Post-its never die; they just fade away

A fascinating experiment on light damage

by Judith Haemmerle, Executive Director
Digital Game Museum, Santa Clara, California

In our startup video game museum, everything is done by volunteers on a ridiculously limited budget. So it’s always a balance between collections care and – well, everything else. My biggest anxiety last year was light damage.

We removed half the fluorescent bulbs in the collections area and covered the remaining ones with UV shields; not too expensive, and it was work that was easy to get done. But the big expanse of glass in the room where we install our exhibits remained unprotected. No one was willing to tackle the exacting job of applying UV film, and having it done was far too costly, especially in a facility we were renting short term. We put in a display of items of interest but easily replaceable, and I worried about light. Then one day, our past stepped in to help.

The first public event we did involved a 10′x10′ space that would be difficult to tempt visitors into, so we stopped every passerby we could and had them write the name of their favorite video game on a colored Post-it note, plus the year they were born in. This was, of course, completely for fun and not real research, but there were some interesting things we found nonetheless. 1 We put the notes on the back wall grouped by decade, and it proved to be eye catching display. And we added hundreds of people to our new mailing list, so it was a very effective strategy.

The Post-it wall, photo by Brian Quan

The Post-it wall, photo by Brian Quan

There were piles of leftover Post-it notes; we bought a lot of them to get a good selection of colors. And one day, while worrying about light, I took a sheet of cardboard from the back of a pad of notebook paper and lined up the different colored Post-its so that they would be half behind the cardboard and half exposed. I also overlapped them for no particular reason. And then I hung it in the window.

Months went by. I don’t know how many, because I forgot to date it. I’d guess six or eight. We finally bought shielding, even though no one wanted to install it, and I took down the Post-it note color fade tester and asked our photographer to take some pictures of it. The photos that follow show the before and afters.

Post-its from the outside, photo by Brian Quan

Post-its from the outside, photo by Brian Quan

The photo above is what it looked like from the outside of the window when I took it down. The photo below is what it looked like when we flipped back the notes to compare the part protected by the cardboard with the part in the sun.

Faded post-its, photo by Brian Quan

Faded Post-its, photo by Brian Quan

The contrast between the original colors and the part exposed to sunlight is striking, and this is the back of the notes; the fading went right through to the back. The different colors that overlapped even reacted together, so that the orange lying on the blue not only faded to yellow, it also picked up a greenish tinge from the blue. Some of the pink and fuchsia are faded almost to white; those were two different colors when we started: a plain pink and a bright fuchsia.

Overlapping Post-its, photo by Brian Quan

Overlapping Post-its, photo by Brian Quan

I showed it to the volunteers, and the window shielding went up quickly! We keep the Post-it fade tester in the museum and show it to visitors when explaining the importance of conservation and collections care. Sometimes, the simplest materials can solve your biggest problems.

  1. First, the game chosen by the oldest (over 60) and the youngest (5) participants was the same game – Angry Birds! Second, the decade of people born in the 1960s chose a lot of arcade games. There weren’t any before then, and they fell off sharply after 1970. For those of you who like raw data, it’s available here.

Changing of the Guards – A Homage to Mentors

image by contagiousbasti via pixabayThis is a special Tuesday. Today, we celebrate the retirement of my former professor Hans Wilderotter and this means that an era comes to an end. Now, I could take a nostalgic review because back in 1998 when I took museum studies this degree program was rather young, at least in Western Germany, the first graduates had just left the University of Applied Sciences “Fachhochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft” in Berlin. Many things were still in progress and it would be easy to glorify the good old days as a student, which would have presumably as little to do with reality as all the other good old school, post-war or any other days.

But there are things I took away from my studies, far from the professional aspects. Facts are just a small part of the taught contents, no matter if it’s a school, university or workplace. A more significant impact has the personality of the one who teaches on those who are learning. Said in a minor modification of Karl Valentin’s 1 remark: “Teaching people is useless, they will imitate you, anyway.” In spite of yourself you adopt certain quirks and idioms, adopt a certain way of seeing things or ways of solving problems. And if one of those adopted strategies lead to success, you are tempted to credit this to your own cleverness and experience. But if you are really honest and listen closely you hear the voice of a mentor. For some it is a Smith or a Miller, for me it’s an Einholz or a Wilderotter.

What they say in detail, I won’t reveal here. But I want to say “Thank You!” at this point. First of all of course to Professor Sibylle Einholz, who went into a well-deserved retirement last year, and to Professor Wilderotter. But also to all those around the world who took up the responsibility to teach people and who are passionately committed to it. That’s not only professors. There are teachers, trainers, masters or simply colleagues who pass on their knowledge and know-how. What separates you from the rest is the enthusiasm and passion for your profession as well as for the mentoring of others. How great your impact is will be realized by your students and mentorees much later – and it is likely that you’ll never know.

