Cleaning museum storage room

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    • #133434

      We (two staff members and a group of volunteers) are planning to clean our museum storage room next month. It is packed to the rafters with artifacts of all sorts, and very little of it is organized by item. Some items have accession numbers and some don’t. We have boxes of donated items that have never been gone through. Has anyone tackled a project like this? Any ideas for organizing my volunteer helpers? I’m worried we’ll have 10 people standing over a box, wondering what to do with the contents.

    • #133446

      I have been working on this type of organizing for our Hist. Soc. for several years. We are only 2 or 3 of us working a couple hours a week to sort out items with and without accession numbers (and items with accession numbers in the accession book but not actually on the item), with the goal of entering it all into Past Perfect software. We are mostly a paper archive, with limited artifacts. I had volunteers make a list of what was in each container (drawer/box), adding accession numbers if known. A copy of this list went into the container and another copy into a binder. On the other end, a volunteer typed (how quaint) index cards for each item with an accession number. It has been a very slow process to match up the items to their cards & donors while still keeping our archive open for researchers. (I am not a trained professional archivist, although I have taken some workshops.) We also had a C.A.P.E.S. survey done by a professional who volunteers her time to that group. Her report helped guide us on the conservation/preservation side so that we properly store the items once processed.

    • #133445

      Don’t try to do too much at once. Clean a few shelves first so you’ll have places to move things to and make sure you have good enough light. Have a HEPA vacuum nearby. Set up guidelines in advance or after you look at a few things, like: accessioned material on one shelf, materials that you own but don’t have numbers, on another, and a separate space for more recent donations that you’re not sure you want to keep. After you work for a couple of hours, perhaps, stop sorting and deal with each group separately – take digital photos of the un-numbered pieces and put temporary numbers in the photos so you don’t have to keep referring to the objects. Make sure you don’t accession donations until you are sure they really belong in your collection. Once you have some items that you have questions about, write down the questions and try to set guidelines to make decision consistent: what are the alternatives, who shares the decision-making, etc. You want to group things so that you can make decisions for a whole group of things at once rather than making them one at a time.

    • #133444
      Lois J Wolf
      Participant

      I did this for 10 years at the Historical Museum where I used to work.. There were upwards of 30,000 to 50,000 artifacts. I would go througn and separate out the accessioned artifacts first and you may need to re-mark them archivally. They would be the fastest to get rid of. It depends on how your information is organized. We had physical cards as well as artifacts on a computer collections program. Go for the easiest to locate first or the stuff that seems easily recognizable. Your volunteers may have different abilities also. Some may be good for faster physical marking of the collections and others may be better at finding collections and donors (research). I would save the problem boxes for last, perhaps giving them a cursory look, and assigning someone to research the kind of collecton it is, or the donors to come up with a match. (of course that doesn’t always happen. I remember a collection of clothing that just said “trunk of old clothing” Try to figure that one out. A horror story happened when, one of the collections on long time loan (before my watch, we didn’t do that) was a local collection of spearheads and arrow points that was never marked and just thrown in with other unmarked, similar stone pieces. The son of the deceased donor wanted the collection back, and so the collections people at that time went through and said….Well, he had two of these and three of those” They were not id’d well enough on the accession cards. So, there you go. We all have those nightmares.

    • #133443
      Lois J Wolf
      Participant

      I did this for 10 years at the Historical Museum where I used to work.. There were upwards of 30,000 to 50,000 artifacts. I would go througn and separate out the accessioned artifacts first and you may need to re-mark them archivally. They would be the fastest to get rid of. It depends on how your information is organized. We had physical cards as well as artifacts on a computer collections program. Go for the easiest to locate first or the stuff that seems easily recognizable. Your volunteers may have different abilities also. Some may be good for faster physical marking of the collections and others may be better at finding collections and donors (research). I would save the problem boxes for last, perhaps giving them a cursory look, and assigning someone to research the kind of collecton it is, or the donors to come up with a match. (of course that doesn’t always happen. I remember a collection of clothing that just said “trunk of old clothing” Try to figure that one out. A horror story happened when, one of the collections on long time loan (before my watch, we didn’t do that) was a local collection of spearheads and arrow points that was never marked and just thrown in with other unmarked, similar stone pieces. The son of the deceased donor wanted the collection back, and so the collections people at that time went through and said….Well, he had two of these and three of those” They were not id’d well enough on the accession cards. So, there you go. We all have those nightmares.

