Preventive conservation training for anthropological museum professionals

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  • The InternationalJournal of Museum Management and Curatorship (1988), 7,365374

    Preventive Conservation Training for Anthropological Museum Professionals


    The Commission on Museums for a New Century characterized the current state of collections care in American museums as a chronic, unquantified problem (1984:40). The gravity of this situation and the call for rectification has led to a change in funding priorities in some museums, away from a focus on exhibition to a focus on collections and conservation. One example of this change is the underwriting by the Bay Foundation of a project in collections care and maintenance. To oversee the project, the Bay Foundation created an Advisory Panel with representatives from the Foundation itself, the American Association of Museums, the American Association for State and Local History, and the National Institute for Conservation of Cultural Property. As its first task, this Panel formulated a core curriculum and selected four museums to develop training curricula and to conduct pilot training courses as the testing ground.

    Development of Training Curricula

    From the beginning, the project organizers recognized the need to base each curriculum on the types of collections found in museums. The problems of people who deal with feather headdresses and boxes of pottery sherds are different from those of people who deal with folios of botanical specimens or oil paintings on canvas. As a result, four separate curricula were developed and tested in training courses by the Chicago Institute of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, and the Arizona State Museum. Using different types of collections as the distinguishing feature of each curriculum, the project began as object-centered, a fact which makes the project important to the reality of current collections care.

    In addition, the Advisory Panel recognized that care involves more than putting a new collection on a storeroom shelf or sending a crumbling manuscript to a conservator. Just as the Commission, which defined collections care as connoting everything from providing controlled environmental conditions to ensuring adequate security, maintain- ing necessary catalog records and repairing damage (1984 :40), the Advisory Panel proposed a core curriculum which included as topics:

    l environmental monitoring and control; l storage and exhibition techniques; l methods of inventorying, cataloguing, conditioning, and technical examination; l numbering and labeling; l packing and handling; l photographic skills; l computerization of documentation; and the l inter-relationship of the areas of registration, curation, and conservation.

    0260-4779/88/04 0365-10 $03.00 0 1988 Butterworth & Co (Publishers) Ltd

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    The core curriculum was composed of these concerns common to all museums, but the context-museum object type-made the project more specific than previous training courses for museum professionals.

    In its effort to develop the training curriculum for anthropology museum professionals, the Arizona State Museum formed a committee with staff representatives from administration, ethnology, collections, exhibition and conservation. Bringing together the differing perspectives on museum objects led to the creation of a practical curriculum: one centered on the objects, their use and their longevity. Working with consultants who produced detailed outlines for the given topics, the committee reviewed, made additions and changes, and through consensus developed a final curriculum which was first tested as a training course in 1986-7. The curriculum was then revised according to findings and tested a final time during 1987-8. The curriculum produced constitutes a course in preventive conservation covering all aspects of anthropological artifact care, with the exception of actual treatment procedures which remain the realm of the conservator.

    Course Development

    During the course development stage, defining the course audience proved to be the first major task. If the course were to have an impact on collections care, the people trained would have to be the actual collections care-givers in museums of all sizes. With this audience definition, museum directors, collections managers, curators, and registrars all became the appropriate applicants for the course. Whatever their position title, these were the people who had daily contact with the museum collections. They were also people who, with little or no conservation training, were concerned with extending the lives of the objects in their charge in perpetuity.

    With their daily work time taken up by routine tasks of accessioning and storing artifacts, creating documents for those artifacts, selecting and preparing artifacts for loans and exhibits, these people have little time to keep up with the latest happenings in those conservation practices which relate to their daily job responsibilities. The findings of museum conservators and conservation scientists, usually published in technical language in a few specialized journals, are simply not the daily reading of museum care-givers. Yet, preventive conservation is central to caring for and maintaining the integrity of museum objects. Although many collections managers make efforts to learn the newest theories and solutions to such things as the dangers of temperature fluctuations in storage areas, taking time to concentrate on solving that problem often occurs only when a crisis develops and demands immediate attention. In such a case, this one aspect of care improves, and others equally important are put on hold until time is available, additional staff are hired or another crisis occurs.