I wish to those who fill the shoes of my professors in the museum studies program in Berlin the same enthusiasm and courage, the same energy and eagerness to experiment but also the mental balance and endurance of their predecessors.

And of course, I wish all who have the possibility to take part in tonight’s celebration a great party and much fun!

Angela Kipp

  1. Karl Valentin: Bavarian author and humorist who said: “It is useless to educate children, they will imitate you, anyway.”

Dust: Arch Enemy and Artwork

Staub aus dem Naturkundemuseum (c) Klaus Pichler

Dust from a museum of natural history
(c) Klaus Pichler

Day in, day out collections staff is fighting against dust. We wrap artwork, dinosaurs, cars and coffee makers, sometimes we even put old cardboard boxes into new archival boxes. We do everything to keep our arch enemy, the mighty dust, away from our artifacts. And while we brush, wipe and vacuum I bet it never occurred to one of us that this evildoer could have an aesthetic aspect.

But photographer Klaus Pichler, whom we already know from his series “Skeletons in the Closet”, has now captured this aesthetic aspect of dust. Fascinated by the difference between the dust from a natural history museum and a fashion shop I asked him how he got the idea:

Klaus Pichler:
“The idea for this project came by coincidence: I moved from my old apartment and while I was clearing the space I realized the dust in the living room was red and the one in the bedroom was blue. This astonished me and I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so I decided to look into it and to study dust systematically, especially the notorious “dust bunnies”, agglomerations of dust. Right from the start it was my plan to create an archive of dust that should contain dust from a wide range of areas from our society and that all dust samples should be photographed. To decide on which places to collect dust I took the model of the basic living needs (reside, work, recreation, traffic,…) and used it to decide roughly the weighting of the places that should be included in this project. And then the time had come: I went dust hunting!

Staub aus einem Modegeschäft  (c) Klaus Pichler

Dust from a fashion shop
(c) Klaus Pichler

I guess you can imagine the reactions I got when I (without advanced notification, I like to add!) showed up in different shops, apartments, museums, schools, restaurants, etc. I was interested in and asked them permission to search for dust. Especially, as I didn’t go much into detail why I was doing this, but as soon as I got the permission began crawling on all fours, searching for dust bunnies. For many people confronted with my wish it was surely one of the stranger requests in their professional life…

The dust samples I discovered (I tried to collect different samples in every room but always kept only one) went to my dust archive. I cataloged them with consistent categories (date, place, address, description, catalog number) and archived them in numbered petri dishes. Every time I had 25 new samples I made a photo session where I photographed them all at the same conditions with a high-resolution macro camera. The results of my activities as a collector can be found in the book “Dust” that is out now.”

What is it that fascinates you about dust which is for most of us – especially registrars – only an annoyance?

Klaus Pichler:

Staub aus einem Kunstmuseum (c) Klaus Pichler

Dust from an art museum
(c) Klaus Pichler

“When I started this project I expected that there would be a certain range of dust but by the best stretch of my imagination I didn’t anticipate what I discovered then: every dust was different and not a bit of the monochrome dust I expected. Quite the contrary, the different dust bunnies often had a rich coloring, some in one primary color, some mixed in color, some harmonic, some dissonant in terms of color. This was matched by the irritating variety of ingredients – from fibers and hairs to parts that pointed to the purpose of the room the dust was formed in. Pieces of popcorn in cinema dust, dead insects in the dust from the entomology department of the natural history museum, breadcrumbs in the dust from the bakery. Sometimes it’s nearly possible to decide where the dust comes from by looking at the ingredients and the color of the dust, because every room produces an unique kind of dust due to it’s design and purpose. For me all of this was extremely fascinating.

That’s why I’d like to give you this little piece of advice: Next time you are sweeping dust, take a moment and a strong flashlight, guide the beam to the dust bunnies and dive into the fascinating world of dust.”

Thank you for the opportunity to see our dust with different eyes!

The book “Dust”:

Dust_Book-003Hardcover wrapped with 2mm textile and flocked ‘Dust’ logo, handmade, 30x30cm (open: 30x60cm), 102 pages (4 pages transparent paper, 98 pages uncoated paper), 45 images. Including a folded poster, 50x70cm, printed on uncoated paper.
First edition, 2015. Limited to 450 hand numbered and signed copies.
Can be ordered via the author’s website:

Art work, Artefact, Auto, and Pop-Culture Shrine, Part 2

Transport and Exhibit of the John Lennon Rolls Royce

By Derek Swallow – Royal BC Museum

Suffocating from a feeling of impending failure I drew in a deep breath, exhaling slowly. Relax, I murmured. I’m just responsible for moving a car from our collection for exhibit in Montreal with a few complicating factors: the car is a vintage Rolls Royce, once owned and driven in by Beatles legend John Lennon; the entire body forms a metal “canvas” for an original oil painting; it’s 2700 kg weight precludes it moving without functioning brakes – these only operate with the motor running; the car needs engine and other mechanical work; in addition our conservation team discovered flaking surface paint AND we have less than five weeks before the Rolls must be at the borrowing museum. The start date was non-negotiable. Okay, let’s do this I thought optimistically. I shot a call to our Rolls mechanic, mustered one of our conservation interns, who coincidentally specialized in painted metal. Parts were ordered and the restoration of the cars surface began.

