Archive for Angela

Happy 5th Birthday, Registrar Trek!

pic by OpenClipart-Vectors via pixabay (CC0)“After five years you can consider a project as grown-up.” This was more or less how the moderator at the conference of the documentation group of the Deutscher Museumsbund (German Museum Association) phrased it when I gave a talk about our project. In many regards, I think that’s right. But on the other hand, it makes me want to sing with Tom Waits (or with the Ramones, if you prefer that version): “I don’t wanna grow up!” I hope we will never lose the curiosity to try and learn new things and I hope we will never become so serious that there isn’t a place for a good laugh even in our most professional articles.

This year we covered a wide range of very recent aspects of our profession, from rapid response collecting to cataloging smartphone apps. In general, we expanded our range from the classical collection management topics to more aspects of museum documentation. This is a good thing as documentation is the foundation of everything we do. However, because we want to keep our blogging well-rounded, I’m planning to launch a series about “Registrar’s Tools”, where we talk about our favorite tools and toys. You are very welcome to contribute with texts, pictures and thoughts about the tools you like best.

As a project, this year I hope we can attract some new translators. Many who started with us five years ago have now taken up such demanding roles that they can’t contribute anymore. This doesn’t come as a surprise, because people who are willing to volunteer in a project about their profession show exactly the mindset and dedication that is sought after by museums. So, I do hope that we will find new volunteers that fill the blog with the missing translations.

And of course, I hope that many will find the time to sit down and write the story or that article about an aspect of our profession they always wanted to write about. As always, send them to story@museumsprojekte.de

Now, let’s start into this New Year 2018 and may it be a good one!

Angela

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Season’s Greetings!

christmas tree on counter

Our Christmas Tree in the staff’s kitchen: fake tree, LED candles and small enough to fit on the counter so no one bumps into it.

The most difficult season for the registrar comes to an end. All the end of year gifts wrapped up, all the loans returned or loan contracts renewed, all the candles replaced with LEDs (seriously, who ever thought mixing real – and usually dry – twigs of pine and fire is a great idea?), the last database entries updated. Time to raise our glasses.
We know the world “outside” is difficult, perhaps more difficult these days than it ever was during our lifetime. But there is also friendship and collaboration across borders, especially in our profession. That’s something to be grateful for. This year sat colleagues from all across Germany, but also from China and Egypt at our kitchen table in the storage and we could exchange thoughts and insights. Maybe the greatest gift is being able to listen and understand each other, even if there are language hurdles and cultural differences.

On behalf of the whole Registrar Trek Team:

Merry Christmas,
A few calm days off and a
Happy New Year 2018!

Angela

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Talking Museum Documentation Right Meow

For all of us working on the task to improve documentation in our museums it is often hard to get the point across to the colleagues who are not so deeply involved in the discussions about standards and long-term preservation. Maybe we are too deeply involved to make the concept clear. Maybe we have to take a different approach. Maybe we have to tell the story from a different angle. Let’s try it this way:

Who wouldn’t like to care for such a fluffy old lady?

This summer I was taking care of an elderly lady. She’s 17 years old. Well, that’s quite an age for a cat, it’s well over 80 in human years! Her owner went on vacation for two weeks, so our local catsitter association was taking over, making sure the cat could stay in her own home. Mau was a very distinguished, lovely, elderly lady, but as it inevitably comes with age, she had some medical issues. She had to take some drugs every day. Which can be a challenge already if you care for a human being. If your nursing case is a cat it can be a daunting task. And, due to some liver and kidney issues, it was very important to monitor if she was eating properly. When she refused to eat for 24 hours, it was a warning signal. Something had to be done to convince her, like opening a box of tuna. If she refused to eat for more than 48 hours, it was an emergency which needed special medication and maybe the vet.
As the owner loved his cat, he wrote down a few pages of “instruction manual” including all of the cat’s needs. It stated what drugs, how many, when and how needed to find their way inside the cat. It also stated some tricks that went well in the past, like hiding pills inside a special kind of sausage. He also held a training session before he left so we could practice the application under his supervision.

