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The Weather Fire Dwarfs or: Some Thoughts on Sensors Part 1

Picture by Brett_Hondow CC0 via pixabay

When I think about my early childhood, there is one picture that comes up from time to time: It’s my grandfather standing before the so called “weather station”, a wooden panel with three brass gauges: a thermometer, a hygrometer and a barometer. Then my grandfather gently knocked against the glass lid of the barometer with his knuckle and checked the barometer again. As a child I was convinced he woke up the little worker inside, who in return checked if the weather would become fair, rainy or if it was changing. This made perfect sense to me, because I knew there was a special force responsible for the weather: the weather fire dwarfs. After the evening news the news anchor would say “And now the weather fire dwarfs for tomorrow”. It was much later that I asked my mom and she explained to me that it wasn’t the “Wetterfeuerzwerge” (weather fire dwarfs), but the “Wettervorhersage” (weather forecast). Until then, I was convinced that being a weather fire dwarf was just a job like being a firefighter, a baker or a teacher. They looked out for the weather and made assumptions on how it was going to be. It also made perfect sense that this job was done by dwarfs, given the small instruments they needed to operate in.

You might wonder where I’m heading to with those seemingly random childhood memories? Now, my grandfather certainly did neither wake up the little weather fire dwarf, nor did he perform some other kind of magic. He just made sure the barometer, which had a small metal box called an aneroid for measuring the pressure inside, was showing the tendency. When you tap them, the pointer will move to the current pressure, giving you an indication if the air pressure is rising or falling. He also knew that the little markers that read “very stormy”, “rain”, “change”, “fair” and “very dry” were not to be take literally. In winter “fair” weather often meant it became very cold. He not only looked at the barometer – he also knew how to interpret what he saw.

Fast forward to 2018 I struggle with explaining the use and the accuracy of sensors to colleagues. I can’t fight the feeling that digital has somehow taken a toll on our imagination and our expectations towards instruments. It’s especially true for hygrometers, as humidity is far more complicated to measure exactly than temperature 1. A digital hygrometer usually provides you with two digits behind the comma. So instead of reading a little above 50% on the analog hygrometer it provides you with a straight 51.23 % relative humidity. That’s astounding. Sadly, it doesn’t mean what people think it means. Because it seems to provide such an exact figure, people assume it’s more accurate than the analog reading of grandpa’s old weather station. But it isn’t necessarily so. If it’s a very good digital humidity sensor with a 1.5% accuracy the reading will mean it’s somewhat 50 to 52ish. If it is a more common sensor with a given 5% accuracy it tells you that it can be anything along the lines of 46 to 56% 2

Picture by Alexas_Fotos via pixabay CC0

But why are they giving two digits behind the comma anyway, is this just a fancy feature? Yes and no. For that, we have to understand the difference between accuracy and resolution, both specifications you will find when you are buying a datalogger or sensor. What we just talked about is the accuracy. The resolution is often higher than the accuracy. Your humidity sensor might have an accuracy of +/- 2% RH, but a resolution of 0.1. This seems like a contradiction at first, but it isn’t. Let us imagine a little weather fire dwarf who is able to feel how wet it is. He says: “It’s 52%”. Now, while we saw that this can mean anything between 50% and 54%, if we send him out again, he will be able to tell us if it is becoming wetter or dryer than before. And he will be able to tell us more detailed than he can do it with the general humidity. He is able to say: “It’s getting damper, now it’s 52.1%.” So, while the digits behind the comma mean nothing in terms of general humidity, they can help us understand where the climate of a room is heading to and how severe the changes are. If you measure every 5 minutes and get a reading of 52.1%, 52.3%, 52.2%, 52.1%, 52.2% and 52.1% over half an hour it will tell you something else than a series that reads 52.0%, 52.2%, 52.3%, 52.4%, 52.6%, 52.8%. While both series can still mean it’s 2% more or less humid, the tendency of the second series shows that something is going on which makes the room damper. Think of the resolution as a measurement that helps you to see change, just like grandpa tapping on that old barometer.