Now for the transport plan: initially, it literally involved thinking “inside the box”. We decided to crate the car, move it on an extra heavy duty, brake-equipped dolly and minimize ground transport risk by flying the vehicle to Montreal. Good plan? No. The proposed crate size would only fit on an “air freighter”; the closest service was Seattle. This meant transporting the crate off the island, where Victoria is located, crossing the border into the US and flying the car back into Canada – a logistical and bureaucratic nightmare. In addition, a second scan of the borrower’s Facility Report revealed that the crated vehicle would exceed the size of their largest receiving door. Feeling more than just a bit unsettled I called our Rolls mechanic to ask for his advice. He suggested contracting a ground transport firm specializing in moving ultra-luxury and multi-million dollar race cars. I madly researched, found and booked such a carrier. A couple of weeks sped by, organizing logistics, loan agreements, insurance. The pickup date was now one week away. Conservation work was progressing well; the worst areas were stabilized but lack of time prohibited completing the work. We had counted on this since the only climate controlled vehicle in the transport fleet had been booked six months beforehand. A frantic call went out to our national conservation institute asking how this type of paint on metal might react to the rapid variations in temperature and relative humidity which the truck and cargo would encounter on the cross-country trek. Weather wise there couldn’t have been a worse month to transport in Canada. The Canadian Conservation Institute responded rapidly indicating the unusual paint formula was ordinarily applied only to wood. However, their final determination, though not definitive, indicated the paint should hold up under these conditions. There was a collective sigh of relief, tempered with unease. I phoned our mechanic. The parts were to arrive Thursday. Thursday? The transport truck would be here early the following Tuesday morning. Can you fix the car in time, I asked hopefully? Shouldn’t be a problem was the response – another hesitant sign of relief.

Rolls load – RBCM secure storage

Rolls load – RBCM secure storage

Tuesday morning arrived. The parts had come, the repairs made, the car tested and ready for loading. The transport truck pulled in and lowered its lift gate. The driver stepped down from his cab, eyed the Rolls, looked quizzical and said: how long is this vehicle’s wheel-base again? All eyes turned and collectively the entire teams’ hearts stopped momentarily and this horrifying thought crept into everyone mind simultaneously: the Rolls is too long for the lift gate. Tape measures appeared and measurements taken. The result, the car should just fit. Our mechanic stepped into the Rolls and confidently but carefully edged the car forward into position. It worked. The tires were blocked the vehicle lifted, then driven on board and secured at the wheels.

The driver locked the cargo door, sprung into his cab and the cross-country journey began. We maintained regular communication with the driver who reported good conditions until near the end of his journey when the weather forecast threatened the onset of a huge weather system, with high winds and snow predicted to sweep down from the NW on an interception path with his vehicle. The driver recommended pushing on to out run the storm. It was this, or wait out the storm and miss the delivery deadline. Assured he had recently rested we gave the go ahead.

heavy duty dollies

heavy duty dollies

On March 4th, late in the afternoon, 8 hours behind schedule he maneuvered his cumbersome vehicle through the constricted downtown streets of Montreal. Beforehand Montreal police were summoned to secure the area; block off critical streets and do crowd control and museum staff gathered in anticipation of the trucks arrival. The staff, equipped with beautiful high load bearing dollies had anticipated the need to push the Rolls from the truck, along the street, and up the steel ramp into the museum.
Our Rolls mechanic and head objects conservation, who flew out earlier, explained that hand pushing would damage the body and only one method could be used: driving the vehicle into place. The road was wet and salted, creating the need to cover the path before moving the vehicle. Blankets, plastic, foam packing material was scavenged from the truck and museum but the quantity was insufficient.
off  load

off load

In desperation someone began “excavating” in a nearby dumpster and discover a huge roll of orange plastic, more than sufficient to do the job.
Once in place our mechanic cautiously started the car, backed it out and off of the truck, then maneuvered it down the street to the museum entrance. Then another heart stopping moment – the Rolls looked too large for the entrance. But we knew the entrance size in advance and we used the dimensions of the car provided in the catalogue description. People with tape measures swung into action. With a self-satisfied grin one staff member turned and proclaimed that we had a whole 10 cms of clearance on either side of the car. Some say collections managers are obsessive about accuracy when documenting the size and details related to collections objects. Thank goodness this statement proved true.
into the museum

