Northern States Conservation Center

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

Collections Caretaker

Collections Caretaker (June 18, 2011)
June 18, 2011  
Northern States Conservation CenterNorthern States Conservation Center

The Collections Caretaker e-Newsletter

Using Collections   
In This Issue
Use of Paper Collections
Researcher Access Policy and Procedures: Access to Archive Collections
Why Collection Care Makes Good Public Relation Sense
Regional Workshops
Upcoming Classes

July 1, 2011:


MS207: Cataloging your Collection  


July 5, 2011:


MS104: An Introduction to Collections Preservation  


MS201: Storage for Infinity 


MS223: Care of Metals   


MS235: Scripting the Exhibition   


July 18,2011:


MS007: The Mission Statement  


August 1, 2011:


MS 208: Applying Numbers to Collection Objects 


MS 226: Care of Furniture and Wood Artifacts 


MS 236: Education in Museums 

MS 227: Care of Paintings 


MS 303: Found in the Collection: Orphans, Old Loans and Abandoned Property 


MS 209: Collection Management Policies 


MS 228: Care of Paper Artifacts 


MS 238: Design and Construction of Exhibit Mounts 


August 15, 2011:


MS 001: The Problem with Plastics 


Why Collection Care Makes Good Public Relation Sense

by Helen Alten   


I was sitting at a lunch counter in a small town, talking to locals and taking a break from a museum site assessment.  When I told folks what I was doing, I was surprised by the responses: "That old junk? Why do they bother?"


Over the years, I have run into variations on this theme in communities with small museums. I don't think the community dislikes its history.  It just doesn't see value in items rusting outside (old farm equipment or wagons or printing presses or airplanes or trains), or in dusty exhibits, or costumes that are shredding on unpadded hangers displayed too close to lights. I've seen visitors run out of museum displays coughing because of dust or mold. Both can cause severe health problems for visitors and staff - a potential liability.


Collection care is about caring for items to the best of your ability so they last well into the future. Good collection care practices have the added benefit of making your museum look clean, presentable and the artifacts look valuable (because you have made an effort to care for them). However, more damage occurs if you don't know the correct way to clean, handle and present artifacts.


Where do you start? First, you need to know the 10 agents of deterioration, how they affect the type of materials you collect, and simple ways they can be reduced or eliminated. A number of web sites explain them, but the most comprehensive is the Canadian Conservation Institute's ( ). Simply put, the agents of deterioration are what makes materials break down. An understanding of them will help you avoid costly mistakes. There is nothing more embarrassing than building a new museum and, within a few years, having to cover over all the windows the architect put in the gallery. (This happened when the ethnographic wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was built and still happens in many new museums I visit.) Or block up the new holes that are letting in mice. Or remove the ramp that is creating vibrations throughout the gallery.  Is the HVAC air intake in the loading dock sucking exhaust fumes into your museum? Building with wood can introduce acid fumes and pests to exhibit galleries and storage areas. The list goes on and on.


Once you understand the 10 agents and have thought about whether they are present in your museum, the next step is to improve policies and institute procedures. You should have a collections management policy that stipulates how objects are handled, labeled, cleaned, repaired, stored and exhibited. Make sure you are specific and your policy incorporates current museum practices. Train staff and volunteers. This may need to occur annually or even more often. Cover how to handle artifacts, clean exhibits, build storage supports, and monitor for pests, light levels and environmental conditions. You should have an integrated pest management plan, a disaster response plan, a collection cleaning plan, and a monitoring plan.  You may need to purchase a visible light meter, an ultraviolet light meter, A-D strips, light fade cards, a psychrometer, and a datalogger that records relative humidity and temperature. Some small museums get grants to buy this equipment. Others band together and purchase equipment for a regional environmental monitoring kit that can be checked out by any museum that needs it.


Finally, make sure you stay abreast of current information on collections care practices.  Participate in as many workshops as you can, preferably taught by conservators rather than curators or collection managers (Conservators are usually more up-to-date on their information, everyone else is translating what they learned from a conservator). Join CoOL (Conservation OnLine at ). Regularly review the Canadian Conservation Institute web site.  Other resources include:,,,,,,, and  There are more, but this list will get you started.


A clean, organized, neat museum is good for preservation. It is good for visitor and staff health. It is also good for public relations.


Helen Alten is the founder of Northern States Conservation Center and an objects conservator with 30 years experience. She has been working with small museums throughout the US for over 20 years. Helen teaches many courses for including MS104: An Introduction to Collections Preservation, MS201: Storage for Infinity, MS223: Care of Metals, MS 208: Applying Numbers to Collection Objects, and MS226: Care of Furniture and Wood Artifacts  

Regional Workshops  

Where you can find some of our instructors this summer and fall.