Next up, we will ask the question if sensors really read the temperature and humidity of a room.
Stay tuned!

Angela

  1. Which is also the reason why you get temperature sensors for just a few cents while you can invest a good deal of money in good humidity sensors
  2. Fun fact: the accuracy given by loggers in +/- percentage values are not standardized. So, a 5% accuracy can mean it is 5 percentage points off or it can mean that it is really 5% off of your reading. This leaves you either with a range between 46 and 56% or between about 48.5. And 53.5% for 51% relative humidity. As most datalogger and sensor manufacturers refuse to document what their accuracy percentage means, I always assume it’s the worst of both possibilities.
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Objects are not Easter Eggs and a Museum Professional is not the Easter Bunny

Growing up in the middle of Europe my earliest Easter memories are joyfully searching for Easter Eggs in the garden. Many years later a recurring task in my professional life is searching for things that are not where the database says they should be. For this Easter I thought I’d write about the differences:

Searching for objects is not joyful

pic by OpenClipart-Vectors via pixabay (CC0)While as a child the search for the Easter Eggs is full of joy, the search for an object is all but that. You search for an object because it is needed, often needed fast, for a research request, loan or exhibition. There is time pressure and if you don’t find it, it has consequences. It can mean a whole lot of work for other people, like curators having to search for alternative objects that convey the same message as the original object. It can mean that whole parts of an exhibition must be changed because they were designed around this special object. It can also mean that a researcher can’t answer the question s/he is working on.

Objects are not hidden on purpose

Other than Easter Eggs no one hides objects on purpose. While a small portion is really stolen, most are lost because people miss to record or communicate location changes (we already looked at this in Failures in Figures). The reasons are multifold: thoughtlessness, laziness, arrogance (“That’s not my job”), confidence in the own abilities to remember everything, the belief that “I just take it out now and put it back in immediately”. No traits of the Easter Bunny but of many museum professionals.
Recently I discovered an additional reason why object locations are not updated: magical thinking. The belief just because there is Wi-Fi in the storage and the objects are barcoded a magical superpower knows exactly where each object is. Sorry folks, that’s not how it works.

Looking in all the right places

While searching for Easter Eggs is often unsystematic or just starting at point X and ending at point Y of the garden, searching for objects requires a different approach. If your storage has 3,000 square meters and much more shelf space, you can’t just search everything. And you can’t just go into the storage looking for the object. Instead, the first thing you do is a hands-off approach. You think about what most likely happened to the object.

pic by haru9999 via pixabay (CC0)

“I’m quite sure there was one more, was there?”

The starting point is the last entry in the location field. When did it get there, and can you imagine that it was used somewhere else in the meanwhile? A good database comes not only with a location entry but also with a field stating the date the location change was made, along with a history of former location changes. It also has entries of whatever happened to the object and when – was it on loan, did it need conservation, was it photographed, was it cited… All these can provide you with ideas where to start your search. Sometimes a picture was taken after the last date of location change – chances are the object is still in the hands of the photographer. Sometimes the object was on display after the last date of location change – chances are the object is still in the boxes that were packed at the deinstallation of this exhibition. Other objects that were in the same show case at exhibition X went to storage location Y – chances are your object is also in storage location Y.
You are making a list of possible people to call and places to search before you actually start searching.

A mindful use of energy

As a child on Easter morning it’s great to run into the garden full of energy and search for those eggs. As a museum professional with a tight schedule and a lot of tasks on your plate you have to be more mindful about how you will approach the search. You have to weigh the time you can invest in the search against the likeliness of finding the object.
If the object can be retrieved with just a few phone calls, everything is fine. If the object is needed next week and the last storage location is a place that doesn’t exist anymore (i.e. because you disassembled the shelves or moved into another storage location 10 years ago) it’s probably better to inform the researcher or curator immediately and ask her or him to look for an alternative, if possible. If there is a high likeliness of the object being in a pile of boxes that don’t have proper location entries, it’s probably best to work through this pile updating all locations – you will save yourself a lot of time for future requests.