into the museum

The next challenge for our mechanic was to finesse the large vehicle through the extremely tight space. It proved a challenging few minutes with people shouting instructions and tensions rising but the vehicle moved unscathed into the exhibit hall.
Maneuvering the car rapidly into its exhibit position onto reinforced plates became the next urgent task. Most of the floating floor tiles supported a maximum of 567 kgs while the load on the individual Roll’s tires was 680 kgs each. Almost immediately after the car entered the hall the regular floor tiles showed initial signs of buckling. The car threatened the possibly collapse of the floor. The museum staff flooded down to the carpentry shop returning with sheets of plywood. Hastily the Rolls was driven onto them thereby safely distributing the weight, eliminating the hazard. Now, how can the car be moved into place? A creative solution coupling technology and brute force was concocted.
creative moving technique

creative moving technique

GoJacks with racket straps attached were placed under each wheel. The team then manually pulled the car over the plywood sheeting and into position adjacent to the reinforced tiles. The Rolls mechanic quickly but accurately drove the car so all four tires rested on the target tiles. It was in position. Yes! Now concern turned to the condition of the painted surface. How serious was the impact of the volatile and dramatic temperature and RH changes? A local paintings conservator, on hand to do the incoming condition report examined the surface carefully and found the paint undamaged.

We did it. We made the target date. The car was in place 24 hours before the special opening for the province of Quebec’s two most powerful politicians: the Premier and the Lieutenant Governor.
All of the hard work and planning, backed by brilliantly accurate cataloguing, tempered with innovative problem solving led to the success of this project. (history of the Rolls and install)

This is my last article for RegTrek. I want to thank the RegTrek team for their hard work and support and especially Angela Kipp for her energy and enthusiasm in spearheading this brilliant project. I want to wish everyone a fond fairwell as I transition to a new career: teaching English as a Second Language, and ESL material and curriculum development. I wish everyone the best in moving this amazing venture, RegTrek, forward, and I thank you for allowing me to participate.

Best regards.

Derek Swallow, Senior Registrar, Royal BC Museum.

Art work, Artefact, Auto, and Pop-Culture Shrine

Transport and Exhibit of the John Lennon Rolls Royce, Part 1

By Derek Swallow – Royal BC Museum

Lennon Rolls – RBCM 992.66.2 Collection Royal British Columbia Museum - RBCM

Lennon Rolls – RBCM 992.66.2 Collection
Royal British Columbia Museum – RBCM

Dedication: To the team of Nordic registrars who sponsored the fabulous European Registrar’s Conference, 2014, I attended in Helsinki, Finland and to all collections managers who measure their artefacts with precise accuracy (see part two of this article).


rolls2The rumor percolated through the museum for nearly a month then reality slammed home while scanning my email that cold late January morning of 2013. My eye caught the subject line: Loan Lennon Rolls. I hesitated then opened and read the message. So it’s true, we have five weeks to plan and transport the Rolls from here to Montreal. It’s huge and heavy: 6 meters long and 2.2 meters wide weighing 2,700 kgs. It has to travel 5000 kms., cross country, during Canada’s most severe winter month, possibly through fierce cold, driving blizzards and on treacherous highways. I drew a deep breath, concerned partly with the tight time-line, the vehicle’s mass, potential hazards caused by inclement weather, but also due to my lack of experience with a project like this one. Despite decades of coordinating hundreds of loans I’ve never done a car before. This unease escalated, knowing this was also no typical museum-collected car, representative of its time period, style, and make. This vehicle, a venerated pop-cultural icon and an original work of art, made it unique and precious beyond its appraised value.

The John Lennon Rolls Royce:

A working automobile:

Beatles in the Rolls at Buckingham Palace Oct. 26,1965

Beatles in the Rolls at Buckingham Palace Oct. 26,1965

This fully functioning, 1965 Rolls-Royce Phantom Touring Limousine, now catalogued and in the collection of the Royal BC Museum, originally owned by rock music legend John Lennon, transported the Beatles around for three years.

Pop-Cultural Icon:

John Lennon in the Rolls in Spain Oct.1966

John Lennon in the Rolls in Spain Oct.1966

The 60s generation elevated Lennon and the other group members to the stratum of popular cultural “demi-gods”. To some their physical presence within the vehicle transferred to it such a power of association that it took on a “shrine” like quality. In later years, the vehicle, lent for use by such musical superstars as the Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues and Bob Dylan, only enhanced its mystical quality.

Work of Art:

John and Julian Lennon beside Rolls 1967

John and Julian Lennon beside Rolls 1967

In 1967, Lennon chose to transform this expensive yet utilitarian object into a work of art. He commissioned artist Steve Weaver to convert the somber “valentine black” body of the car into an explosively vibrant painting. Weaver primed his metal “canvas” with several coats of chrome yellow paint then for six weeks applied by hand bold motifs inspired by Romani designs using strident colours akin to the saturated pigments found in “psychedelic” art, a popular European style in the 1960’s. The end product, with designs flowing over the entire body of the car, was a powerful, unique composition. This transformation created more than just a three-dimensional work of art. The Rolls Royce, a quintessential emblem of prestige and traditional “establishment” now morphed into a powerful symbol of 1960s counter-culture and a striking icon of anti-establishment values. The Beatles were destined to represent a generation of youth eager to flaunt the “establishment” and kindled the phenomenon called “Beatle mania”.

