Northern States Conservation Center

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
A good long-range plan combines survey recommendations and fiscal opportunities

by Helen Alten

" If you think that changing tires on a moving car is hard, wait until you try long-range planning." - Anonymous

A well-crafted long-range plan for the care of a collection can be the single most important thing any museum does to fulfill its mission.

Before starting the planning process, make sure that your entire museum family - administrators, staff, volunteers, patrons and visitors - is committed to improving collections care and realizes that planning is the essential first step.

Next, gather information about the potential and real risks facing your collection. You must know the current condition and value of your collection. Planning also demands identification of monetary, technical, staffing and grant resources available to execute your plan.

However, museums in need of long-range planning frequently find themselves in Catch 22 situations: To get funding a museum needs a plan, but planning is difficult - if not impossible - without consulting help. Who's going to pay for that?

A Sample Goal Statement and Itís Subsets

Goal 1: Improve storage for the long-term preservation and access of the collection Objective 1: Reorganize storage to improve access and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act

  • Action 1: Measure the storage area and draw the dimensions on a plan.
  • Action 2: Measure storage furniture and draw into plan, allowing space for wheelchair access.
  • Action 3: Set a moving date, ---- months in the future.
  • Action 4: Arrange staff to assist with move and hire necessary contractors.
  • Action 5: Improve storage mounts and boxing so collection can be moved without risk of damage.
The best way to gather basic information about the dangers your collection faces is to commission a general conservation assessment or survey. The National Institute for Conservation of Cultural Property's Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) provides funding for general surveys at minimal cost (see related article on page 7).

The general survey assesses the level of care at an institution based on a variety of factors. These include:

  • environmental factors such as relative humidity, temperature and light;
  • overall cleanliness, maintenance and organization;
  • storage and exhibit furniture and techniques;
  • pest monitoring, prevention and treatment procedures;
  • written policies, staff procedures and funding allocations; and
  • emergency preparedness.
The resulting report, prepared by a conservator, often in conjunction with a preservation architect, provides a set of preservation recommendations for the museum to prioritize.

All too often, museums obtain reports, but never craft the recommendations into a long-range plan. Most of the Institute of Museum and Library Services grants submitted last year for conservation projects contained survey reports rather than written long-range plans in the supporting materials.

Keep your plan short. A good preservation plan is clear, concise, comprehensive and realistic.

Once you have gathered the necessary background information, how do you turn a general conservation survey into a plan? Preservation Planning: Guidelines for Writing a Long-range Plan will be published this fall by the American Association of Museumís (AAM) Technical Information Service. The workbook includes step-by-step guidelines and worksheets, useful checklists, a sample plan, and an IBM-compatible disk. To obtain a copy call (202) 289-9127.

Whatís in a Name? Long-range collections care plans are known by any number of names. Libraries and archives usually call them long-range preservation plans. The Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal granting agency, uses the term long-range conservation plan. By any name, such a plan is a document that clearly states your mission and lays out goals, objectives and actions for the permanent care of your collection.

Keep your plan short. A good preservation plan is clear, concise and comprehensive, according to Rebecca Danvers, Museum Program Director at the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Likewise, a good plan is realistic. "The plan needs to be logical, achievable and encompass the entire conservation issues of an organization," Danvers said.

Start with a mission statement, followed by an explanatory paragraph. The conservation or preservation mission statement should be part of your institution's overall mission statement and complement a clear, well-written collection policy.

Next, list your goals. Five is a good, manageable number. Keep your goals broad and remember, they are never achieved, but always ongoing.

Under each goal, list achievable objectives. Follow each objective with a list of action steps. It is not necessary, however, to write action steps for each objective until you are ready to work on that objective. Action steps reduce the objective into achievable parts. (See the example on the left).

Your plan is a flexible document that should be updated annually. It is a process, not a fixed, immovable, final decision. You may include more information gathering to supplement the general survey.

A specific object survey assesses the level of deterioration in specific collections and provides detailed information on remedial conservation treatment costs and collections specific recommendations, items to add to the plan.

It is not logical to spend money conserving pieces that lack value to your collection.

Detailed inventories and collections assessments provide information about values. Such information proves vital when choosing which items receive what treatment. It is not logical to spend money to conserve pieces that lack historic, aesthetic or other values for your collection. Many museums balance values and needs subjectively, based on the preferences - and sometimes gut feelings - of an individual. Written preferences are stronger.

Implementing the plan can be difficult. Easy to accomplish, inexpensive changes that benefit the greatest number of items are the best place to start. Weigh your needs and resources. Steve Dalton at the Northeast Document Conservation Center recommends "phased conservation," which balances feasibility and impact.

In other words, a number of small steps will gradually improve the overall care of your collection. For example, cotton sheets from the Salvation Army draped over stored furniture will greatly reduce damage from light and dust. Eventually, you will want to improve your dust filtration and perhaps install new lighting systems. When you can raise the money.

Finally, remember that your conservation plan does not stand alone. A good plan is a subset of the overall long-range plan for your institution, helps set collections care priorities and is an important document for fund-raising.

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.

P.O. Box 8081, St. Paul, MN 55108   Phone: (651) 659-9420

© 2002 Northern States Conservation Center

Updated 11 May 2002