The “instruction manual” for the cat

When another catsitter and I took over, we realized from the start that we would need some way to monitor cat issues, like: has the cat taken her drugs and has she eaten properly? As one would look for the cat in the morning and one in the evening we wouldn’t see each other. As we both were working and had busy schedules, phoning was not an option. Mailing or texting seemed cumbersome and not completely reliable. So, we placed a sheet of paper in the kitchen where we could monitor the “state of cat” every day. We wrote down things like “application of kidney medication went well, but she refused to take red pill” or: “food bowl was still full”. We also used this “diary” to share some observations like “loves being brushed” and tricks like “If you hide the pill in a treat she won’t take the treat. But if you throw to her a few treats without pills and she starts eating them you can smuggle a pill into the next treat.”

The diary

As you can imagine, all went well, and we could hand over a happy, well medicated cat when the owner returned.

What does this story have to do with documentation?

Well, the underlying concept here is care. All people involved did what they did because they cared. Now, the objects in our collections are not living, purring creatures. But as we care for them, we do something very similar with documentation:

  • We make sure that everything that is important to know about our collection is stored in a central document or documents, quite like the “instruction manual” for the cat. They state what, why, when and how things have to be done. These are mainly our handling instructions and some of it might be found in our collections policy.
  • We also make sure that these documents are accessible to everybody who is involved in caring for our collections.
    In our story the “instruction manual” was stored on the kitchen table so everybody could turn to it as a reference in case of doubt. It would not have been a good solution if the owner just had handed it to both catsitters: in case one catsitter fell ill, a replacement would not have had access to the document.
  • We create possibilities to document what happened to our objects. We make sure that everybody can learn what happened when to an object, no matter if she or he works with the object in one hour or in 20 years. That’s why we take down object related information like damages, location changes, loans or conservation treatment in our object’s records, just like we did with the “diary” for the cat.
  • We use clear language and avoid slang so no matter who is reading our documentation in the future is able to understand what we mean.
  • Finally, we don’t rely on documents alone. We also hold training sessions about how to update an object record correctly and how to handle our objects.

So, next time a colleague fails to report a location change or damage, maybe don’t bore her or him with a lecture on the importance of documentation. Instead you might like to tell a story of a lovely, elderly, purring little cat.

Angela

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Mergers & Missions: Moving Forward Together

Collections Stewardship is a newly reorganized professional network of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The network serves a broad museum community of professionals who advocate for better collections stewardship in museums. Whether your title is Registrar, Collections Manager, Preparator, Collections Technician, or something else, if your interest is collections care, then we’re here for you. Collections Stewardship was formed as the merger of the Registrars Committee (RC-AAM) and the Art Handling, Collections Care, and Preparation Network. The merger and name change was approved by the AAM Board of Directors in March 2017 and announced at the Registrars Committee luncheon during the 2017 AAM Annual Meeting in St. Louis.

First we merge, then we party

First, let’s clear up all of the acronyms.
AAM: American Alliance of Museums
RC or RCAAM: Registrars Committee, AAM
Art Handling: Art Handling, Collections Care, and Preparation Network, AAM
CS: Collections Stewardship, AAM
PACCIN: Preparation, Art Handling, Collections Care Information Network

It may help you to know that these two groups have a history. The Registrars Committee began in 1977 as a professional network of the American Association of Museums. In the 1990s, RCAAM created a task force that in 1997 separated to become the AAM Professional Interest Committee called PACCIN. In 2015, PACCIN became it’s own 501(c)3 and a new AAM Professional Network, the Art Handling, Collections Care, and Preparation Network, was created. It is this PN that merged with the Registrars Committee to become Collections Stewardship.

So why the merger? Changes in AAM’s management of professional networks from 2012 led to a need to reassess the relationship between RC and AAM. A series of discussions about these changes culminated in a roundtable discussion at the Marketplace of Ideas during the 2016 AAM Meeting in Washington, D.C. From this, a task force was formed that resulted in the merger.

So what can you expect from this new (old) group? Collections Stewardship will continue to offer the listserv, service projects, networking opportunities and other popular resources, such as the mentorship program and sample documents (through its website). The Collections Stewardship board will explore cooperative projects with nonprofit organizations of like focus, including Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) and PACCIN.

However, our work is not complete. The current mission of Collections Stewardship is still the original RC 1977 mission, which was designed to define the profession. The newly merged network will revisit the 1977 mission and consider it from many perspectives. We must be inclusive, we must honestly assess where our profession currently finds itself, and we must set sights for the future of the field. This project will need consultation. Before formal adoption, it will be shared with the CS membership for approval. We hope to have the new mission ready and available for distribution long before the 2018 annual conference in Phoenix.