Association with the Nordic Countries:

Beatles in Copenhagen at the KB June 4th, 1964

Beatles in Copenhagen at the KB June 4th, 1964

In 1963 “Beatle mania” swept Great Britain and surged north to this beautiful Nordic region. Karlstad, Sweden was chosen as the first stop outside the UK. For five days the pop group toured even appearing on Swedish TV. Also, in 1963, the youth of only one world country pushed the seminal Beatles song “Twist and Shout” to the top of the music charts. That country was Finland. and shout video). On June 4th ,2014, Beatles enthusiasts in Denmark celebrated the 50th anniversary of the group’s concert in Copenhagen, the city which was the official launch point of the Beatles two year “World Tour”. (video of the Beatles in Denmark)
Despite their British origin, the Beatles, their music, and the “Beatle mania” phenomenon remains an enduring part of the 60’s pop cultural history of Scandinavia, Europe, and North America and the Lennon Rolls itself, one of its most recognized symbols and icons. The Royal BC Museum cares for the Rolls not just for the people of British Columbia, or Canada, but for the entire world. (Victoria news cast about the Rolls)

The move of the Lennon Rolls from the Royal BC Museum, in Victoria to Montreal, Quebec was to showcase this icon as part of the anniversary of “Beatle mania” and the group’s concert in Montreal during their “World Tour”. It also was a celebration of the Beatles for the entire world.


Images from Pointe-à-Callière website:

Images from Pointe-à-Callière website:

Read Part 2: The Transport of the John Lennon Rolls Royce…

Happy 2nd Birthday, Registrar Trek!

Good news: we are entering the third year of Registrar Trek!

2nd_birthdaySo, after we looked back on a tremendous year 2014 recently, what does 2015 have in store?

It’s always hard to tell if you don’t have a crystal ball to look into. Well, and if we had one in our collection as registrars, would we allow someone to use it? And do crystal balls work if you wear white gloves or nitril gloves? Questions upon questions…

What we can promise is that in 2015 we will keep you entertained with articles and stories from the field. Sadly, Derek retired, so, unfortunately, his next article will be also his last one. But it’s a blast, so stay tuned for the story of Lennon’s Rolls Royce!

During the holidays my hubby and I dived into the world of microcontrollers and yes, there might be some registrar’s prototyping ahead. Or an accidentally destroyed arduino. Or both. Let us just experiment a little bit more…

2015 will see the second ARCS conference, this time in New Orleans so I’m sure we will have a report. We will continue to support good museum documentation and we hope that many of you use the hashtag #MuseumDocumentation on Twitter. And I know that wherever you work and wherever you are there are wonderful, untold registrar’s stories we all want to hear, so send them via

Thanks for reading, stay with us and keep us posted!


Season’s Greetings – Here’s to the (unsung) Heroes

cleaning-lady-258520_640One year has passed since last Christmas? I can’t believe it! It seems like yesterday since the last season’s greetings.

This year we have seen loads of incredible stuff at Registrar Trek: We’ve solved a Trilemma, attended the European Registrars Conference, added loads of great stuff to our toolkit (for example how to store buttons), tackled barcoding, spoke up for children in museums, found bombs and chased birds and bats in our collections. We’ve seen Matt coming to the cinemas with „Art and Craft“ and supported Rupert Shepherd’s initiative of bringing #MuseumDocumentation into public focus. To sum up: we told many stories worth telling.

But when we raise our glass today, I don’t want to say „Here’s to us, the collections people!“ Recently, there was a funny bit about registrars on Peabody’s Lament ( and in the comment section the author T.H. Grey stated „…we’ve often heard registrars refer to themselves as the “unsung heroes” of museums.“ Well, this may be, but we aren’t the real unsung heroes. When I think of unsung heroes in museum business, immediately the housekeeping and cleaning staff comes to mind.