Make sure you know that you don’t know

Remember as a child searching the same place twice because you forgot whether you have looked under that tree? You should make sure this doesn’t happen to you when you search for an object. The most important thing is to mark an object as “location unknown” as soon as you discover it isn’t where it is supposed to be. That way everyone knows the object is not accessible at the moment and can already think about alternatives. It also helps you to keep an eye on all the objects with “location unknown”: Is their number in the database decreasing, chances are you are doing a good job as collections manager. If the number increases, chances are there are problems in your collections management and logistic workflow and you might want to take a closer look to find the underlying issues.
That you should tick off the things you already did to find the object on your list should go without saying.

I hope the only thing you have to search for now are real Easter Eggs.
Happy Easter, all!
Angela

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Documenting Your Documentation – Overview

What makes your collection special?

Documenting our documentation is new for us all. Let’s start simple!

First you need to decide if you make a documentation of your whole museum or if you split it into different collections. That depends how large your museum is and if different people are responsible for different collections.

Overview of the collection

  1. Elevator Pitch: Imagine a very important person is visiting your collection. They know nothing about it. You have 30 seconds on the elevator to tell them the most important facts.
    Describe your collection in three sentences. (Normal sentences, not scientific-paper-five-comma-sentences). Important are : Content of the collection, size, significance.

    On your way to the storage there are a few polite questions. Now you have a bit more time to answer, but stay focussed: Give an overview, do not go into details of collection concepts or the donor’s biography. That will come later.

  2. Collection in context: Is your collection part of a larger museum collection? Is there any way to distinguish your collection from the others? (separate storage, different inventory number, classification,..)
  3. Significance of the collection: How important is your collection in comparison to the other collections in your museum/to similar collections in other museums? What are the main differences?

Maria Scherrers

Maria Scherrers is museum specialist with degrees from HTW Berlin and the University of Leicester. She spent most of her working life so far in company museums and collections. She is fascinated by the way our everyday life is changed by brands and how that influences our cultural history and what we will be collecting in the future. In the mean time she is a consultant for company that wish to build and use historic product collections.
She spends her little free time on her family and on politics.
www.historicalassetmanagement.de

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Beyond the Index Cards – Documenting Documentation

Documenting what you did and why will help your future self.

Collection work is more than just storage and object information in a database. Sometimes we only realize how much more there is when important people leave or when we have to painfully puzzle together different information to answer simple questions.

Just imagine 20/50/80 years ago one of your predecessors had documented what they did, why they did it and how they did it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to understand where this object numbering system comes from, who meticulously documented that part of the collection on index cards or where that part of the collection was stored over the years.

Over the next weeks I want to post some questions you might want to answer for yourself. Think of what all the people coming after you might want to know about your collection work.

These topics will be part of the questionnaire:

1. Overview

2. History of the Collection

3. Collecting and Collection Criteria

4. Documentation and Documentation Criteria

5. Digitisation and Object Photography

6. How the Collection is used

7. Storage and Conservation

8. Plans and Future Developments

Stay tuned!

Maria Scherrers

Maria Scherrers is museum specialist with degrees from HTW Berlin and the University of Leicester. She spent most of her working life so far in company museums and collections. She is fascinated by the way our everyday life is changed by brands and how that influences our cultural history and what we will be collecting in the future. In the mean time she is a consultant for company that wish to build and use historic product collections.
She spends her little free time on her family and on politics.
www.historicalassetmanagement.de

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Things Greater and Smaller

book coverAbout a year and a half ago, my editor at Rowman & Littlefield asked if I was interested in preparing a new edition of my book, Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies. The first edition had been published in 2006 which meant that it was long overdue for an update, so of course I said yes (I wanted to call the second edition Things Greater and Smaller, but, alas, that didn’t happen).

