Inquiring minds want to know: Speaking to the public about museum collections management
10 January 2019 – Karen Whitehair
We all know that people are curious about the stories behind objects and the events and people those objects represent. And as public historians, we are in the business of bringing those stories to light. Yet, after doing collections management for over twenty-five years, I have learned that people are equally curious about the creative process behind our educational programs including how we document and care for the objects that serve as the foundation for that programming. But for some reason, public historians rarely talk about that process at all. The public, and to be honest, our colleagues, too, want insight into the specialized knowledge we, collections managers, possess. No wonder many visitors must ask themselves, “What do they do behind that door that reads, ‘Staff Only’”?
So on October 18, 2018, I met with almost twenty members of the Frederick County Civil War Roundtable to explain what really goes on behind that door. I began the talk with a discussion of fundamental concepts by asking two key questions: 1) What is a museum? And, 2) What is museum collections management?
To answer these questions, I first presented the definition for the term “museum” per the Museum Services Act, 20 U.S.C.§968(4), as quoted in Marie C. Malaro’s A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections, 3rd Ed., page 3:
“a public or private nonprofit agency or institutions organized on a permanent basis for essentially educational or aesthetic purposes which, utilizing a professional staff, owns and utilizes tangible objects, cares for them, and exhibits them to the public on a regular basis.”
What should leap out at anyone reading this definition is that museums “own and utilize tangible objects.” Nowhere does it mention collections or collecting. This is why zoos and arboretums, as well as children’s museums and science centers, are considered museums for the purpose of federal funding. We all own and utilize objects for educational and aesthetic purposes.
The definition also charges museums to care for the objects. However, how an art museum cares for its objects versus how a zoo would care for its “objects” is different. Even a children’s museum “cares” for its objects through maintenance and inventory of hands-on activities and its dress-up clothes “collection.” What differentiates us from one another is the level and type of care we provide these objects. I started with these concepts to explain the critical role objects play in all museums, because it is this particular use of objects that distinguishes museums from other non-profits.
We then discussed the foundational philosophy of collections management. This term covers actions related to the documentation and care of those objects. Those who do collections management work under a variety of titles, from registrar to conservator to art handler to veterinarian to manager of collections interpretation, and the list goes on. No matter what our title may be, anyone who does collections management work pursues what we call “intellectual and physical control” over the collection. “But what exactly does that mean?” the audience asked.
To answer this question, I walked them through the process of gaining intellectual control. For example, if a museum acquires a coffee mug, it starts as just a coffee mug, a utilitarian object that is property of the museum—an acquisition. But once that mug is accessioned (documented into the permanent collection) it becomes an important member of the world’s cultural, artistic, and scientific heritage worthy of continued preservation. Accessioning is a conscious act to place an object under protective care to be preserved for future generations. And to explain accessioning, I presented examples of representative paperwork such as the accession register, collection management database printouts, and forms used to process the objects, or more correctly accession the object.
Yet, in addition to documenting objects, collections managers also must gain physical control over the object, which means we know where the object is and understand the type of care each object needs. The caring component is one of the most important but challenging parts of our job. In order to care for these accessioned objects, we must defend them against agents of deterioration such as light, humidity, pests, mishandling, and pollution, which can break down objects into their most fundamental elements, just like water and plants break down stone into soil. I explained that we use tools such as data loggers, light meters, and sticky traps to discover if any agents of deterioration are acting to destroy the object. Then, we use environmental control standards, such as light filtering and specialized storage and display methodologies to counter these destructive forces. Something as simple as placing an object into an acid-free box, as seen in the photo to the left, can provide an important protective barrier. I explained it is possible to slow the damage caused by these agents of deterioration, but only if proper actions are taken.
I then told the audience that they too can participate in this effort to protect our cultural, artistic, and scientific heritage by applying what they learned during the talk to their own family’s heirlooms and collectibles. To get them started, I provided a handout that contained key information about this topic. It is a good idea to provide these resources because most people want to do the right thing to preserve their family’s heirlooms but do not always know who to ask for advice. These types of programs give them that opportunity.
As people left, I heard someone say, “That was really interesting.” Another came up to me and said, “My, you have to do so much paperwork.” Another wrote in a follow-up e-mail, “You engaged people’s curiosity about the museum collection and its management.”
Thanks to questions during and after the presentation, I knew the audience had gained greater insight into what we do and why we do it. They feel they are now in on the great mystery about what goes on behind that closed door. And because of letting them in on the secret, they value and appreciate our institutions more. They will have richer experiences because of it.
Being transparent in all our actions helps us build stronger relationships with the public and become more relevant to those we seek to serve. It will also keep us honest because we know the public has insight into what we are supposed to be doing and are watching. Museums go astray when they take actions without transparency and accountability to professional standards or when the public does not understand the rationale behind the action. By being open to public involvement and educating the public about what we do, we will be less likely to fall victim to controversies over deaccessioning or risky exhibit topics. Think of it as a partnership.
No matter what programs you provide, we must also take time to educate the public on the how’s and why’s of what we do. I would encourage all of you to offer your visitors opportunities to pull back the veil of mystery at your institutions and allow them a chance to discover the amazing things that happen behind the door marked “Staff Only.” Informed advocates become your best advocates. Inquiring minds really do want to know.
~Karen Whitehair has worked in the museum field for over twenty-five years, focusing primarily on collection stewardship. She currently works as the collections manager at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
Editor’s Note: Although this piece does not respond directly to the series prompted by NCPH outgoing president Bob Weyeneth’s speech encouraging public historians to “pull back the curtain” on their interpretive process, it continues in the spirit of that series begun five years ago.