If they are ever referred to in the museum world, it’s with a funny note, often when they clean something that wasn’t meant to be cleaned, like the installation “When it Starts Dripping From the Ceiling” by Martin Kippenberger in 2011: The prejudice that only cleaning ladies are so dumb and uneducated that they can’t tell art from trash is so strong that most people think they are responsible for the destruction of the work „Untitled (Bathtub)“ (created by Joseph Beuys in 1960 and accidentally scrubbed clean in 1973) , while it was in fact scrubbed by two members of a German political party who wanted to clean the dishes from a celebration in it ( Strange that reports on artworks destroyed by other museum staffers or visitors (,28804,1956922_1956921_1956906,00.html) never come with the same malicious joy…

officeThere is never a report on how cleaning staff saves millions of dollars in conservation and restoration costs every year because they avoid damage from dust, keep museums free from pests and report incidents and issues as soon as they see them. And they do see them, if we just tell them what to look for. It’s certainly no fun cleaning toilets and offices, especially those offices stuffed with paper where it’s really hard to find free spaces to clean (somehow immediately registrar’s and curator’s offices come to mind…). But keeping them clean is one foundation of our work: keeping dust, mold, pests and all the other bad guys out, so our collections are safe for the future. But in all those „keep up the good work“ speeches at the end of a successful year, thanking the board, the friends of the museum, the volunteers, the staffers in the collections, education, exhibitions, marketing and administrative departments, I’ve heard seldom a word about the cleaning staff.

So, at least on Registrar Trek, we are raising our glasses to you, our faithful housekeeping staff, partners in collections care and pest management!

And from the whole Registrar Trek Team to our faithful readers and supporters:

We wish you Merry Christmas and a happy healthy and successful New Year 2015!


Transit Totem Blog Post Mortem

By Brett Dion

Alex Gallafent with a lengthy sign in "Transit Totem"

Alex Gallafent with a lengthy sign in “Transit Totem”

Angela of Registrar Trek was very kind to credit the “Tell a Tale of a Transit Totem” program at the New York Transit Museum as an original concept in presenting museum collections. But I must confess that I drew inspiration for my proposal from a session at the 2013 AAM conference in Baltimore. The overall theme there was “The Power of Story,” and the session was with Rob Walker, of the “Significant Objects” experiment.

How it all began

In the four years prior to that moment, I had happily toiled away on the cataloging of NYTM’s three-dimensional artifact collection. Coming across found-in-collection tools and parts of the infrastructure and business of urban transportation, then determining a general history or context, was a genuine pleasure. Just as finding out a concrete fact or two held meaning for a trained archivist like myself, I also walked off to lunch or to the evening ride home and free-associated about the unknown track worker who worked with a wrench the size of my arm or the engineer who performed conductivity tests on a sample of third rail.

Rob Walker brought all of that conjecturing back to the forefront for me. I could imagine putting a formal or informal writing group in a room with some of the less familiar and abstract artifacts, along with the definitive and iconic objects that are universally associated with NYC Transit history, and invite those writers to “story slam.” I came back from that AAM epiphany and shared the idea with a select few in management and our Education/Programming staff. I never considered it my job to execute such a program, but I wanted to support it. So for several months, I sporadically brought it up to those individuals to keep the idea alive.

The project picks up steam

Participants wrote, as well as read, their fictitious exhibit labels.

Participants wrote, as well as read, their fictitious exhibit labels.

In late 2013, the museum had made new strides in program development by hiring a producer devoted to public programming. Wisely, Julia Malta-Weingard brought the museum into a new era of public programs by petitioning and crowd-sourcing program ideas from the museum’s staff and patrons. It was one thing for Julia to generate content proposals. But simultaneously, she also brought different museum departments together on a creative effort by staff members who have creative impulses, but don’t necessarily utilize creativity as a primary instrument in their workdays.

Here was a chance for me to answer a solicited call for some programming ideas. Because I had stored up several, and discussed them informally over time, I was ready to easily hone them into the fine points of some proposals that ended up on paper. One of those ideas melded my familiarity with the artifacts collection, the Significant Objects project, and improvisational storytelling forums like “The Moth.”

Finding an audience

Susan Augenbraun reads her supernatural subway token-inspired short story to the group.

Susan Augenbraun reads her supernatural subway token-inspired short story to the group.

Calling the proposal “Tell a Tale of a Transit Totem” was a bit of bait-and-switch promotion. I thought we could draw people in with an emotional or nostalgic connection to the iconic elements of NYC mass transportation, then include the rarely seen, and abstract as well, to spark some truly original creative ideas. My initial proposal was modestly aimed at inviting an undergraduate level creative writing class to participate. In retrospect, I can see that being an OK program, but not a very public one.
In early fall, with a date set for November 12th, 2014, the Collections staff sat down with Julia and we agreed to promote to student writers, museum collections professionals, community writing groups, improv schools and theaters, and NYTM patrons. With just a few weeks until the free event, we attracted more attention and RSVP’s by posting several images of objects and archival photos to the museum’s Tumblr page to prompt advance submissions. This also provided a way to participate for those not inclined to improvise on the spot or to read aloud. Those initial, online “totems” and the subsequent “pop-up” exhibit of 25 more for the museum program were selected by the in-house, ad-hoc production team.

The evening event

Alex Gallafent kept moving and kept the group engaged.

Alex Gallafent kept moving and kept the group engaged.

