Northern States Conservation Center

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

Collections Caretaker

Collections Caretaker (September 22, 2010)
September 22, 2010
Northern States Conservation CenterNorthern States Conservation Center
The Collections Caretaker e-Newsletter
In This Issue
Museums, Entropy and Collections Management
Disaster Planning in Greece
Integrated Pest Management
Upcoming Classes

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Online courses in museum studies

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Online training for NATHPO members improves their museum skills.
Students examine objects during museum class.

National Native Museum Training Program

The National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, known as NATHPO, created the Native Museum Training Program to benefit tribal museums and the people they serve. The program is an outgrowth and response to the IMLS-funded study, Tribal Museums in America.

Tribal museums have the mission of preserving, perpetuating and revitalizing the cultural and historic heritage of Native peoples. The National Native Museum Training Program provides a variety of opportunities for established tribal museum directors and current and future tribal museum personnel. Northern States Conservation Center is aiding this initiative by providing three online courses in 2010 and three more in 2011.

The third online training session, and the last for 2010, starts on October 4. NA255: Dangerous Materials: Chemical Poisons in Native American and Ethnographic Artifacts. is taught by Nancy Odegaard, conservator at the Arizona State Museum. Many museum collections were treated with pesticides to preserve them. Often there are no records and staff is unaware of what might be on the collection or how it may affect researchers. This class details methods to mitigate hazards from chemicals and pesticides and health issues stemming from their use on artifacts.

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.
There are still spaces available in October's online classes. 
Museums, Collections Management and Entropy
by John E. Simmons

What are museums?
The modern museum may be best described as an information management system. We are  concerned with the generation, perpetuation, organization and dissemination of information derived from our collections. We generate this information from the study of the collection elements and their documentation. We also generate information from the conservation, care, management and exhibition of the collections and from research based on these activities.

What is it we do in museums? Here is what I tell my students:
  • We accumulate a bunch of stuff (objects, specimens, whatever).
  • We then make a list of the stuff - we initiate the process of documentation.
  • We then decide what goes into the collection and what doesn't - we make accession decisions.
  • We next register the stuff, a process that may involve identification, authentication, evaluation, accession, cataloging, numbering and marking of the collection elements.
  • The stuff must be labeled and stored ... and every step of the way, documented as its used, monitored and ultimately (perhaps) discarded.
What is collections management?
Collections management is everything you do to take
care of the collections, help them grow, and make them available for use.

How similar and how different are museums from one another? The overall accession, registration and cataloging processes almost universal. But there are differences in terminology that may cause confusion. The only really significant difference has to do with how we order the collections. Natural history specimens can be assigned names that fit a universal classification system. In other kinds of museums, it is much more difficult to assign an object to a place in a classification scheme.

The three primary considerations of collection management are:
  • Collection order
  • Collection growth
  • Collection preservation
No single collection is ever perfectly balanced between these three.  With growth, the collection tends to slide over into disorder and deterioration - just as predicted by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy. Entropy describes the tendency for systems to go from a state of higher organization to a state of lowest organization.

Resisting entropy
What we do in collections management is resist entropy. How do you stop the inevitability of entropy? The only way is to put energy into the system - for collections, this means the time and money. In fact, most of the cost of collections management is the cost of reducing the rate of entropy.
To achieve "zero" entropy requires an investment of resources that no one can afford, because the lowest entropy requires the highest costs to achieve (because it requires the most energy). In fact, some entropy is a sign of health, because it indicates that the collection is being used, that it is thriving and growing.  The objective is to maintain a manageable level of entropy.

(Excerpted from "Managing Collections Management".)

John E. Simmons teaches the online class MS101: Introduction to Museums and MS214: Collection Management Databases. He runs Museologica, an independent consulting company, and serves as Adjunct Curator of Collections at the Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery at Pennsylvania State University. He has a B.S. in Systematics and Ecology and a Master's degree in Historical Administration and Museum Studies. Simmons began his professional career as a zoo keeper, then worked as collections manager at the California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of the University of Kansas, where he also served as Director of the Museum Studies Program until 2007.

Disaster Planning in Greece

Maria Lyratzi, a student in MS 205/6: Disaster Plan Research and Writing, would like to start a national task force on disaster planning and disaster response coordination for cultural institutions in Greece.  If you would like to help with this effort, please contact Maria Lyratzi, Conservator, Library of the Pedagogical Institute (part of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs), Athens at .
Integrated Pest Management
By Gretchen Anderson

Integrated Pest Management may sound fancy, but this method of controlling insects, mice and other problem critters is really quite simple. IPM, as this method is known, uses a holistic approach to preventing and solving pest problems, largely without using toxic chemicals. Its aim is to deal with pests in the most efficient and ecologically sound manner without compromising the safety of the collection, museum staff or visitors. IPM has become the standard for U.S. museums. It is used to treat incoming items and monitor a museum's existing collection.

What is Integrated Pest Management?
The term "Integrated Pest Mangement," or IPM, describes a method developed to reduce pest activity by using a combination of strategies. It was originally developed for agriculture to reduce reliance on pesticides. IPM combines environmental control, monitoring and good housekeeping. Specific pests species are targeted. The arsenal of tools include:
  • Exclusion
  • Monitoring
  • Good housekeeping
  • Limited use of pesticide
IPM is based on understanding the life cycle of the pest - be it insect, rodent, bat or mold - to control or limit pest activity in buildings and collections. All living things require food, water, air and shelter. By blocking access to one of these requirements, the infestation can often be eliminated or at least more easily controlled.

There are five steps to an IPM program:

1. Monitoring: tells you what species are present, why they are there and where they are entering the facility.

2. Blocking: equals prevention by eliminating ways that pests can enter the building.

3. Treating: Once an infestation is discovered, treat using the least toxic approach to eliminate the problem.

4. Documentation: Keep track of treatments and infestations using forms that become part of a regular review and assessment of success.

5. Evaluation and Revision: Modify procedures as needs change. IPM is not static.

A word of warning, IPM can be labor intensive. However, it is extremely rewarding. Once you have adopted these procedures you will have a better handle on the pest species that are present and be better stewards of your collections.

Gretchen Anderson teaches MS 210: Integrated Pest Management for Museums, Libraries and Archives. An objects conservator, she learned her craft at the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian's Conservation Analytical Lab, the Canadian Conservation Institute, Getty Conservation Lab, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Minnesota Historical Society. She is the co-author of A Holistic Approach to Museum Pest Management, a technical leaflet for the American Association for State and Local History and established a rigorous IPM program for the Science Museum of Minnesota, where she was conservator for over 20 years. Now, she is head of the conservation section at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
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
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P.O. Box 8081, St. Paul, MN 55108   Phone: (651) 659-9420

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Updated 11 May 2002