Northern States Conservation Center

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

Collections Caretaker

Collections Caretaker (January 18, 2011)
January 18, 2011
Northern States Conservation CenterNorthern States Conservation Center
The Collections Caretaker e-Newsletter

Storage and Care
In This Issue
Marking Procedures
Overlooked Objects
Determining Storage Space Needs
Storing Artwork
Buy-In for Preservation
5% off two or more courses
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Upcoming Classes

Jan 24, 2011
MS 008: Buy In: Getting Staff to Support Preservation

MS 201: Storage for Infinity

MS 208: Applying Numbers to Objects

Feb 7, 2011
AK 106: Exhibit Fundamentals:  Ideas to Installation

MS 209: Collection Management Policies

MS213: Museum Artifacts

MS225: Care of Baskets

MS227: Care of Paintings

MS304: Security I: Certified Institutional Protection Specialist

Feb 22, 2011

MS103: The Basics of Museum Registration

MS 001: The Problem with Plastics

General Marking Procedures

By Helen Alten and Gayle Clements


1. Write numbering rules (including rules for numbering formats) in a report that is available to all staff. Include number placement locations for different types of objects.


2. Leave old marks and labels in place. Museum classification systems change and old numbers, marks and labels may be important to art historians.


3. Minimize methods and materials as much as possible, even though different objects have different numbering requirements.


4. Consult the curator and/or exhibitor of the prospective collection before placement of the numbers. They know how the object will be displayed.


5. Always check with a conservator before opting to use any new numbering media. Manufacturers change formulations often and a new product may damage the object's surface.


6. Test all new numbering media before use.


7. Write in the collections records (on the accession card or in the computer record for that object) exactly what material was used to apply the number and how it can be reversed or removed. Also note the location of the number in the collections record.


8. NEVER experiment with numbering methods or materials on an object in the collection. Use a test object with a similar surface or chemical makeup.


9. Wear gloves, according to museum handling policy, when numbering objects.


10. If not able to wear gloves while handling objects, wash hands with soap and water and dry thoroughly before and after handling objects. Never touch photographs, metals, paper, or any smooth, polished surface with bare hands.


11. Test pens and inks for stability in light, water and solvents before use.


12. Make sure numbers are easy to remove if necessary.


13. If an old number is removed, make sure that it is recorded photographically and in written notes in the catalog record.


Excerpt from MS 208: Applying Numbers to Collection Objects. The course provides details on how to test pens and inks for stability as well as specifics on different labeling methods.

Overlooked Objects

by Lin Nelson-Mayson


Objects likely to fall into the unclaimed property category include:

  • Items left at the museum for identification,
  • Offered gifts,
  • Unclaimed silent auction items, and
  • Items borrowed as exhibition support or educational programming.

Since these items often are not documented as traditional loans, they may fall through the cracks of record keeping. Establish a documentation procedure for these items as temporary loans to the museum, with the appropriate recording of the owner's information and signature acknowledging the same responsibilities as the lender with an annually renewable loan contract. In particular, the method for returning the object should be specified, so that each party understands how the object will be returned to its owner.


Excerpt from MS 303: Found in the Collection. 


Lin Nelson-Mayson is director of the University of Minnesota's Goldstein Museum of Design. Ms Nelson-Mayson's experience includes teaching museum studies and museology courses. Her particular interest is the needs of small museums. Lin is the instructor for MS303: Found in the Collection.

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About Us

Welcome to the Collections Caretaker e-Newsletter from Northern States Conservation Center. This issue is devoted to storage and care. It 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.
Determining Storage Space Needs
by Helen Alten

When planning storage improvements, plan for 20 years of collection growth and the furniture needed to support it. This seems like a long time, but consider that a museum professional's career often exceeds 40 years. In reality, your time frame may be condensed further if expanded storage is included in a new building. The Minnesota Historical Society found that building a gorgeous, highly visible new museum (it overlooks a major freeway), resulted in a significant increase in collection donations. Thus, the time that MHS expected to have for filling storage areas was halved for some collections. Those areas filled up too fast and forced the museum to start searching for alternatives. Thus, any prediction made during planning may be altered by reality.

When determining storage needs, accept that every item will eventually spend time there. It is better to design a unique spot for each artifact than to juggle storage space to fit everything when exhibits change. Providing space for all objects also helps staff see collection losses: gaps show up in storage.

As part of the planning process, staff must generate three different lists about the collection. First, know the general size and quantity of each type of collection item. For example, there are 500 buttons (average size 1-inch or 2.5 cm in diameter), 20 wagons (average size, 60 square feet or 20 square meters). Secondly, objects also should be categorized by curatorial subdivisions.  There are 500 Native American items, 50 modern art sculptures, 400 costumes, etc. Finally, the collection should be categorized by its composition. There are 500 wood and iron pieces (includes axes and wagons), 400 copper alloy pieces, 600 silk textiles. There may be special environmental needs for certain collections. For example, in an arid desert region, storing iron is less of a concern than in a temperate rain forest. By understanding different ways that your collection can be subdivided, you can decide which subdivision is best for preserving the collection while still making it accessible.