While the program attracted a modest RSVP list of nearly 50, and the actual attendance was about half that, it was a really fun pilot for what we hope will be a perennially or seasonally recurring event. A key to that night’s success was Julia’s booking of an appropriate M.C. to keep the crowd engaged for over 90 minutes. Alex Gallafent not only participated in the writing, but he improvised with some hilarious off-the-cuff remarks. While we had staged a formal podium and seating arrangement for the night, we didn’t use it. With the exception of two short snack-fueled writing sessions at tables, Alex and the group stayed on its feet and on the move. He kept the mood loose and the crowd entirely engaged throughout.

The improvised exhibit label-writing was a great entry point to get everyone’s creative writing flowing. A few guests did make the greater commitment to read their on-the-spot short story drafts. And several of the preliminary online submissions were read aloud.

Engaging with the audience – and the team!

We discovered, I think, a wonderful and malleable template for sequels to this program. I lean towards establishing a link with an undergrad writing program that would assure a core audience of peers who are likely to be comfortable sharing ideas and fragments of stories already. Then, the rest of the outreach could build on that alliance.

One other resonant and firsthand discovery for me was that I saw a great group of museum colleagues coalesce around this event. If we never did another one, I’d still be very proud of the team-building opportunity that grew out of this program proposal. Museums often can’t show off most of their collections to the world, but we know the curiosity is there. Collections and archives are arguably the most content-rich departments of a museum, but the other behind-the-scenes employees don’t get to see much of them. Internally, this program showed me that untapped curiosity and creativity in our versatile and trustworthy staff can be interpreted and shaped into the programming.

There’s a bomb in my collection!

Most assume that working in collections management is relatively harmless. I’d say that’s true most of the time. But then again, there are those days… read the story of Julie Blood, Collections and Exhibit Manager at the San Joaquin County Historical Society & Museum in Lodi, California:

Hand Grenade

Hand Grenade

It was back in August 2009. I had been working at the San Joaquin County Historical Society & Museum for about 8 months when a volunteer and I came across a box marked “ammunition”. It was a late Friday afternoon. We opened it up to find World War II era hand grenade (with pin and not secured!), a Japanese mortar round, and a canister that we assume based on the markings on it to be picric acid.

When this collection was first received by the museum in 2000, many of the potential objects were inspected by the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department and removed and detonated because they were deemed unsafe. For reasons unknown the current artifacts were either not inspected or deemed to be safe by the Sheriff’s Department. To this day I have no idea how or why these objects made it into the collection.

Japanese Mortar Round

Japanese Mortar Round

So Monday morning, I contacted the Sheriff’s Department and a deputy came to have a look at them immediately, but apparently, military equipment was not his area of expertise either and I was waiting for him to pull the pin or something, it was kind of scary… Finally he talked to his supervisor and they contacted the local Air Force base. They sent their ordnance team to the museum to pick up the objects, which we immediately deaccessioned.


I can tell you that sometimes ignorance is bliss because that was the longest weekend ever for me. I have since used these items as a teaching moment to point out to our docents, volunteers, and student tour groups about the hazards you sometimes find working in a museum. I hope to God that I never find anything like this again, that’s for sure. It gave us a really good scare!

Julie Blood

European Registrars Conference 2014:
Moving Collections

Niin makaa, kuin petaa.
One sleeps like one makes his bed.
(Finnish proverb)

Moving, moving, moving... we sure do a lot at the TECHNOSEUM.

Moving, moving, moving… we sure move a lot of stuff at the TECHNOSEUM.

As a collection manager in a museum where over 3 % of the collection is permanently on the move due to exhibitions, loans and other purposes, I was extremely interested in this panel.

Moving Collections and Organizations

Per Hedström from the Nationalmuseum Sweden talked about “Moving Collections and Organizations”. As they had to close their main building down due to restoration, they had to move 700,000 artifacts out of the building and into permanent storage. They were successful, nothing was broken or lost and now they are waiting to come back in place. The reopening is scheduled for 2017.

Per pointed out what made the project a success and how to approach occurring issues:
One crucial point was that the relocation project has to be made top priority. One should take into consideration that change is always a source of uncertainty and one has to recognize that staff will be nervous. One needs to find extra money for the move, because you will need a few extra hands.

Then it came, the statement that I would love to write in capital letters and to put a golden frame around:


It’s not a documentation or conservation project. It’s even not the time to experiment with new packing material. It’s simply the project to get all the artifacts safe into the new place and that’s enough.

One has to keep the audience in mind. They will be disappointed that they can’t see the artifacts, so you have to find ways to keep them engaged. One also has to consider staff: you have to keep them engaged so they won’t leave.

At the same time, a closure is an opportunity you won’t have again. You could focus on the future, ponder and discuss new ideas. You’ll end up with 100 new ideas and the difficulty is to choose from them and choose the ones that are strategically right. Per said during the closure they focused on three points:

  1. Vision and brand
  2. Strategically important exhibits
  3. New collection display

"Selfies – Now and Then"

“Selfies – Now and Then”

One of the things that were discussed was if lending should go on during the closure. They decided to limit it down to exhibitions they decided to be strategically important. Among these were for example the exhibition “Slow Art” featuring Swedish designers at the Swedish Institute in Paris or the exhibition “crossing borders” which they decided had high experimental value.

