Northern States Conservation Center
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Providing collection care, preservation and conservation treatment services to collectors and collecting institutions.

Collections Caretaker

Vol.1 No.1 Summer 1997 Long Range Preservation Planning
It takes a staff to care for a collection

by Helen Alten

Every museum, from the small county historical society run by volunteers to the major metropolitan fine arts museum with a multimillion dollar endowment has one thing in common: a collection that needs constant care.

Anyone who works in a museum knows that, despite everyone's best intentions, collections often receive less than ideal treatment. Everyone cares about their collections, but not everyone has the specialized knowledge, skills and training to provide the absolute best treatment. Some know just a little, such as the importance of acid-free storage material. Some know more, such as how to construct storage mounts. All too many know too little and have not updated their skills in recent years.

Responsibility for updating those skills, for properly caring for a collection, falls to everyone associated with a museum. If collections care is left solely to the curator, the registrar or even the conservator, the collection is in danger. Collections care must begin at the top, with the director. If the director is committed to caring for the collection, that commitment permeates every aspect of the institution and every staff member, volunteer and patron.

How can you tell a museum with the necessary commitment?

To help get every staff member and volunteer committed to collections care, a good first step is the general conservation assessment survey. Simply commissioning a baseline survey and finding funding for it underscores a commitment to collections care. Money is readily available through the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property, which offers $2,500 to $5,000 grants on a first-come, first-served basis through its Conservation Assessment Program (CAP).

The results of a baseline survey, detailed in a written report, serve as a blueprint for improving your museum. General surveys examine everything from environmental conditions to budget priorities, from staff training to storage assessments, and from emergency preparations to pest control.

A baseline survey also serves as a good starting point for a written long-range collections care plan. This revolving five-year plan (annually updated as one year ends and another begins) prioritizes a museum's goals and sets up concrete steps for improving collections care. Long-range plans generally include items such as writing policies, instituting regularly scheduled maintenance, creating an emergency response plan, building an endowment for collections care, upgrading storage, exhibits or security.

Often, a five-year plan calls for professional training for the staff, board and volunteers. Generally conducted by a conservator, training sessions cover every conceivable subject from the simple - annual lectures to docents - to the complex, such as making custom-sized mannequins.

Collections care is a never-ending process. Continuing education keeps staff alert to the latest new developments in preservation. Storage and exhibit up-grades are never completed, but become an annual operating or fund-raising expense as the collections care is made better and better. Collections care starts with the staff their commitment, energy and creativity are an important part of the process.

As collection caretakers we have a herculean task stop the natural degradation of objects and preserve them for infinity. With patience and perseverence we may come close to achieving this goal.

Helen Alten has written and lectured on preventive care techniques since 1986. She is an objects conservator specializing in treatments for historical, archaeological and ethnographic materials.

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