The following equation helps determine your storage needs. You need to know:
  • The cumulative square footage of all current storage (SF)
  • The number of all objects in your collection (C)
  • The average number of objects acquired annually (D)
If you collect wildly different materials at vastly different rates, you may wish to break down each storage area by type of item. For example, you have vehicles stored in a large barn and you acquire an average of one vehicle every five years, or 0.20 vehicles per year. On the other hand, you have a large and rapidly growing photograph collection stored elsewhere in the museum. You may wish to determine space needs for each collection separately. However, the equation works pretty well if you lump the entire collection together, too. The large amount of space required by one vehicle might be equaled in five years by the speed at which the photographs are acquired.

Divide the square footage (SF) by the number of objects (C) to determine the current space you allocate per artifact (S). This number may surprise you. Often it is tiny, 3 square inches to 6 square inches (5 to 10 square cm). This is because before improvements, objects are not stored for optimum preservation. Rather, they are stacked, crammed into boxes or otherwise too close for comfort. After storage improvements, the average space for objects in a mixed collection is about 1 square foot (0.25 square meters). For a closer approximation, add the third dimension of height, especially if your planned storage area and current storage area have vastly different heights. In this case, take the cubic area allocated for storage and divide by the number of objects. Again, the average in improved storage areas is 1 cubic foot per object.

Now, to determine how much growth you might need, take the average number of yearly acquisitions (D) and multiply by 20. This gives you the projected number of objects that will be added to the collection in 20 years (F). Many small museums collect an average of 300 to 500 objects per year. Thus, in 20 years, they will be caring for an additional 6,000 to 10,000 artifacts. Some institutions will base the growth rate on past experience. Others can predict growth from planned archaeological and natural history research projects. Study your scope of collections. Are you planning to fill gaps or add to existing strengths? Have you committed to collecting only items smaller than a breadbox? One small museum in Iowa, with scarcely any storage room, decided to collect only small things.  Thus, it became a museum of miniatures, eyeglasses and toys. If you have an active loan program, consider outgoing and incoming loans and temporary transfers. These items will also need to be housed in your storage area.

By adding the current number of collection items (C) to the projected additional collection items (D), the projected size of the collection in 20 years is determined. Now multiply this figure by the average current area provided for each artifact, and you have an idea of the amount of spaced needed in 20 years - with no improvements to storage.

However, most items need improvements. Minnesota's Wright County Historical Society found that storage improvements - boxing, padding, providing storage mounts - doubled the amount of space the small artifact collection required. Consider an acid-free box for costumes. Many museums stack as many as 12 costumes in one box. However, with padding and interleaving, each box can comfortably hold only one or two. This would expand required storage for boxed textiles at least six times the current amount. Therefore, you must plan for increased storage space needed to implement storage improvements. To determine this, multiply the storage space required if no improvements occur by 2 or 4 (or 6) to determine how much storage space you reasonably need in the future. For most general museums, multiplying by a factor of 4 proves adequate.

Here is how it looks as an equation:
     Current storage square footage (SF)
     Number of object in collection (C)
     SF / C = Current space per artifact (S)
     D x 20 = Projected items in collection (F)
     (F + C) x S = Space needs (no improvements) (NI)
     NI x 2 or 4 = Space needs with improvements

Let's plug in some numbers:

Your current collection of 100,000 objects is housed in 5,000 square feet of storage.  You annually acquire about 300 objects.
     Current storage (SF) = 5,000
     Number of objects (C) = 10,000
     Average yearly donations (D) = 300
     SF / C = (S) = 0.5 square feet (6 inches or 15 cm)
     D x 20 = (F) = 6,000
     (F + C) x S = (NI); (10,000 + 6,000) x .5 = 8,000 sq. ft. for storage in 20 years without improvements
     NI x 4 = 8,000 x 4 = 32,000 sq. ft storage in 20 years WITH improvements.  (Note: by adding compactor moveable shelving, the required storage space could be halved or cut down to one-third.)

(Excerpt from MS 201: Storage for Infinity)

Helen Alten teaches MS 201: Storage for Infinity, MS 208: Applying Numbers to Collection Objects, and MS 008: Buy-In, along with 13 other online courses. She founded, and is the Director and Chief Objects Conservator of Northern States Conservation Center. She completed a degree in Archaeological Conservation and Materials Science from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of London in England. She has built and run conservation laboratories in Bulgaria, Montana, Greece, Alaska, Minnesota, and West Virginia. She lectures throughout the United States on collection care topics.

Storing Artwork

by Victoria Montana Ryan


While most everyone would love to have more storage space, sometimes a well-designed space, which is efficient and reduces risks to artwork, gives you enough room. 

Storage space should take into consideration the nature of your collections. Space needs for large three-dimensional contemporary paintings is obviously quite different from the space needs for a collection of miniature paintings.