As I started working on the project, I realized just how much some aspects of the museum field had changed since 2006, particularly the amount of information and how we access it. As I reviewed several score of new books, journal articles, and listserv discussions, I was struck by how many more resources are now available than when I wrote the first edition. I also thought back to when I started my museum career―admittedly this was back in the Pleistocene, also known as the 1970s―at that time, the museum literature was very sparse and there were no internet resources (because there was no internet). The only way to consult with one’s colleagues was to call them on the telephone (back then you actually paid for each long-distance call) or wait until you bumped into them at some meeting or other. The rich variety of print publications and web resources that are readily accessible now and our ability to instantly consult with a brain trust of seasoned museum professionals via cell phone, email, or web-based discussion groups has changed the field considerably, and much for the better.

When I mentioned that I was preparing a new edition of the book, people would usually ask what I was planning to change. Indeed, the changes are many, beginning with a rewrite of most of the text and the addition of several new text boxes, and a few photographs have been added to the revised edition. There is updated and expanded coverage of deaccessioning and intellectual property rights, and a new section on digital collections. The laws and legislation appendix has been revised, and the bibliography expanded. The second edition text reflects changes in our thinking about standards for collections care and storage environments. Some information has been added about collection management policies for zoological parks and botanical gardens, and about the curation of culturally sensitive collections. One of the most noticeable changes in the new edition is that the sample policies from real institutions have been replaced with model policies from fictitious institutions. Because the sample policies in the first edition all came from real museums, they were limited in their applicability to other situations and in any case, most had become dated. Although I warned readers of the first edition not to copy policies from other museums but to write their own, most people preparing policies need something to start with, so the new edition offers models to provide users a way to get started.

A good collections management policy is the foundation of a great collection.

This new edition incorporates much that I have learned about how the book is used by its readers. This primarily came from feedback from presenting workshops, teaching classes and webinars, and from people who took the time to let me know what they thought about it. It is somewhat daunting, but always instructive, to assign your own book to a class and then watch how they interpret what you have said.

Although collections management policies are very important to museums, even I have to admit that policy preparation can be, for want of a better word, boring. To help out with that aspect of policy preparation I have developed a board game to go along with the new edition of Things Great and Small. I call the game Monopolicies (you can guess what board game inspired it) and after some beta testing, it is nearly ready for a public launch. The idea is that instead of those dry and interminable discussions with colleagues about collections management policies for your institution the staff can, instead, have their discussions in a more relaxed atmosphere while having fun playing a game. Monopolicies will be made available in early spring as a free download—watch for it! (Update 2018/02/04: It’s available for download here: http://www.museumstudy.com/courses/course-list/monopolicy/ )

Things Great and Small is available now from the publisher (https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781933253039/Things-Great-and-Small-Collections-Management-Policies) and other booksellers.

John E. Simmons
Museologica
and
Adjunct Curator of Collections, Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum & Art Gallery, Penn State University

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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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What is this ‘Linked Data’ thing all about?

By Richard Light

PenClipartVectors via pixabay (CC0)You may have come across an enthusiast (like me!) who tells you that you should be publishing your museum collection as Linked Data. Your reaction may well have been to shrug, say “I don’t know what it is and I don’t know how to do this”, and get back to cataloguing your collection and recording your collections management work. At this stage in the game, that would probably be a wise choice.
This post tries to explain “what Linked Data is” from a cultural heritage point of view, what the possibilities are, and why it is currently really hard to do it.

The Web as a distributed database

We all know how the Web works. You find a page containing information that interests you: this usually involves using a well-known search engine. This initial page of search results contains lots of links to relevant pages, and you simply click on the links that look relevant to go to those pages. On each new page there are more links to follow. If you’re really lucky you can end up going round in circles. This is ‘browsing the Web’. It’s fine as far as it goes, for looking up and reading information, one page at a time.
However, if you want to treat these pages as data (for example, to add background information into an object catalogue record), you will find they are quite limited. You can copy and paste some (or all!) of a web page into one of your records, but you will find that you either end up with annoying HTML markup in your data along with the text, or that the markup disappears and all the text is kludged together. Either way, you can’t expect to extract data from web pages in a format which is compatible with your collections management system.
Linked Data works in the same way as web pages. The key difference is that each ‘page’ is actually a (sort of) database entry, containing structured data. You can browse from one Linked Data page to another, just as you browse web pages. The Linked Data web is, in effect, a loosely joined-up database that spans the entire Internet.