If you have thoughts on the project, and care to make suggestions, please reach out Chair-elect Sebastian Encina at sencina@umich.edu.

We are excited to move forward with this, and are eager to continue making Collections Stewardship work for all of us.

CSAAM Board

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How do I catalogue a smartphone app?

By Paul Rowe

Some app symbolsTraditionally museum collections were made of physical items covering everything from beetles to books, and archives to artworks. Photography collections consisted of the analogue works – negatives or prints of the photographs. The items being added to museum collections are increasingly born-digital works such as photographs taken on a digital camera or films recorded on a smartphone.

We recently had a question on our users’ forum asking for advice on how to catalogue a smartphone app. How do born-digital works fit within the traditional museum cataloguing process? Where do you start with more complex acquisitions such as software package or app?

Here are some general tips about cataloguing born-digital objects, as well as some notes on multimedia material that you might only have in analogue form (such as reels of film).

Link the source digital files

When cataloguing any born-digital works you should link the digital files directly into the catalogue. These could include a high resolution original image and smaller images derivatives if they’re used by your system. For a smartphone app, you may be able to link to still images from the user interface or a trailer/help video about the app.

You may also be able to link to web addresses for the digital material, such as GitHub source code page or Wikipedia page describing a more complex digital item such as a smartphone app.

Many systems will be able to automatically import metadata from linked files so that you have detail including creation dates and capture equipment, dimensions and duration.

Use the standard object cataloguing fields

Many of the fields used to describe traditional collections will still apply to multimedia material, including born-digital files. Typical fields that you might use are:
Object Type: a simple description of the type of material. e.g. Sound Recording, Smartphone app.

Measurements: if you don’t have duration as metadata directly in the digital file then running time and digital file sizes could be noted in the catalogue record.
Size Category: analogue film stock is usually stored in standard can sizes. These could be created as standard size categories in your system.
Display Requirements: describe the equipment required to play the recording or to use the app.
Format: e.g. Digital Video Disc, 35mm colour film, iOS app
Sound: e.g. Dolby 5.1
Colour: Technicolor
Scale: e.g. 4:3 or 1200px x 900px.
Timecodes: You can note the start and end time within an audio or video file of key clips or episodes. Each start and end time should have title or description noting the subject of the clip.
Special Features: Note features available on a commercial film release or special attributes of a software package or app.
Technical Details: Note any important technical details such as DVD Zone or Video codec.

Carriers versus Titles

Large audio or video collections often include multiple copies of the same recording. Each copy is often referred to as a Carrier. An example would be film, which the organisation may hold as a 16mm master copy, and as an analogue VHS and digital DVD copy for lending.
For larger catalogues it can be worth splitting the catalogue detail into a title record and linking this to multiple related carrier records. The title record captures the intellectual description (the title, who made it, when and where was it made). The carrier records describe details of the copies (what format are they in, where are they stored, what loans and conservation work have they been involved in). This is a more complex structure and is only necessary when large numbers of duplicate copies are managed.

Vernon CMS

This article was as a result of a question specifically about using Vernon CMS to catalogue a smartphone app. Our tips should be applicable to many similar cataloguing systems. You can read more about the Vernon Collection Management System on www.vernonsystems.com.


Paul Rowe is CEO of Vernon Systems, an New Zealand-based collections management software company. Vernon Systems develops software to help organisations record, interpret and share their collections. Paul is particularly interested in the use of web-based systems within museums and increasing public access to museum collection information. He is occasionally seen caving.

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Registrar Trek Stays Mannheim!

picture by domeckopol via pixabay

Mannheim water tower (picture by domeckopol via pixabay)


Whenever a member of the Registrar Trek Team Member is attending a conference or a similar event to spread the word about our blog project we usually post a “Registrar Trek goes… (Costa Rica, Helsinki, Milan)” message. Well, this time I am attending a conference that takes place at “my” museum, so I can stay where I am: The annual fall meeting of the documentation group of the Deutscher Museumsbund (German Museum Association) will take place October 16-18 at the TECHNOSEUM. I’m all exited to do a presentation on the blog and exchange thoughts with all the colleagues.

