Thursday, August 30, 2012

An Introduction to The Small Museum Toolkit: Book 6, Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation

Carol Bolton Betts, editor for the Illinois Heritage Association, wrote an overview of The Small Museum Toolkit as part of the IHA’s Technical Insert series.  The IHA has graciously allowed The Small Museum Toolkit to share this introduction in seven blog posts during July and August. The posts will help you to get to know about the content of the Toolkit from an outside perspective.

Museum collections that yield artifacts for exhibits and other programs require care that conserves their physical integrity. The final volume in The Small Museum Toolkit is devoted to this topic.

In chapter 1 Scott Carrlee introduces collections care basics. He notes that every museum should have the goal of creating an envi­ronment that “promotes collections care rather than allowing pre­ventable damage to occur” (2). Carrlee divides his essay into six sections, each of which addresses a threat to collections: climate, light, pests, pollutants, human interaction, and disasters. He takes a rational approach to each section, identifying or defining the threat and discussing how it impacts collections. He briefly tells what museum staff can do about the threat and offers a checklist of preventive conservation strategies. Each section concludes with a brief segment of FAQs. This crisp manner of summarizing the basic information makes it easy to grasp each point.

Chapter 2 takes an interesting turn. In it Bruce Teeple discusses historic structures and landscapes, which relates to the idea put forth in book 3 that the museum building is an important artifact. He says that collections inside the museum may be well con­served, but a dilapidated exterior or neglected grounds will send the wrong signal to visitors. An important part of his discussion centers on the historic structure report and the drafting of an action plan for historic structures and landscapes. He tells where responsibilities lie in documenting and carrying out the conserva­tion of both building and grounds.

In chapter 3 Patricia L. Miller gives a thorough account of the principles of collections management and the techniques in­volved. As in so many museum practices, collecting begins with an organization’s purpose and mission. Miller advises creating a collections management policy and a collecting plan, the latter of which sets forth things such as collecting goals and how they will be reached. She discusses standard procedures for acquiring artifacts (or deaccessioning them when necessary) and estab­lishing ownership; how to assign numbers to objects, mark them, and catalog them; and where responsibility should be assigned for each operation. This chapter’s textbox outlining unacceptable marking methods and materials will clear up many mispercep­tions on those topics, especially in small institutions without trained staff. Chapter 4 of book 6 amplifies points discussed in the preceding chapter: why a good collections management policy (CMP) is needed, and what constitutes such a policy. At the center of Julia Clark’s discussion is a summary of key ele­ments covered in a CMP: the introduction; scope and categories of collections; acquisitions and accessions; deaccessions and disposal; loans; collections care; access and use; image use; and ethics. She also notes additional considerations, such as those warranted for special types of collections, including archaeological artifacts, objects from endangered species, items of Nazi-era provenance, and Native American human remains, grave goods, and ceremonial objects. In the end Clark advises on setting a regular schedule for review of the CMP, and revising it where needed.

Nicolette B. Meister and Jackie Hoff write in chapter 5 about col­lections planning and stewardship. Collections planning involves identifying actions that will enable a museum to accomplish its collecting goals and allocate resources to advance the museum’s mission. It encompasses analysis of existing collections; it is outcome oriented and limited to a set time period. The authors stress that maintaining intellectual control of a museum’s collec­tions is a primary purpose of collections planning. They give the components of a collection plan, provide a sample outline of such a plan, and take the reader step by step through the process of creating a plan. They also list useful tips for collections planning and stewardship aimed at small museums.

Conservation planning is the topic of the last chapter in book 6. Julie A. Reilly describes the goals of museum conservation as preserving and protecting artifacts; minimizing physical damage to collections by preventive care and conservation treatments; main­taining the significance of objects along with contextual informa­tion about them; and avoiding interference with the material state of the objects. She advises completing a conservation assessment and then selecting an assessor or conservator. The assessment should lead to the development of a long-range conservation plan and should dovetail with a condition survey, which examines objects for special conservation needs. Reilly explains how to prepare a survey form, which should contain identifying informa­tion about each artifact. Prioritizing need for treatment is next. The treatment itself marks the end of the entire process. One of Reilly’s textboxes neatly summarizes the conservation planning process.

Adapted from Carol Bolton Betts, “An Introduction to The Small Museum Toolkit,” Illinois Heritage Association, Technical Insert 177 (May-June 2012). As a volunteer, Ms. Betts has done editorial work for the Illinois Heritage Association ( since 1982. She was an editor at the University of Illinois Press for twenty years, working primarily on books about art and architecture, film, women’s history, and subjects related to the history of Illinois. Earlier she served on the staff of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and taught art history at Villanova University and at California State University–Los Angeles. 

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