    People with two or more years of experience in dealing with collections will inevitably be well aware of the problems of care and maintenance of those collections. Such people will also have developed some specific solutions. What is missing for them is a holistic viewpoint, one from which the day-to-day decisions can be made confidently and in the best interests of the objects. The curriculum developed for the anthropological museum training course was geared to provide that information. The basic thrust of the curriculum was education in the practices of collections care, with the emphasis on the practical application of the classroom-imparted knowledge. The course would produce not conservators or conservation experts but rather museum professionals well versed in preventive conservation, aware of many more of the factors which affect objects and with


    the means to make decisions confidently about those objects. To achieve this, the curriculum was sequenced into six general blocks: the unique

    nature of anthropological collections; the composition and condition of anthropological artifacts; environmental conditions within the museum; problems of storage; the use of collections in exhibition; and the documentation concerns of collections management. None of these topics is new to in-service training for museum professionals. What is different, however, is putting them together and in a coherent sequence so that the interrelationships of various decisions become clear. The scope of the curriculum is probably best explained through a description of what was covered under these topics. Some aspects of the curriculum had a general relevance which allowed scheduling them into open time slots throughout the basic sequence just described. A listing of specific curriculum topics in the order of teaching and the class hours allotted for each during the second pilot course appears in Appendix 1.

    Anthropology Training Course

    The six-week training course for the care-givers was organized into two three-week sessions separated by a three- to four-month period. Two sessions, rather than one, were planned in order to ease the problems of absence from work. Six weeks appeared to be the minimum time needed to cover necessary material in depth. Six hours of class, consisting of one-and-a-half-hour periods, were scheduled daily Monday through Friday, with working field-trips organized for four Saturdays. Content of all discussions was as detailed as time allowed, and the focus throughout was on the collections.

    The course began with discussion of the nature of anthropological collections and those distinguishing features which directly affect their care. This inevitably led to the ethical questions which arise from artifacts that have religious and cultural significance, especially to Native Americans. Such artifacts are often central to the collections of most American anthropology museums. The conflict between normal conservation practices and the principle of retaining evidence of use on anthropological material for future research was also treated. In addition, a conservator, as either staff member or consultant, brings to the museum a unique point of view on the artifacts with which the entire staff must deal. With the presence of a conservator, becomes an issue.

    reduction of light levels frequently

    The second section of the program focused directly on artifacts. A review of methods and materials needed for proper handling of artifacts was followed by basic data on the natural materials and the technology of fashioning them into the objects found in anthropological collections. Given the volume of anthropological collections and the diversity of materials found in those collections, the issues raised in this section carried through the remainder of the course. With a basic understanding of materials, artifact condition can be dealt with. Instruction in condition report writing, condition surveys and condition photography was provided from the conservators point of view, but specifically presented to best meet the needs of collection care-givers. Instruction in camera and lighting techniques was given on an individual basis and the photographs taken were critiqued. Objects used in photography also served as subjects of condition reports, written in the language of the conservator. In addition, matters to consider in doing or requesting a condition survey for a collection were discussed, and the new technology of the video camera as a method of condition survey was demonstrated.

    Monitoring and control of the museum environment filled one week of the course with varied and intense activity. Lectures treated the theoretical and scientific aspects of

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    relative humidity and temperature, light, pollution and pest management as elements of the museum environment. Practical solutions to the problems which arise were explored in exercises and practica. Participants worked with light-meters and hygrothermographs, examined specimens of the most common museum pests, and throughout the week monitored the temperature and humidity of the museum building. These hands-on activities with standard equipment built up confidence in their use and illustrated the value of monitoring systems.