See the full conference time table here:
http://www.museumsbund.de/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/fg-dokumentation-herbst-2017-vorlaeufiges-programm-online.pdf

Best wishes
Angela

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Summertime…

…and the livin’ is easy…

While it seems that some of us just can’t stop working…

(Plug: Reibel’s Registration Methods has seen a major revamp that brought it to the 21st century thanks to Deb Rose van Horn)

…we have set up a creative workshop using meta-planning techniques in our garden. Starting off with neither a solution nor a problem after 3 hours of intensive creative work and purposeful improvisation, only using the materials and tools at hand we finally came up with this:

We are still not quite sure which problem we solved but we are somewhat proud of the solution. (Most obvious: everybody agreed that whatever problem we solve, the solution should be adjustable in height.)

Enjoy the summer!
Angela

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Registrar’s Shoes – More Thoughts on Professional Footwear

Working as a registrar might require unexpected skills: Like being all dressed up for the big opening and still be able to deliver a cart of desperately needed tools to the mount-maker.

Working as a registrar might require unexpected skills: Like being all dressed up for the big opening and still be able to deliver a cart of desperately needed tools to the mount-maker.
Thanks to Lisa Kay Adam for the picture.

Three things happened in the last four weeks:

1. I changed offices and decided t get rid of my very first safety boots.
2. My current summer safety boots died the usual unpleasant death that awaits all my safety boots.
3. I re-read the piece about shoes at conferences by Janice Klein.

It inspired me to write a piece about a registrar’s working shoes. It’s the same problem like with shoes for conferences, only worse. As a registrar in a small museum you need to be one moment on the top of the ladder, exchanging the light bulb, at the next moment guiding a group of students and yet the next moment shake hands with the president of your university.

As a registrar in a larger museum, you are not really better off: You have to walk miles in the gallery spaces, again climb ladders and if you enter visitor’s spaces you should look halfway presentable.

Each task requires different clothing and it is likely that you have several working outfits in your locker. Along with them there is an army of different working shoes, from rubber boots for the annual springtime water leak in the cellar to high-heels that fit your evening dress for events. A male registrar’s arsenal might be slightly smaller, but I don’t know a single registrar who can work with just one pair of shoes.

There are some advantages of being a collections manager at a science and technology museum.

There are some advantages of being a collections manager at a science and technology museum.

As a collection manager in a science & technology museum with the history of working conditions in its mission, I’m slightly better off. I decided a long time ago that I’m a living representation of working conditions and therefore usually wear working attire no matter what (with a few exceptions, like opening ceremonies and lectures). However, this comes with a downside:

Because I wear my safety boots almost every time at work they tend to die an unpleasant death within a timespan of about a year to a year and a half. This is a problem because a the same time it’s incredibly hard to find safety boots in size 37 (U.S. size 6 1/2). My very first safety boots – the ones I ditched and which are still under consideration to be accessioned for our collection of working clothes – were 36 (5 1/2) because I couldn’t find safety boots my size on the market. The first two years of my career I worked in boots that were too small. In fact, according to a friend, they were the “cutest little safety boots I ever saw”. So, everytime a pair of boots start to show signs of weakness, I search frantically for new ones my size. An exhausting race against time.

Fortunately, this time I’m spared: my niece has exactly the same shoe size and gave me the safety boots she got for her summer job. As she graduated to become an elementary school teacher last year, she doesn’t need them anymore.

Always keep your feet on the ground!
Angela

And for your amusement: A gallery of shoes that were killed in action:

light summer safety shoe

Light summer safety shoe, bought 2015. The seam that tied the leather to the sole snapped and the leather ripped. Probably due to the stress imposed on this part of the shoe by standing on my toes frequently. To make matters worse, I often need the fine feeling of my toes to give the forklift truck the exactly right dose of gas when handling a delicate load. A former more sturdy all-year safety boot, I think it was the 2007/2008 one, died exactly the same way.

sole of a safety boot

The most common way my safety boots die is however that the sole becomes so thin that they start to leak. You usually realize this when you are standing in a puddle of water. If it’s a dry season, you realize it when you suddenly feel every stone you walk over like you walk barefoot.

hiking boot without sole

This is the shoe that died the most spectacular way. These were pretty good light hiking shoes I loved to wear when there were no heavy duty jobs that require safety boots, only light work that requires a lot of walking. In the middle of an exhibit installation in 2011 parts of the sole literally fell off.