    • #133442

      I am in the process of a 3-5 year project of doing this very thing at our museum which houses over 500,000 artifacts, many of them painstakingly small! I agree with working on the accessioned artifacts first because their information is more readily available by computer. We have several interns and one volunteer who (when available) work with me going through boxes of artifacts just checking to see if each item was photographed, and whether they are in the documented home location. This saves me a lot of time to work on the ones that either have no accession number at all, or some other issue. Once a box is complete I create a report of all the items in that box, and then if an item is added at a later time, it is easy to update. I know it is going to be a slow process, but the goal is achievable… one day at a time!

    • #133441
      Ramona Duncan-Huse
      Participant

      These are all great comments, I have created an outline of an activity plan based on all of these comments and some from my own experience that may prove useful.

      • SCENARIO: We (two staff members and a group of volunteers) are planning to clean our museum storage room next month. It is packed to the rafters with artifacts of all sorts, and very little of it is organized by item. Some items have accession numbers and some don’t. We have boxes of donated items that have never been gone through. Has anyone tackled a project like this? Any ideas for organizing my volunteer helpers? I’m worried we’ll have 10 people standing over a box, wondering what to do with the contents. C2C July 17, 2012
      ACTIVITY PLAN based on comments:
      1. Assemble volunteers who will commit to the project over a number of months for consistent and reliable help. Use their individual strengths throughout the project. Some may be good at physical handling and base-line cleaning, tagging and storing, others good at research (looking up records, computer entry, etc.)
      2. Assemble equipment you will need: HEPA vacuum with adjustable suction, ladders, carts, padded tables or other work surfaces, good light source, digital camera, computers, pencils, papers for notes, etc.
      3. Designate a work area for base-line cleaning (vacuuming) and temporary storage.
      4. Think about what you have in the way of a collections numbering system. Are there several systems that were used over the years? Develop some guidelines that take your particular situation into account. If there are items or boxes without any identification it may be good to first start with accessioned items to help establish for everyone the kind of information that has been gathered in the past, whether more info is needed (a signed donor form, for instance). Create a form that will best assist your fact finding process and document the item at the same time.
      5. Set up guidelines in advance or after you look at a few things, like: accessioned material on one shelf, materials that you own but don’t have numbers, on another, and a separate space for more recent donations that you’re not sure you want to keep.
      6. After you work for a couple of hours, perhaps, stop sorting and deal with each group separately – take digital photos of the un-numbered pieces and put temporary numbers in the photos so you don’t have to keep referring to the objects.
      7. Make sure you don’t accession donations until you are sure they really belong in your collection. Once you have some items that you have questions about, write down the questions and try to set guidelines to make decision consistent: what are the alternatives, who shares the decision-making, etc. You want to group things so that you can make decisions for a whole group of things at once rather than making them one at a time.
      8. Workings with accessioned items first;
       make a list of what was in each container (drawer/box), adding accession numbers if known.
       Maintain coordinated lists and create a numbered copy.
       Match up the items to their cards & to donors.
       If accession numbers differ over the years, try to incorporate the previous accession number into whatever newer accession number format you decide to use. That way the information that corresponds to the former number can be carried over to your official accession file.
      9. Carefully vacuum the items in the numbered group but assess the label; if it could be damaged by simple handling make a hangtag from acid-free card stock and carefully loop the tag in place. If many small parts are present, consider numbering the batch and place the batch inside a safe, temporary storage container. Consider taking a photo of the item or group of items that are numbered. Include the temporary number in the photograph, and label the photo file with that temporary number. Update the file once all of the donor research is complete.
      10. Save the problem boxes for last, (no accession number, no donor info, etc.) perhaps giving them a cursory look, and assigning a volunteer to research the kind of collection it is, or the donors to come up with a match.
      11. Develop storage areas as you go if space is an issue – but take format and type of material into account. Large items will need adequate space for safe storage, but also safe retrieval.
      12. As information is compiled, enter it into a collections software program such as Past Perfect. You don’t need to fill out absolutely every aspect of the form to complete an entry; just recording what you know is important: establish an accession number, a donor when known, material type, any aspect of provenance (date, when used, by whom, etc.) an photograph.
      This list was established by referencing the comments from C2C website stated for the scenario stated above:

    • #133440
      Leslie Wyman
      Participant

      We are in the process of doing the same thing. We had a basic inventory from when we applied for our CAP grant, but had nothing accessioned other than our research library books. Nothing was tagged, but for the last few years, we did have donation receipt forms for most things. (We’re a 51 year old historical society with lots of old minutes and reports from our history, but NO reports showing who donated what for the first 47 years…)

      During our fantastic CAP Assessment last year, the conservators were able to draw up a plan to help us reconfigure our space better, and this spring, we built a larger, more-secure collection storage room based on those plans. I also recently went on backroom tours of our state archives, and two museums to help me envision how to best store everything.

      So, we now have gathered most of our items and have them stored in the new office (some larger items are housed in an offsite historic building we lease at present). The best thing we’ve done lately with this project is hired a history-major college student for the summer. She attends College of the Ozarks near here, which has the students work on campus, and her work/training has been in the Ralph Foster Museum doing registrar work. This is a great opportunity for us to have someone in for the summer with some background training who’s dedicated to the project, and gives her the experience for her resume (as well as a little spending money)!

      Her involvement with the process has also rejuvenated our volunteers in this area, and I look forward to seeing how much we accomplish by fall! We only have her for five weeks, but is making a huge dent in the project, so that we anticipate our volunteers being able to complete it, and stay on track, once she’s back in school.

    • #133439
      Randi Smith
      Member

      Your plan looks pretty good. Treat the project a little like archeology- associations of materials may be important in figuring out things in the end. There may be clues in what is next to each other, dates on the newspaper packing materials, address labels, etc. Your container inventories should establish this record- I’ve rarely, if ever, felt I recorded too much info. You should probably record where the container was. Photo the space as you go- that may also provide clues. Parts of things may be separated, so be alert to what might go together. Temporary numbers and tags can help with tracking. Getting an overall feeling for the room contents can help, too, before you delve into the details. Have fun!

    • #133438
      Ramona Duncan-Huse
      Participant

      I have added your comments to my personal file on this issue – it is really good to mention the clues and associations aspect. The location of the container may be critical in the discovery of other associations. Thank you!

    • #133437
      Melissa Houston
      Participant

      I echo what Kathleen Malcolm wrote. In addition, though I understand the sentiment of dividing what has numbers from what does not, I would take a careful look at the collection before you separate items. We have been working on an inventory of our collection (one hasn’t been completed since 1989 and our institution has been around since 1893) and one thing that has been lost is “original order”. Sometimes a donor gives items in a specific order for a reason and sometimes through the course of time those reasons are lost or the items are no longer together and they loose some of their meaning. When we were looking at our Civil War collection for example, we had a photograph, three diaries, and a uniform from the same soldier donated in 1921. But only the photograph had a number and it had been “organized” with other numbered photographs. It took some considerable work to get the artifacts back together since little was known about any of them, but you can see how having them together makes a better “box” than having them all separated either by category or by numbered/unnumbered. Needless to say, it is a SLOW and painful, though rewarding, job. So best of luck!

    • #133436

      Thank you, everyone, for your suggestions. A special thanks to Ramona for compiling the comments into an activity plan!

    • #133435
      Paul Shea
      Member

      A year and a half ago we found ourselves having to empty out our museum due to a major re-construction of the interior of the building and putting in a HVAC system. We had approximately six months to move some 40,000 items into storage. This is a 35 year old museum that was run by volunteers for the first 30 years. There were good inventories with deeds of gifts, but no locations had been noted.

      First we mapped out the museum by exhibit room and landings. Then we field inventoried every item in each room and landing. This included, location, photo, cleaning, packaging and location moved to. We also used a color code system to sort each object. Green: extreme importance to our county history and families. Orange: importance to our local regional and state history. Red: no historical significance to us at all.

      We re-exhibited our museum after construction, keeping track, by paper, of where each object came from and what exhibit it was put in. Since then we have been working with the inventories to match up items with deeds of gift inventories. Probably 20-30 percent of the items had some sort of number or identification on it. The rest has been a big game of find the object in the data base, or written log.

      This project was done with the two museum staff members and about 25 volunteers. Although we do not by and measure have everything matched up with a record, we do know, now, what we have and were it is at.

      It will be an ongoing process to match up all items with it’s record, but you have to start somewhere.

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