    The topic of storage was treated from several points of view: the location of storerooms within the building and their proximity to other museum activities; the types of storage shelving and furniture available; and the characteristics of foams, plastics and other storage materials. Storage supports for diverse and difficult anthropological artifacts like textile fragments and weakened basketry were illustrated and their fabrication explained. The special problems of photograph collections, inventory methods and reversible artifact numbering techniques were also included as storage considerations, while, under the heading of risk management, disaster plans and building and exhibit security were treated. The use of artifacts in exhibits was extensively explored with the major focus on the compromises necessary to exhibit objects and yet minimize deterioration. Lectures discussed exhibition planning, which included conservation considerations and security in addition to aesthetics and education. A review of environmental concerns was followed by demonstrations-the use of silica gel and security devices, and the making of safe exhibit mounts. The newest theories on packing and shipping of anthropological artifacts and a practicum on making a safe shipping container concluded the section.

    For the final week the course concentrated on the documentation needs of artifacts. Legal questions as they relate to museum objects were extensively discussed, particularly in terms of the current discussion on repatriation of Native American materials. Methods of ensuring the safety of records were presented and the documentation files of each participating museum were reviewed for content, use and form. Manual documentation systems were compared with computerized systems, and the use of the computer as a record manager was treated with individualized instruction on a mini-computer. Participants experimented with the creation and manipulation of files based on their own museum collections in order to understand the advantages and disadvantages of computerization.

    The use of collections in research and education also received attention, particularly in relation to destructive testing of artifacts and to loans of objects to institutions other than museums. General museum safety, particularly for the museum employee, was also considered. Problems of building ventilation, chemical hazards, and measures to take to solve the problems were discussed. A segment on Grant Proposals, now a major factor in conservation and collections care funding, took the form of a panel discussion covering the basic principles of grantsmanship and a grant reviewers approach to federal grant proposals.

    Upgrading Professional Training

    The specific goal of the Arizona State Museum Pilot Training Course, as stated in the course announcement, was to upgrade professional training for museum staff responsible for archaeological and ethnological collections in order to achieve better care, documentation, accessibility, and use of anthropological collections. This goal had dual implications-training of individuals and an immediate effect on collections-whilst the


    All photos courtesy of Arizona State Museum, The University of Arizona (Helga Teiwes, Photo- grapher).

    (Above) Conservator Wendy Jessup (right fore- ground) examines with course participants speci- mens of the common insect pests found in museums.

    (Right) Claudine Scoville (Registrar, Arizona State Museum) and, to her left, Claudia Jacobson (Milwaukee Public Museum) practise using the copy stand for artifact condition photography.

    Conservator Nancy Odegaard (seated) dis- cusses the use of a modi- fied Oddy Test to verify the safety of materials used in displays and storage with Barbara Magid (Alexandria Archaeology) (left) and Patsy McMillan (Kla- math County Museum).

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    All photos courtesy of Arizona State Museum, The University of Arizona (Helga Teiwes, Photo- grapher).

    (Above) Vivian Adams (Yakima National Museum) examines an object in order to prepare a condition report.

    (Left) Conservation scientist R. Scott Williams guides Elva Younkin (Maturango Museum) in undertaking the Beilstein Test on storage mate- rials.

    Museum Data Manager Karen Lominac (stand- ing) directs Allyn Lord (University of Arkansas Museum) (left) and Claudine Scoville in the use of the computer for collections management.


    collections of participating museums were involved directly and immediately in the course through the role of the institution in the training. Applications were accepted only from institutions, not from individuals. Museums were required to nominate a collections staff member, and to participate by making a financial and administrative commitment to improving collections care-allowing a key staff member to be absent for two three-week periods is a commitment in itself. In addition, salary continuance for participants during the six weeks was requested, as was payment for travelling twice to the training site. While some institutions were unable to fund all these items completely, each made efforts to aid their employees. In addition, when applying, each institution was asked to describe the current status and needs of the collections and to specify a problem which could serve as a project for the course. This stipulation endeavored to make the training immediately effective in improving collections care, and by demanding institutional involvement created a program for the institution and the staff as a whole rather than one for the individual course participant only.