Got boots that died a similar – or more spectacular -way? Share your photos and send them along with their story to story@museumsprojekte.de!

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Build Your Own Data Logger – Investigating Your Climate Graphs

I’m certain you all looked at climate graphs a lot in your professional career and tried to make sense of what you see. We now want to use Calc or Excel to get to know your gallery climate and make decisions about trigger values for an alarm system. Yes, at the moment our logger is just a dumb device that sits in the corner and registers what happens. But we can tell it to blink a warning with its LEDs when a climate value is not okay, we can give it a piezo speaker so it can ring a warning tone or we can build another logger who is able to send warning messages via WiFi. But you might remember Aesop’s boy who cried wolf? Yep, if alarms come too frequently and for no serious reasons we tend to ignore them. That’s why we first have to understand what is usual and unusual behavior of our room climate by analyzing our graphs.

The problem with fixed trigger values

Most devices with an alarm function allow to set up an alarm when the temperature or humidity is above or beyond a certain value. Good professional devices allow to decide how many times a reading has to be beyond or above this value to trigger an alarm, avoiding alarms caused by only minor trespasses or simple false readings of a sensor.
This is good for institutions with a relatively stable climate like it is provided by a HVAC system. Here we can set an alarm if the temperature falls beyond 19 °C (66 °F) or rises above 22 °C (71 °F) and we can define a slightly broader range for our relative humidity, probably circling around 55%. But if you are still reading an article series that deals with building your own data logger you probably don’t have this ideal setting.
More likely (museum studies students, brace yourself, here comes a real-life graph) it will look like this:

A real-life graph with usual and unusual climate swings.

A real-life graph with usual and unusual climate swings.

It’s not that this climate is not problematic. But there are problematic things happening and there are a lot of things happening that are just “normal” for this not-so-ideal storage room. For example, the temperature climbing from 17 °C to 23 °C (62 to 73 °F) in some up-and-down waves during May is pretty normal. A trigger warning at 22 °C (71 °F) would be pretty useless as the room has only a heating device.
On May 2nd, there is a sudden jump in relative humidity within just 35 minutes:

A sudden rise of relative humidity from under 47% to over 52% within 35 minutes.

A sudden rise of relative humidity from under 47% to over 52% within 35 minutes.


Ironically, a standard humidity alarm would probably stop alarming as this happens, because the humidity goes from a value that is not so ideal in theory into a range that is widely regarded as ideal. But as the collections manager of a not-so-ideal setting this occurence is definitely out of the normal behavior of the room. Someone might have left the door open, allowing wet air to come in. You want to check what’s wrong there. But how will you know?

A warning of sudden changes

We need a more flexible warning system, one that sends us a warning when sudden changes in humidity and/or temperature take place. One simple way to do this is to subtract the current measurement from the previous measurement. We get a value that tells us something about the change in the timespan we set between our measurements.
With our knowledge from the previous article on using Calc you should now be able to write a formula that subtracts the second humidity measurement from the first (Hint: the formula is “=C2-C1”) and apply it to all values of the column with the “fill” function. It’s pretty similar in Excel, by the way.

Subtracting a humidity value from the previous value.

Subtracting a humidity value from the previous value.

We get a column with values that tell us something about change over time. It is now easy to make a diagramm that lets us see what values are widely off the mark. Hint: you can hide the columns you don’t need in your diagramm before you mark the columns you do need. Maybe this time we choose points instead of lines:

A diagramm of changes.

A diagramm of changes.

While you could deduct the dramatic changes from the original graph, this new graph gives you a better overview and a handle to define about which changes you really want to get notified. You see that everything below 1 is probably pretty normal and would produce too many warnings if you set the trigger there. Everything above 1 is probably something you would like to know about immediately, not just when the monthly climate report arrives.

In real life we have used this for fine-tuning our climate warnings at the TECHNOSEUM. There are areas with well-known climate swings and some that need closer attention. For most areas, I get a warning email when a temperature or humidity change is over 1 degree within 5 minutes. If it is over 3 degrees other colleagues responsible for that area get a warning email. This keeps me aware of a lot of changes and I can look at the graphs to decide whether to check or call a colleague, while the other colleagues stay unbothered most of the time, but can check immediately if something goes very wrong.