Using URLs to identify concepts

Linked Data, from our perspective, is something we could use to describe the entities that make up the cultural heritage world. These include people, places, events … and objects. A key feature of the Linked Data approach is that each concept has its own unique identifier. This is a URL, which follows exactly the same rules as the URLs which identify web pages. So this is a Linked Data identifier for a person from the Getty’s ULAN (Unified List of Artist Names) thesaurus:
http://vocab.getty.edu/ulan/500077287
Pop that URL into your browser, and you will see a slightly strange web page, which lists the facts known about this person. The page heading makes it clear that this person is John Gerald Platt – something that isn’t clear from the URL.
So far, not very exciting – but this is where the Linked Data magic comes in. Ask for the same URL in a different way, and you get real data back. I’ll gloss over the exact way you do this1 and the technical details of the data2 , and give you a sense of how it looks. This is a fragment of the XML version of John Gerald’s data:

This fragment lists the biographical data that is available. The key point is that each biographical statement has its own Linked Data URL, for example http://vocab.getty.edu/ulan/bio/4000231223, which you can look up:

This biographical fragment contains some real data: two dates and a summary description. There are also URLs for John Gerald’s gender and place of birth, which you could track down and extract data from. You’ll notice that these URLs come from different Getty thesauri: the gender URL comes from the AAT (Art and Architecture Thesaurus) and the place of birth from the TGN (Thesaurus of Geographic Names). This is a good way to do Linked Data: use existing frameworks to express the concepts you want to make statements about, rather than inventing new ones.
The really nice thing about using someone else’s Linked Data URLs in your records is that they give you additional data ‘for free’. For example, if you use a geographical resource like Geonames3 you get access to geolocation data for each place, which means you can publish distribution maps full of little pins at the cost of a little programming.

Publishing your collection as Linked Data

So let’s return to my original suggestion: that you publish information about your collection objects as Linked Data. There are two good reasons to do this: you stake a claim to your own material in the Linked Data world; and you provide an API for others to use when they want to access your data. I’ve had a go at doing this for U.K. museums, and a couple of them have taken up the opportunity4.

However, as I flagged up at the start, there are also good reasons not to publish your collection as Linked Data. Three which spring to mind: I’ll bet your collections management system lacks any support to help you add Linked Data URLs to your catalogue records; your web publishing software environment lacks any means of using Linked Data to add value to your web presence; and (perhaps most importantly) we currently lack Linked Data frameworks for the concepts we really want to share information about: people, places and events.

I’ll talk about these topics in more detail in a future post: in the meantime I look forward to responding to your comments and questions.

Richard Light is a U.K.-based information scientist and software developer who has been involved in museum information systems for nearly all his career. He helped computerize the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge back in the days of punched paper tape and mainframes, and then worked on data standards and systems with the Museum Documentation Association (now Collections Trust). Since 1991 he has been an independent cultural heritage consultant, specializing in markup languages and Linked Data. He is the Chair of Free UK Genealogy5 and is a regular attendee at CIDOC6 meetings: something all museum documentation folk should do!

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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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Holy Crap – Something’s in There!

Objects Containing Ingredients in Collections

Recently I stumbled upon this article on Piero Manzoni’s work “Artist’s Shit”: https://www.sartle.com/artwork/artists-shit-no-014-piero-manzoni

It reminded me of a problem that hits every collections manager at least once in his or her career. The object that contains something. Not always the content is as debatable as canned crap, but from arsenic to zwieback there is an endless list of ingredients that can give you headaches for various reason. Now, what does the responsible collections manager do in those cases? It sure doesn’t come as a surprise that he or she is asking a variety of questions before he or she decides what to do.

Does it fit into the collection?

The can reads “no shit” in German, thus avoiding copyright infringement. “Kein Scheiß” in Germany means both  “no shit” and “I am not kidding you”.