    Problem Projects

    The specific problem identified by the institution and the applicant became the Problem Project. Because of course scheduling, the project was centered on an environmental problem relating to either climatic conditions, light, pollution, disasters or biological agents. Specific projects included development of such schemes as: a plan to prevent earthquake damage in pottery storage; a plan of priorities of action for archaeological artifacts in deteriorating storage boxes; plans to stabilize the fluctuating environment of both temporary and permanent exhibits; and several plans for instituting an integrated pest-management program in storage. Each participant presented the specific problem to the instructional staff and other participants. The experience applied to each problem was thus multiplied by twenty. Consulting instructors who could offer special insight into solving the problem were recommended, and everyone who had worked with similar problems added the knowledge of experience.

    Throughout the initial three-week session, work on the projects continued with each participant using free time to discuss it with available personnel. The final afternoon of the first session was devoted to presentation of potential solutions, and the second session began with a report on progress made by each participant. Some participants had successfully implemented solutions to their problems. Some had tried several options but were unable to come to a final workable solution and considered work on the problem to be still in progress. Others had found new problems in their attempts to implement solutions to the original one. In general, institutional involvement in the problem project and immediate effects of the training on the collections were high in terms of this one specific matter. In addition, participants noted that the project was valuable to their institutions as a problem-solving exercise, bringing together administration, the care-givers and the collections. In some cases, the training course participation had the effect of motivating the administration by making them aware of conservation needs in exhibits which then carried over into needs in storage, all of which resulted in improvement of collections care.

    Course Results

    Such successes as are attributable to the training course were due to the enthusiasm and commitment of participants. Based on the experience of this course, people who become

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    collections care-givers are incredibly committed to their jobs. They willingly leave family and friends for three weeks-twice. They leave the work of their positions on hold for that time, knowing they will come back to the race of catching up. They come to a strange city and spend their days and nights on collections problems and solutions.

    Both three-week sessions were demanding. In addition to six hours of class, participants prepared for those classes with nightly reading assignments, usually a twenty-page minimum and frequently much more. During the classes, they not only listened and took notes, they worked in the practica and demonstrations. Most important to the development of the program, they evaluated it exhaustively. Apart from filling out formal evaluations of each instructor for each topic segment, they evaluated each three-week session, they evaluated the curriculum, and, three months after the course ended, they evaluated it one final time. They made many concrete suggestions for improving the curriculum, added pertinent bibliographic items, and brought the weight of their experience with museum problems to bear on the course as a whole. In some senses, they produced the final curriculum by giving it the reality of implementation.

    Participant is the most appropriate term to use in dealing with such people. Participation denotes active involvement and, given the object-basis of the training, ultimate success depended on the activity of the participants upon return to their home museums. Thus, program participants were not students with tests to pass or trainees receiving basic skill instruction. They were enthusiastic learners, curriculum developers and skill users at the same time. They felt a commitment to the project and to each other as colleagues to put forth their best efforts. In addition, since they and traveling consultants were all housed in the same facility, the individuals became a group very quickly and used that group nature to their advantage. As one participant put it, Its the only time in my life when Ive talked collections care day and night for six weeks.

    The teaching, learning and enthusiasm of everyone involved in the project has had far-reaching and immediate effects on the museum collections of the participants. Each individual returned home with resource materials which were shared with the museum staff and with neighboring institutions. These included several key texts, for example Garry Thomsons The Museum Environment, and a loose-leaf binder containing photocopied articles, so that organized by the specialized topics of discussion they have become part of the home museums reference center. These articles were of varying levels of technicality but contained practical recommendations which could be used in problem-solving. The other major reference given to participants was in the form of information brochures and catalogs of suppliers necessary for daily work in collections. With these resources, the effects of the course were: first, to improve participant work competence and performance; second, to create a museum reference center; and third, to create an area resource for neighboring museums. Sharing of information, while not stated as a goal originally, has become a major effect of the project, and well over fifty museums have already been reached by the thirty project participants, many of whom have also given presentations to local and regional museum groups.

    In their judgment of the course value, participants were equally enthusiastic.

    After four years of working with collections, I finally feel that I have the background I need to perform my duties intelligently and with decreased risk of causing harm.