The slow, steady, evil change

This is good, but it doesn’t warn you about another thing that creeps a collections manager out: The slow and steady change of a failed heating or a water leak. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at another real-life graph:

A slow and steady rise in humidity.

A slow and steady rise in humidity.

The room has a rather stable climate at about 40% relative humidity. At about 8 p.m. humidity starts rising. Slowly, but steadily until it reaches 46,7% at about 1:30 a.m the next morning. Nothing our warning system would have warned us about, because the changes between two humidity values are minor. If we want to implement a warning system for this kind of changes, we need something else. We need a warning for problematic tendencies.

How can we do this? We first need to define a timespan we want to take as the basis of our calculations. Let’s take 30 minutes. If we count the differences between the 6 last values and divide it by 5, we get a value for the tendency. By now, you should be able to build the formular for this yourself. It is:
=(C2-C1)+(C3-C2)+(C4-C3)+(C5-C4)+(C6-C5)/5
(If C is your column with humidity values.)

By making a diagramm out of it and comparing it with our original curve, we get an idea how the problematic changes look like:

The tendency values against the original curve.

The tendency values compared to the original curve.

We can now assume that getting a warning if the tendency shows a value over 0.5 would be a good idea. But, much more than with the value for rapid change, this is highly dependend on your setup and might be different from monitored space to monitored space. There might be some less-than-ideal storage areas where you can’t use it at all, because rise and fall of humidity and temperature is simply normal, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Let’s do a test so it becomes clear what I mean…

Bringing it all together

When we look again at the first 3 days of our scary graph above (you can download all the values here), how would our warning system react?

3 days in May…

Our first trigger warning comes on the 1st of May at about 8 a.m. when the constantly rising tendency in humidity first passes the 0.5 mark. This trigger value is met a couple of times throughout the morning, so there would be plenty of time to check an react.

First trigger warning comes in 8:07 on May 1st.

Our next warning comes a day later at about 10 o’clock. This time it’s a warning of sudden change. We can see the sudden change warning triggering before the tendency warning follows suit 5 minutes later:

Sudden change warning and tendency warning on May 2nd.

About 1 1/2 hours later we see a rapid decrease and some more tendency warnings as humidity goes back to “normal”.

We see again a rising tendency (although not as long enduring as the one May 1st) at about 4:30 p.m. that day, the next at about 10:30 a.m. the following day, next at 1 p.m., next at 8 p.m.

7 warnings in 3 days.

In the timespan of only 3 days our tendency warnings came in 7 times. Warning of sudden change came in 2 times. A warning for a fixed value… well if we would have defined a fixed warning when the humidity rises above 40% we would have gotten a constant warning starting at about 1 p.m. on May 1st – 5 hours after our tendency warning kicked in.

If this graph came from a climate controlled storage area I certainly wanted to get all 7 tendency warnings, because, seriously, this is NOT a good graph! I probably even set my tendency warnings as low as 0.2 or 0.3. For a well known not-so-ideal storage area, well, the warning for sudden changes will do. I won’t change German weather but I sure want to catch leaking ceiling windows or gates left open in wet weather.

I hope you had fun with this little analysis of data. I did. We might like to improve our logger on the basis of these findings…

Read the other posts for this project:

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Mercury – A Tale of the Importance of Good Documentation

It’s a strange thing. The topic of hazardous materials in collections pops up every once in a while but as human beings we tend to forget about it because we consider that – of course – we know these hazards are there, but, then again, we are rather sure we know our own collection well and that if we act according to our safety precautions we are safe.
When mercury was found in the air in one of our storage areas during a pollutant analysis, I was shocked and surprised. Of course I knew we had mercury in our collection. We own a considerable number of thermometers and mercury switches. But until this day I considered our handling instructions and other precautions safe enough. This mercury was all contained, right? Yes, it was. But we never had thought of other sources, open sources that were hidden in our collection.

Discovering open sources of mercury & lessons learned

Automatic organ containing open mercury source (sorry for the poor quality of the pcture).

Automatic organ containing open mercury source (sorry for the poor quality of the pcture).

