Northern States Conservation Center

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

Collections Caretaker

Collections Caretaker (October 15, 2010)
October 15, 2010
Northern States Conservation CenterNorthern States Conservation Center
The Collections Caretaker e-Newsletter
In This Issue
Engaging Your Region
Periodic Inventories
Condition Reports
What is Climate Control?
Textiles and Environment
Upcoming Classes

November 1
MS 218: Collection Inventories

MS 212: Care of Textiles

MS 204: Materials for Storage and Display

MS 225: Care of Baskets

MS 211 Preservation Environments

November 15
MS 007: The Mission Statement: Is it really that important?

Join Our Mailing List
Quick Links

Northern States Conservation Center

Online courses in museum studies

About Us

Engaging your region successfully rolled out customized curricula for two groups this year. The state of Alaska and the National Association for Tribal Historic Preservation Officers are raising the  level of expertise in an efficient, cost-effective manner by offering classes designed individually for their members.

Alaska held its course on registration early in the year. The Alaska State Museum worked closely with and served as local liaison for the initiative. "The class chats were outstanding. It was nice to engage with other people who were faced with similar challenges and to draw upon everyone's diverse experience," wrote one Alaska student on her evaluation.

The success of the program led to a discussion at Museum's Alaska about another initiative in 2011. Next year the topic will be exhibit fundamentals.

NATHPO received a federal grant to provide three online classes and two workshops annually for two years. They're available to tribal members throughout the country. "I found myself jumping online every time a had a free minute," wrote a NATHPO student who liked the interaction with teachers and students to share ideas.

NATHPO chose three existing courses and created three customized courses. The new courses serve two purposes - courses are tailored specifically to the constituent's needs and new instructors are chosen from the tribal community. This helps local economies (all instructors are paid from the grant) and provides an instructor familiar with Native communities and their needs.

If you are interested in creating a regional initiative, let Helen or Brad know.

Welcome to the Collections Caretaker e-Newsletter from Northern States Conservation Center. 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.
Periodic Inventories
by Peggy Shaller

Inventories are an important function of museum collections management. There are two reasons for doing periodic inventories.  The main reason is to keep track of your collections. You cannot display or otherwise use what you cannot find. If you cannot find it, you have not lived up to your public trust responsibilities regarding your collection and the object might just as well be gone. And how do you know it is not gone? Maybe there has been a theft of which you are not aware?

Secondly, periodic inventories allow you to monitor the condition of the objects. Doing an inventory forces you to look at each individual artifact as you verify that it is where it is supposed to be. This is the perfect opportunity to examine the current condition of your objects. If that small crack you noticed last time has gotten bigger, maybe the environmental controls need to be checked. If there is evidence of insects where there was none before, maybe you have an infestation that needs to be dealt with. Many small or large changes can be caught by regular examination of your collection.

(Excerpted from MS218 Collection Inventories.)

Peggy Schaller teaches the online class MS218: Collection Inventories. She founded Collections Research for Museums in 1991 to provide cataloging, collection-management training and services. She has worked with a large variety of museums and collections for nearly 20 years. Peggy, who lives in Denver, Colorado, 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 across the USA. For more information visit her web site Collections Research for Museums .
Condition Reports
by Helen Alten

A condition report gives an accurate and detailed description of an object at the time it is examined. A condition report documents what changes, not what is always present. It is different from an object description. For example, a teapot is always made of porcelain and always has pink painted flowers on it, and a separate lid with a knob handle. Regardless of the condition (even if the flowers fade), that is the description of the object.  But the condition documents the changes that have occurred with use and environmental exposure over time.Chips, breaks, fading, tape stains, dust, grime - these are recorded in the condition assessment, not as part of the object's general description. Conservation treatment might remove some of these or improve the condition. Condition is not fixed, but changes with time.

A condition report is more than just the words "good" or "fair." One word condition assessments are summaries, but serve little purpose in describing the exact damage on the art or artifact. Details are needed. Words and
pictures describe the type and location of all damage. They help us understand exactly what damage occurred when.

Condition reports are important records of how the collection ages and what causes damage. For example, a detailed condition description and photograph before loaning a prized, one-of-a-kind, hand-painted trumpet will:
  • Document that specific alterations occurred while it was away. If the borrower did a detailed examination and report upon receipt and when the piece left its institution, it would be possible to document damage caused in shipping.
  • Point out weak areas and special handling considerations for all future handling.
  • Provide one-of-a-kind proof that it is your artifact, if stolen and recovered. Identical pieces can be differentiated by unique damage.
  • Help prepare a valuation claim for your insurer if the piece is stolen or destroyed.
  • Help you prioritize conservation care and treatment. If an object is too fragile, you may decide against loaning it, or require the borrower to fund conservation work.
  • Document how use of the object may have caused damage today or in the future.
The best way to monitor whether the damage you see occurred in your museum is to assess the condition of every object as it enters the collection. Complement the condition assessment with photographs and drawings to pinpoint damage locations. This gives you a way of determining if your museum building and environment are providing adequate protection for the collection stored within it.