Obviously, the collection storage area also should have temperature and relative humidity climate controls, employ lighting only as necessary, and be a safe space for the collections. Besides a proper environment, a good storage area should be organized, clean and have limited access. Good security and fire-suppression systems are essential.

Although it's not always possible to dictate the location of the storage area, you can reduce risks by making sure it's not near kitchen or waste removal areas. The best storage areas are buffered from the outdoor environment by their location in the center of the building, with no exterior walls or ceilings.

One of the most common problems is the location of pipes (water/drainage) through storage areas. If there are pipes located directly above your storage area, you'll want to install sheets of polyethylene between the pipes and the collection to keep any water off artworks. Also avoid storing anything directly on the floor. All storage furniture should be at least 4 to 6 inches off the floor.

It's natural in trying to maximize space to place storage furniture against walls. But condensation occurs on outside walls, so try to avoid placing storage furniture against them. The furniture should be at least six inches away from the wall. If using shelves, pad them with inert polyethylene foam (one brand is Ethafoam) or other inert materials to prevent abrasion.

Ensure a clean space. Make sure the collection storage area is used only for that purpose and does not become a "catch-all" space for other things. While some collection areas may also have a space for photography, a worktable for processing, or an area for excess storage materials, you don't want other things, like the museum shop inventory or boxes of museum publications, creeping in. The collection storage area is not the place for holiday decorations or the lawn maintenance materials.

You may need a variety of storage systems. For framed paintings, sliding screen systems maximize storage space. It's also common to store framed works of art in bins. Spacers must always be used between artworks in bins. Both sliding screen systems and bin storage furniture can be easily made in-house. Drawers, especially flat files, are good to store unframed artworks or paintings with damage.

Shelving systems may also be employed. Compactor systems are capable of maximizing space while accommodating several types of storage needs simultaneously.

Don't forget your needs for temporary storage spaces such as a space for shipping and receiving, for unpacking objects, for exhibit crates, for isolation areas, and for safe space during moving or construction.


Excerpt from MS227: Care of Paintings.


Victoria Montana Ryan operates Art Care Services to serve the conservation needs of museums, historical societies, public and private collectors, institutions, corporations, and municipalities, focusing on the care and preservation of works of art. A former Assistant Professor for the Conservation of Paintings at Queen's University Kingston, Ontario and former adjunct faculty member at the University of Denver where she was conservator of paintings at the Rocky Mountain Conservation Center for over a decade, she received her Master of Art Conservation from Queen's University and a Master of Arts degree with an emphasis in Art Education/Museum Studies from the University of New Mexico.

Buy-In: Getting All Staff to Support Preservation

By Helen Alten


It is the action and not the fruit of the action that matters. You must do what is right. Maybe it is not in your power, not in your time that fruits will be borne. However this does not mean that you must cease doing what is right. You may never know the result of your action but if you do nothing, there will not be any result at all.

- Mahatma Gandhi

When we talk about staff buy-in for preservation, we are talking about creating change in a culture - the culture of our museum. How do we create change in any culture? How do we get people to change their ideas and perceptions? How do we build consensus within our institution that preservation is a priority for all?


In Japan, individual self-assertion in almost any form is rigorously discouraged. "The nail that sticks up gets pounded down," says one of the most famous of Japanese proverbs. How many people who propose preservation activities to a museum feel like a pounded nail?

The process of making changes and achieving consensus in Japan is called nemawashi. The term comes from bonsai culture, in which, whenever a miniature tree is repotted, its roots are carefully pruned and positioned in such a way as to determine the tree's future shape. In the human context, nemawashi involves a cautious feeling-out of all the people legitimately concerned with an issue, a highly tentative process in which no firm stands are openly taken and argument is implicit rather than explicit. The process of nemawashi describes how junior people build consensus by developing a proposal and circulating it broadly ("trial balloons"). In the nemawashi process many people give their input and this generates consensus. By the time the formal proposal comes up for a high-level approval the decision is already made. Agreements have been reached and the final meeting is a formality. From a Japanese point of view, the overriding advantage of this indirect approach is that it all but rules out the possibility of direct personal conflicts. Westerners instinctively dismiss nemawashi as impossibly clumsy and ineffectual -- and it can be tedious and time-consuming. However, nemawashi "gets everyone on board," it ensures that once a course of action has been agreed upon, it can be executed rapidly and with a minimum of the foot-dragging and intramural sniping that often impedes the progress of Western institutions.

Organizational change takes an organized approach. Even a planned approach. It is a slow process that takes time. You will not create a full-fledged preservation program in your museum in a few months, or possibly even a few years - no matter how much you see that it needs one. You, as an individual, must gather allies and data. You must have a plan, and you need to start small. A small prototype project that is successful will win you more allies. Bringing preservation into everyone's perception is as challenging as changing your museum into a green, or sustainable, institution. It is a process that takes time, and continual commitment.


Excerpt from
MS008: Buy In: Getting Staff to Support Preservation. Reprinted from Collections Caretaker (January 23, 2010).
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 11 May 2002