As we started to research our objects through the lens of “mercury” we discovered that, in fact, there were a couple of objects we never thought of. It turned out that there was an automatic organ which operated with contacts that dipped into mercury in some ceramic containers. In our medical history collection we had devices for counting thrombocytes in blood samples that operated with open mercury. However small, given that mercury evaporates at room temperature, even small outlets are an issue! There were barometers and even chronometers with open mercury sources. It was quite an effort to find out which sources we had. Even more to either remove or contain the mercury and seal and label the contaminated objects properly.
We learned quite a few lessons along the way:

  • Never assume you know everything about your collection
  • Never assume your policies and procedures cover every aspect
  • Never assume that you are safe, keep an eye on recent research

But maybe the most important lesson was about the importance of good documentation. And we learned it the hard way.

All expert knowledge at hand, but still…

Looking back, if someone had thoroughly researched the working principles of said objects, he or she would have discovered that they needed mercury to work. We don’t know if someone knew this when the objects were acquired. At least whoever did it, didn’t mention that they contained mercury in the documentation and the catalog entry.

Mercury switch inside of the automatic organ

Mercury switch inside of the automatic organ

It’s the disconnected working processes that are the real health hazard here! When we look at the classical museum setting there are different people with different knowledge involved in the documentation process. People whose skillsets are perfect matches but all their knowledge is useless if it isn’t interlinked in the workflow:
The curator might know best that mercury was necessary to make an object work, but might not be aware that mercury is a problem. The conservator has, due to his or her education, deep knowledge about dangerous substances but not about the object and might not see the object before it is stored if it is in good condition. Even if he or she checks its condition before it goes off to storage, the mercury might be hidden inside, so the conservator isn’t aware of the danger. The collections manager has some knowledge about dangerous substances but not about the object and might not be able to spot the danger if it isn’t widely known to his/her profession (like arsenic in taxidermied specimen is). The database manager has the knowledge about how to make dangerous substances retrievable in the database and maybe even know how to label them properly, but again, as he or she doesn’t have knowledge about the object, he or she doesn’t know there’s a problem.
Although all the experts work for the same institution, if they don’t assess the object together and bring their knowledge together, they are likely to overlook a danger and impose a health risk on colleagues, future researchers and visitors.

The importance of knowledge in cataloging

It is also obvious how dangerous it is when whoever is doing the catalog entry doesn’t have indeep knowledge about the objects. There is a tendency in museums to think that cataloging is a task that can be done by “whoever”. Knowledge isn’t important, every intern can key in a short description and some measurements, right? Of course we all know that’s nonsense, but arguing against it is tough. It’s hard to communicate what damage it does if dates, measurements and categorizations aren’t correct. With hazardous materials the danger should be obvious: someone doing the catalog entry who hasn’t enough knowledge to understand the working principles is likely to overlook the danger and therefore imposes a life threat to his or her colleagues and visitors.
If the curator can’t do the catalog entry him-/herself for a good reason (And: no, being too lazy/old/busy to learn how to do it isn’t a good reason, at least in my book!) he or she has to share his/her knowledge about the object with whoever does the catalog entry.

How to do it better

Objects containing mercury labeled according to international standards.

Objects containing mercury labeled according to international standards.

There are a few things that can be done to avoid unpleasant surprises:

  1. When an object is acquired, consult with everyone involved in the process. All the expert knowledge at one table will help to discover as many potential hazards as possible.
  2. If you are a one woman/man museum, make sure to reach out to experts in your area, your regional museum association or international experts via listservs and online groups to learn about the possible dangers your new acquisition contains.
  3. If the hazard is new, define safety precautions in handling and storage. If the hazard is long known, make sure your handling and storage precautions are still up to date with current research.
  4. In the database: make sure the hazardous material is named. In an ideal setting you do have a thesaurus of dangerous substances to pick from which are linked to safety precautions and correct labeling.
  5. In the database: make sure an object that contains dangerous substances is clearly distinguishable from other objects so everybody is aware that there might be special handling and storage precautions.
  6. In the storage: label dangerous substances according to international standards.
  7. In the storage: store hazardous materials according to the safety precautions. This might involve special containers or rooms with a ventilation system and handling instructions clearly visible on the container.

Live long and prosper!
Angela Kipp

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