Helen Alten 

Terri Schindel in the MTN Mobile Lab
  • October 2011: Disaster Preparedness Planning and Response, Level II, Carbon County Museum, Rawlins, WY.
  • October 2011: Collections Care/Core Curriculum, Laramie Peaks Museum, Wheatland, WY.

Gawain Weaver  

Photograph Care and Identification Workshops

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About Us

Welcome to the Collections Caretaker e-Newsletter from Northern States Conservation Center. This issue is devoted to how museums use collections. 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.
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Use of Paper Collections

by Susan Duhl 


Collections on paper - whether art or archives - are often considered less important than paintings and objects. However, paper-based collections are used and handled more than other items in a collection. This can be problematic without understanding and appreciating the wonderful, unique qualities of each item.


Paper is a most fantastic material and can be as ephemeral as throwaway coffee filters or as durable as Tyvek.  Fiber types, pulp additives, and sheet formation techniques all affect paper quality and permanence. Older historic papers, made from cotton and organic additives may last longer than contemporary papers made from a huge variety of fibers and synthetic additives. Paper's longevity is also dependent on its type and rate of use, as well as the conditions in which it is accessed, handled, stored, and displayed.


There are basic skills and materials in storage, access, and exhibition of paper collections. However, there are significant differences in the mission and use of archival materials versus art on paper. While it is understandable to most collections managers now, that paper collections of all types are stored in acid-free housings, philosophical differences weigh heavily into institutional management and use of collections.


In archival collections, it is important to explore the types of papers and media of the documents, the rate and pattern of use, and the type of researcher. For example: Historic archives may have a variety of materials within a collection including three-dimensional objects such asribbons and medals); required access may be limited; and facsimile materials can be used for research purposes. Governmental archives will have a wider variety of paper and media; stringent retention schedules; some categories of documents (such as vital statistics) will be accessed more regularly; and the general staff may have minimal training in safe handling of paper-based materials.


Using art on paper for exhibition is varied by the type and complexity of paper and media: historic prints on rag papers will obviously be easier to handle than large, contemporary 3-dimensional collages with multimedia. The most common questions for conservators about unusual artworks on paper are about framing and storage after exhibition.


There is no single protocol for using collections on paper. Every collection guardian must review and analyze their mission, the content of material and its future to decide on best access and maintenance procedures. Conservators and Curators can work together to develop affective programs for caring for specific collections.


Susan Duhl, is an Art Conservator in private practice specializing in art on paper and archival collections. She teaches MS228: Care of Paper Artifacts, MS233: Matting and Framing, and MS234: Archives Management: Physical Care. She provides workshops, preservation consultations and conservation treatment to institutions and private individuals throughout the world. Susan treats works on paper, including prints, watercolors, drawings, wallpaper, documents, and 3-dimensional paper objects. Her work includes disaster response and recovery, consultations and collection surveys to determine condition, treatment and long-term care recommendations, and helping clients prioritize treatment needs. She is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (AIC) and founding member of the Art Conservator Alliance, 

Researcher Access Policy and Procedures: Access to Archive Collections

by Peggy Schaller 


Archival Collections Found in Museums

Museums have two kinds of archives.


'Museum archives' are internal archives and for the most part should be reserved for staff. Unless a member of the public is doing a project relating to the history of the museum (and the staff should be involved in such a project), it is unlikely that these materials will be in any great demand. Access criteria will also be different for these records.


'Collection archives' are the materials that the public will want to access and use. These are documents related to the collections or collection items themselves. Procedures for access should be set up so that both staff and patrons are comfortable and the collections are protected from theft and vandalism.


Work Area

Establish an area for researchers. Make sure it is clean, clear and uncluttered, well lit and can be monitored by staff.  If you expect to allow laptops, there should be an accessible electrical outlet.


When is Access Granted?

When is the collection accessible? Are you willing to drop everything, interrupt meetings or end a phone call to accommodate a researcher who has dropped in to see the collection? Two solutions strike a balance between convenient access and security.


Some institutions require an appointment. The researcher writes or calls to make an appointment at a time convenient for the researcher and the staff. When making the appointment, the researcher informs the museum about what he or she would like to see or use and the reason for the request (writing a book or paper; genealogical research; etc.). Requesting the type of information desired ahead of time allows the museum to determine if it has the information. This saves the museum and the researcher time.


Other institutions have scheduled research hours. Having set hours when the archives or collection is open for walk-ins may be your solution. One afternoon a week, for example, when a designated staff person could be available to 'drop everything' and accommodate a walk-in researcher.

No one should be allowed (for security reasons) to access the collection on their own. A copy of the access rules should be provided to a patron prior to accessing the collection. One folder at a time should be pulled by a staff person and presented to the patron for review. Emphasis should be placed on the patron maintaining the order of the material within the file and instructions given for photocopy requests. Staff should be present or at least within visual range of the patron during their use of the collection.  Staff will replace the folder when the patron is finished.