(Excerpted from MS010: Condition Assessments.)

Helen Alten is the Director and Chief Objects Conservator of Northern States Conservation Center and the instructor for the online class MS010: Condition Assessments. She has spent 25 yearworking with small and large museum on preservation and conservation issues. Learn more about her from her resume on

What is Climate Control?
by Ernie Conrad

Climate control is an essential element in the preservation of collections and the buildings in which they reside. What is climate control anyway? It is the control of temperature and relative humidity in a space, and filtration of airborne particles and gasses.

There are two fundamental rules that are mandatory to making all decisions regarding the choice of a climate control system to implement in any building whether new or old. Rule number one is you must know your collection and rule number two is know your budgets.

The worst failure is the newly installed climate control system that the owner could not turn on because its electric bill was unaffordable!

Climate control is a dynamic process that does not all need to happen at once. That is why monitoring programs are so important. They are the feedback tool that guides the implementation of a climate control process so that it can be implemented one step at a time as desired. Continued monitoring after installation of each climate control program will give the feedback of how well the system is working and the energy bills will tell what it's all costing, before it's too costly.

(Excerpted from MS211: Preservation Environments.)

Ernie Conrad teaches the online class MS211: Preservation Environments. For over 20=2years, Mr. Conrad has focused on environmental issues. He is president=2of Landmark Facilities Group, Inc., an engineering firm specializing in=2environmental systems for museums, libraries, archives and historic=2facilities. A licensed mechanical engineer in several states, Mr. Conra holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's in=2environmental engineering from Drexel University, Philadelphia,=2Pennsylvania. For more information visit his web site Landmark Facilities Group, Inc.
Textiles and Environment
by Ann Coppinger

Textiles degrade quickly when subjected to poor environmental conditions, especially excessive light, fluctuating temperature and humidity, airborne pollution and biological pests. Monitoring and controlling these factors will prevent costly or untreatable damage.

All light exposure is harmful to textiles. It causes fibers to break down and dyes to fade. Light damage is cumulative and irreversible, occurring progressively. Textiles will lose flexibility, becoming weak and brittle. They will initially begin to fracture along crease lines, and then break into fragments and eventually powder. For textiles made from cotton and linen, the degradation process will be accompanied by general yellowing and browning.

Since it is not reasonable to keep your textiles in the dark all the time, what you do is limit the time, amount and type of light exposure. Textiles can be kept in the dark when galleries are closed and storage rooms are unoccupied. Windows in storage and galleries should be covered because natural light is variable and loaded with damaging ultraviolet radiation. Keep light levels for display at no more than 50 lux or 5 footcandles, always avoiding direct light on textiles.

Temperature and Relative Humidity
Fluctuations in temperature and humidity cause fibers to shrink and swell, thus weakening the textile. Textiles should be placed in a controlled environment with a maximum temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) and a relative humidity of 50 percent. Textiles should not be stored in attics or basements where humidity and temperatures can be extreme. The optimum storage area is in a central room within a building with good air circulation. Temperature and humidity levels should be recorded and monitored with a recording hygrothermograph or datalogger in any area where the collection is kept, including both storage and display.

Airborne Pollution
Dust and other airborne atmospheric pollutants contain fine, sharp particles that, if not removed, become embedded into textiles and abrade fibers. Dust contains mold spores. In humid conditions, the mold will flourish and grow on textiles. Dust also provides nourishment for insects and other pests.

Good housekeeping will serve to keep the level of airborne pollutants at a minimum.

Biological Pests
Insects, rodents, mold and mildew all view textiles not as wonderful objects but as excellent sources of nourishment and really comfortable homes. They will nest in or feed on textiles, causing small and big areas of loss. Clothes moths and carpet beetles are attracted to protein fibers; silk, wool, fur and feathers. Silverfish feed on cellulose and starch found in cotton and linen textiles. Mold and mildew grow in warm, damp locations. Areas that contain collections should be monitored and regularly inspected for infestations.  An integrated pest management plan (IPM) is the collection's first line of defense.

Awareness of what causes damage to textiles and how to recognize problematic situations, combined with small changes to improve problem areas, often prevents damage to your textile collection. This is the first step in improving their care. 

(Excerpted from MS212: Care of Textiles.)

Ann Coppinger teaches the online class MS212: Care of Textiles. She runs the conservation department and teaches conservation at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She has a master's in museum studies specializing in costume and textile conservation from FIT. She is a former NEA master apprentice at the Textile Conservation Workshop. Ms. Coppinger previously worked for 22 years in fashion in New York City. She has degrees in both fashion design and pattern making from FIT.
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