    The course covered every topic Ive run up against during seven years on the job-plus a few I was unaware of and needed to be. The curriculum was extensive, thorough, and addressed topics at an advanced level.


    To say that the course upgraded our professional training is an understatement at best. Additionally, the fact that the course was designed for people directly responsible for collections is a major factor in the achievement of the goals which the Bay Foundation set for upgrading collections care.

    The specific benefits to the collections of the participating museums can be measured by a listing of the types of changes which occured as a direct result of the course. Major improvements occurred generally in conditioning and environmental monitoring. Specific changes occurring as a result of both pilot course (twenty-six museums reporting) include those listed in Appendix 2. The numbers indicate the number of museums which have experienced the changes as a direct result of the training received.

    Training with immediate results is possible in museums today. With a coherent unified curriculum and participants who are the actual care-givers, change will take place and the collections will become accessible and useful.

    Appendix 1

    Topics and Allotted Hours for the Second Pilot Course

    Curriculum Topics Time allotted (hours)

    Nature of anthropological collections Principles and ethics of collections care Staff relations Access to and Use of collections Artifact handling Artifact materials and technology Condition surveys Condition reports Condition photography Grant proposals Environmental monitoring and control:

    Storerooms Climatic conditions Light Pollution Biological agents Use of monitoring records

    Storage considerations: Furniture Materials Special supports Photo Collections Inventory Artifact numbering

    Museum safety Use of collections in exhibits Artifact packing and shipping Artifact mount making Legal issues Care of records Information concepts and computer

    introduction Analysis of documents Systems analysis Computer practicum Institutional responsibility towards

    ethnic groups

    4.5 6 3 3 1.5 9 3 4.5

    10.5 3

    6 6 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.5 6

    12 6 6 6 3


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    Appendix 2

    Museums Experiencing Changes Resulting from Pilot Course Participation

    Numbers of Museums

    Changes Experienced

    15 17 6 8

    22 16 7

    19 16 18 14 12 16 9

    18 10 17 9 4

    14 11 9

    12 6

    13 14 15 18 7 9

    11 6

    13 7

    10 4 5 4 6 5 7 9 9

    10 10 15 12 11 10 11 10 13 12

    Increased staff awareness of the nature of anthropological collections Increased staff and administration awareness of the ethics of collections care Policy statement on the ethics of collection care written Staff relations examined and discussed Training provided in handling artifacts for staff, volunteers, and visiting researchers Use of gloves in handling artifacts instituted Improved identification of artifact materials Condition survey planned or undertaken Writing of condition reports undertaken Improved object condition reports Condition photographs taken Conservation treatment of artifacts planned or undertaken Grant proposals for collections care initiated or improved Monitoring of temperature instituted Monitoring of temperature improved Monitoring of RH instituted Monitoring of RH improved Monitoring for pollution instituted Monitoring for pollution improved Monitoring for pests instituted Monitoring for pests improved Monitoring of exhibit light levels instituted Reduction of exhibit light and heat levels Reduction of storage light levels Reduction of UV levels in exhibits and/or storage Storage furniture or equipment improved or replaced Archival storage products used Storage containerization improved Storage micro-environments instituted Archaeological bulk storage improved Artifact labeling methods improved Labeling of chemicals used in museum Use of product data sheets instituted Safety procedures instituted for use and storage of dangerous substances Improvements made to facilities to create a safer work place Creation of a museum Health and Safety Committee Disaster plan instituted or initiated Fire drills conducted Exhibit planning changed to include collections personnel Exhibit security devices installed or planned Exhibit security devices improved Building security improved or planned Exhibit mounting procedures improved Exhibit mounts improved Artifact packing materials improved Artifact packing methods improved Procedures for supervising use of collections improved Procedures for responding to requests for use improved Organization of collections documentation files improved Preservation of records improved Collections retrieval system improved Forms improved Computer use improved

    Photo credits. Photographs reproduced courtesy of the Arizona State Museum, The University of Arizona (Photographer, Helga Teiwes).


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