It is important that the advanced arrangement policy be enforced without exception. This allows staff to assist researchers without the frustration of having to drop everything or interrupt an important project to fulfill a request. They can plan ahead to devote the necessary time and energy to providing assistance to the patron.

To make the transition from 'access anytime' to enforced 'appointments' more comfortable to its patrons, the museum might consider setting aside one afternoon or morning a week when the archives will be open to the public without appointment. Assign a staff person to be 'on call' for walk-ins during that time. This no appointment period does not alter any of the other rules of access.   


Who Has Access/Purpose of Access

Establish an application process for researchers. Ask them to fill out a form explaining their research area, needs and what it is they want or need from your collection. What will be the final product of the research? Will the museum receive a copy of the research product for its records? "I just want to see what you have" is not a specific enough reason for allowing access and may in fact be a fishing expedition for valuable artifacts.


For patrons from out of town who are just passing through, create a research request form that they can fill out that includes their contact information and what specific questions the patron wants answered. This request can then be researched by a staff person at a more convenient time and the patron can be contacted with a list of material relevant to their research and a price for copies of the material. Copies can then be sent once the payment has been received.



Staff monitoring is an important security procedure to prevent damage or theft of materials.  Staff should be able to see what the researcher is doing at all times.


Record keeping and logs of items used and researcher/purpose

Create a researcher log to track the types of uses for which the archival materials are accessed. This log should include the researcher's name and contact information, the purpose of the research and the items requested and used, as well as the date and time of the access.  Tracking which materials are used the most (or the least) will give the museum a better feel for the level of processing (cataloging) that might be appropriate for which materials.


This will also be invaluable should something turn up missing. You will be able to narrow down who was the last person to access the material and when.


Quantity of items pulled at one time

Pull only one item, folder or box at a time. Instruct the researcher that he or she will be allowed to view one set of records (single folder or one box from a collection with the requested topographical material) or one artifact at a time. The materials are to be kept in the same order received and when they are returned, another set of records will be brought out.


If the researcher is doing a side-by-side comparison of related or similar artifacts, a staff member should be present to assist with the handling of the items and make sure no harm comes to them.


Allowed/disallowed items in research area

Create a list of items allowed in the research area. 

Backpacks, briefcases, purses, coats, etc. should not be allowed.  These are easy places to hide artifacts, papers and photographs. You might provide lockable lockers, outside the research area, for researchers to put these items.


No food, drinks, or smoking in research areas. Not even water.


No pens. Pencils are ok. Pad of paper is ok. If an electric outlet is available, a laptop is ok.  The case, however, is not allowed.



Require the researcher to read or listen to verbal handling instructions (do's and don'ts of handling museum artifacts) and sign that they have understood the instructions.  


Handling instructions should include:

  • clean hands/gloves required
  • pencils only
  • no food, drink or smoking
  • proper handling of artifacts
  • proper handling of documents
  • importance of keeping documents in order
  • proper handling of photographs



Photocopies of any materials requested by the researcher will be made by museum staff.  The item(s) to be photocopied will not be removed from the file without staff approval. A placeholder sheet will be placed in the file by the staff person while the copy is being made to insure that the document is returned to the proper location within the file.



You do not need to insert the actual cost of making photocopies in your policy, but should state that there will be one. The actual costs should be reflected in the procedure (which is easier to change, should circumstances require it, than policy). The uses permitted for copies should be outlined here. This section of the policy should be included on the information provided to the patron prior to accessing the collection. 


Publication and Copyright

The patron information sheet should include a section about publication. In short, the use of copies should fall under the United States copyright laws. Make sure you print the following notice on the documents provided to patrons. Familiarize yourself with by reading the 2009 US Copyright Office circular 21: Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians. This circular includes all of the legislation and summarizes congressional discussions relevant to this issue.


Copyright Notice (include on patron information documents):

"The copyright laws of the United States (Title 17 US Code) govern the making of photocopies or other reproductions of copyrighted material.


Under certain circumstances specified in the law, libraries and archives are authorized to furnish a photocopy or other reproduction. One of these specified conditions is that the photocopy or reproduction is not to be "used for any purpose other than private study, scholarship, or research."  If a user makes a request for, or later uses, a photocopy or reproduction for purposes in excess of "fair use", that user may be liable for copyright infringement.  


This institution reserves the right to refuse to accept a copying order if, in its judgement, fulfillment of the order would involve violation of copyright law."


Peggy Schaller, founded Collections Research for Museums in 1991 to provide cataloging, collection-management training and services. Peggy is the instructor of MS207: Cataloging your CollectionMS007: The Mission Statement, and MS218: Collection Inventories.  She has worked with a large variety of museums and collections for more than 18 years. 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. The mission of Collections Research for Museums is to inspire museums to improve their professional standards, collections stewardship and service to their constituency through training in, and assistance with, documenting, preserving, protecting and managing their collections.  

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