Organic materials need higher relative humidity. Or you can store items by security. Gold would go in a vault; archeological stone waste flakes in less secure drawers. Other options include curatorial classifications such as natural history, size (all large items in a barn, small items in the main building), or by storage systems such as costume cabinets and rolled textile racks. From a preservation standpoint, environmental considerations are primary when determining storage arrangements. Within each environmental area, store like objects together for ease of retrieval and comparative research. 


Storage Philosophy

Storage areas provide collection preservation as well as access. Ideally, the area should have a controlled environment, be filtered for dust or have the artifacts covered to protect from dust, and include furniture and storage supports made of inert materials. A clean storage area with open aisles is critical for access. Since carts and large objects need to move through storage areas, using disability guidelines will help plan for smooth artifact movement in countries that don't legally require that spaces be accessible. Design storage areas to make access easy for staff and researchers. The design also should make inventory control easy and allow the collection to be moved with minimal trouble.  Remember, the collection is the heart of the museum and its single greatest asset.


Excerpts from MS201: Storage for Infinity: An Overview of Museum Storage Principles.

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 developed MS 201: Storage for Infinity as the first online course offered by Lori Benson, who has overseen the collections move and storage upgrades of two of Minnesota's largest museums, will teach the course starting March 2012.
Collections Stewardship: What is it and why should you care?

by Peggy Schaller  


With the 2001 publication and 2005 revision by AAM of The Accreditation Commission's Expectations Regarding Collections Stewardship, collections stewardship became a hot topic for museum professionals. What exactly is collections stewardship and how does it affect you? According to the 'expectations' document, collections "Stewardship is the careful, sound, and responsible management of that which is entrusted to a museum's care."

All museums, whether they are active collecting institutions, non-collecting institutions or somewhere in-between, have collections of one kind or another because we all use 'things' to tell our story. These 'things' can take many forms. They can be works of art, historical/ethnographic objects, natural history specimens, live plants or animals, historic properties or interactive, hands-on exhibit objects. They can be owned by the institution or on loan from another source, but all should relate to and enhance the museum's mission.

The "careful, sound and, responsible management" of these collections can be roughly divided into two main categories. The first is physical management. This includes providing an appropriate environment for the storage and exhibition of collections in our care and for the transportation of collections within and outside our institutions; providing physical security for collections in storage, on exhibit or moving through the institution or to/from another location; providing written procedures and proper training for monitoring, handling and care of collections; periodic inventories and designated storage/exhibit locations for collections; and addressing collections in disaster plans and drills.

The second category is intellectual management. This involves the documentation of collections by accessioning, cataloging and documenting appropriateness to the museum's mission; established policies and procedures that outline the museum's responsibilities to the collections, reasons for acquiring them and appropriate uses for them; consistent record keeping and records management; and adherence to ethical, legal and moral obligations to the public trust surrounding our collections and the public benefit derived from them.

All these things make good collections stewardship the responsibility of every person involved in the successful day-to-day operation of our institutions. It is the primary mission of all museums and cultural institutions to preserve collections for present and future generations, but also to make these 'things' available and accessible for the enjoyment and education of these same individuals. The balancing act of preservation versus accessibility is the essence of collections stewardship.

Excerpt from Collections Research News, Fall 2001. Collections Research News is a service of Collections Research for Museums, 4830 E. Kansas Dr., Denver, CO 80246.

Peggy Schaller, founded Collections Research for Museums in 1991 to provide cataloging, and collection-management training and services. For over 20 years she has worked with a large variety of museums and collections. Peggy has a bachelor's degree in anthropology with minors in art history and geology from the University of Arizona in Tucson. She has a master's degree in anthropology with a minor in museum studies from the University of Colorado in Boulder and is a Certified Institutional Protection Manager II. She provides workshops and project services to museums and historical societies all across the country. Peggy Schaller teaches four online courses: MS 103: The Basics of Museum Registration, MS 207: Cataloging Your Collection, MS 218: Collection Inventories, and MS 007: The Mission Statement: Is It Really That Important?
Condition Reporting Book
Basic Condition Reporting: A Handbook

An indispensable resource for registrars, conservators and collection managers, Basic Condition Reporting contains a variety of condition reporting forms and descriptive essays on a wide assortment of objects. This spiral bound handbook, 150 pages in length, was written and reviewed by Southeastern Registrars Association members, registrars and other museum professionals. This is the definitive work on condition reporting.

Our Price: $ 20.00
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