Concerning the new collections display they decided to put emphasize on things that are significant in their collection and focused on what they are good at. But he also admitted: “It’s not easy, perhaps we do too much, maybe we have to focus on less and do this better.”

Storage Relocations at the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar and Management Challenges of a New Museum

Those two presentations held by Marie-Astrid Martin and Nancy Konstantinou dealing with the challenges of collections management and relocation issues in the Gulf region were breathtaking.

To sum it up: imagine doing what you are doing in your museum right now – only that what you do is more or less done for the first time at the place where you are. You have to implement all procedures and policies you are used to in the North American and European museum world in Qatar for the first time. This in an extreme climate where even short periods without climatization could do tremendous damage to the artifacts and with an infrastructure that is far from what you are used to. Needless to say that few insurers take the risk of insuring something there and Qatar hasn’t a state indemnity in place so far. Like they put it “Living in the desert is the main challenge”. But the museum folks there took up the challenge and managed the move the collection into a newly built warehouse with 9,940 square meters of high shelf units. Kudos to Marie-Astrid, Nancy and their colleagues!

Relocation of XXL Collections – You can’t make an Omlette without breaking eggs

I guess there was no presentation on ERC 2014 that saw me nod more often than the one done by Joachim Hüber. I guess I looked like one of these nodding dogs…

The "move" as the black box between the old and the new storage.

Joachim Hüber: The “move” as the black box between the actual situation and the future situation.

Joachim stated that most of the time “the move” is regarded as black box between the situation that caused relocation and the new location that is of course built with best practices in mind. While much thought is given on the new building by the architect, museum director, head of collection department, conservators, head of relocation project and head of logistics the move is only given much thought from the latter two. Therefore the move is often underestimated and understaffed.

Joachim recommended keeping in mind that the collection move and storage equipment are closely interlinked so it pays to use synergies. Part of the underestimation is often the workload. The move will inevitably need extra resources. It is also crucial to understand that it is necessary to reduce loans and use of objects in-house during the time of the move.

Joachim also warned that the idea of shifting resources from other departments and using them in the move is not a good one. Collections moves have special needs that can’t be met by just bringing in people who are used to do something completely different. Instead, there are three possible options: Hire more staff, contract staff or contract whole packages like transport or cleaning. Whatever the decision may be, keep in mind that you need extra staff, trusted staff, reliable staff. Joachim stated that the cost of relocation ads up to 20% of the whole storage building project and that this is often underestimated. Also keep in mind that the more risk you impose on a contractor, the more costly it will be.

On the practical side you will need several independent working groups, both on the “old” site and in the new building. A thorough recommendation: have a stand-by-hand on each side who is just there to run around to fetch material and so on. You will also need a decision maker on both sites so processes aren’t slowed down because nobody is there who is eligible to decide. This decision maker has to be someone who knows all the tasks and has to be an allrounder and troubleshooter by personality – he/she is the most important person on site.

Crucial to managing XXL relocations is that you stop thinking in objects and start thinking in bulks. If you go for 100% object security in every case you won’t be moving at all, because every move is a risk. To manage a move in a cost-effective way, we have to take some risks. We have to shift from minimal risk to acceptable risk. This includes that we should look to have 95% of the objects requiring standard handling, only 5% special handling. We have to give a close look which tasks are really mandatory and which are optional.

move runningIt is very important that the correct sequence of steps in the move/packaging/transport is planned beforehand. But also: do not over-plan.
What proved to be helpful is using visual packaging so one could see what is transported and therefore immediately see where the problems in handling are. Also, things should go on rolls as early as possible. Using standard packaging makes things easier and cost-efficient. Standard pallets, standard boxes that fit in standard shelves… And always keep in mind that space, space, space is everything!

Even if it is always part of our considerations we should keep in mind that in the case of a move security is a minor problem. Joachim put it that way: Secure the process, don’t secure the single object. If you keep your staff in a good mood and pay them well you have a minimal security risk.
Also Joachim warned us to think early on materials, be aware of considerable costs, use standard products and order tools and materials on time. Using easy solutions instead of complicated ones makes it unlikely that something goes wrong. Sometimes special solutions are needed, then you should pay attention because most of the time the answers are around you.

Some words on hiring: hire the experienced staff early; this is especially important for the decision makers. Do not hire too much over-qualified staff. Again: keep your staff in a good mood and pay them well.

To sum up:

  • Don’t underestimate costs
  • Design suitable processes
  • Use adequate staff, tools and materials
  • Don’t be afraid of taking acceptable risks

Feeling a bit dizzy from all the nodding, I went for lunch break.