The can reads “no shit” in German, thus avoiding copyright infringement. “Kein Scheiß” in Germany means both “no shit” and “I am not kidding you”.

This is – or should be – of course the first question with every object that is presented to a collecting institution like a museum. The question here is whether the object supports the mission and fits into the collections policy. But isn’t this the same thing? As far as we all know a collections policy should always elaborate on an institution’s mission statement. Yes, but a collections policy might limit what you collect anyway.

Your mission might say that you are collecting Italian art from 1960 to 1970, so Piero Manzoni’s work might well fit in there. But your collections policy might limit this down to paintings and works on paper for the reason that your storage is only suitable for these materials and you don’t have the capacity to store sculptures or other three dimensional objects. In this case, a can of artist’s you-know-what is luckily none of your business.

 
 

What’s important? The container, its ingredient or both?

If you come so far that the object fits into your collection, the next question is if this holds true for all of it.

If you are a museum for industrial design chances are you want to preserve the container. If the can held meat extract instead of this artist’s… product… you would probably have no problem with carefully opening and emptying the can in the least invasive form possible to preserve the original design of the container.

If you are a museum whose mission is to educate people about feces (nope, I so totally didn’t make this up: https://www.poomuseum.org/ ) and therefore you preserve that stuff, you might likely be more interested in preserving the ingredient than the container. In real collections life, this often means that you have to remove the content from the original container to store it in a more appropriate container for long-term preservation. Now, I haven’t done any research on this concerning human feces, but my gut feeling tells me that a tin can is probably not the best container for their long-term storage.

Then, there are the cases where both, ingredient and container are worth preserving. I think we are safe to say that this is the case with “Artist’s Shit”. The age long questioning if Piero Manzoni really did it, if the can really contains what is said on its label is a strong evidence. A container just saying “Artist’s Shit” but obviously being empty would be somehow pointless. So would be preserving Mr. Manzoni’s feces, I guess. Although I’m not completely sure about this. Some future art historian might be interested in having it analyzed in a lab to find out about the artist’s lifestyle habits. After further consideration: it MIGHT be worth preserving it, as long as it fits into your collections policy and you solved the issue of long-term preservation.

But in this case, both, content and container form the artwork, so we certainly want to preserve both. And for that matter, we can’t separate the container from its ingredient, even if feces might demand other storage conditions than tin cans. We would alter the original condition of the artwork, which we strive to avoid as museum professionals. As a side note: countless collections managers have missed the chance to become artists themselves by leaving Manzoni’s work untouched – someone did open a can and it is now an artwork itself: http://beachpackagingdesign.com/boxvox/opening-can-boite-ou%C2%ADver%C2%ADte-de-pie%C2%ADro-man%C2%ADzo%C2%ADni

Is it hazardous?

It’s one of the key questions for every collections manager. The question goes different ways: is it harmful for itself and the other collections items and is it harmful for those working with the collection? On a sad note, I never, ever encountered a collections manager who is asking these questions in a different sequence, although, really, we should!

The question if it is harmful for itself is one that also plays a role when deciding on whether or not separating the ingredient from the container. Some things can destroy themselves if locked in an air-tight container. I’m sure every museum with a collection of celluloid items has a story about it. Concerning feces I would consider this risk rather low. However, I’m not an expert.

Whether or not the object is a threat to the rest of the collection is a key question before accepting an object. As there is quite a bandwidth of dangers that range from highly dangerous to mostly harmless under most conditions this kind of risk analysis can keep a collections manager up all night.

In the case of Manzoni’s artwork… well, there is a certain possibility that the feces inside (if they are inside) start fermenting, especially if it is too hot in the storage. There is a certain likeliness of the artwork becoming a fragmentation bomb under these circumstances. This could be avoided when stored properly.

The hazard for people handling it goes into the same direction. However, the risk is not so high that it would justify denying the acquisition (like it would probably be if someone offers the museum some live chemical agent). There should be a written procedure for the handling, for example containing that staff should check the can regularly for swelling. It should also be noted that there is a potential biohazard as we don’t know if there are real feces inside and we can’t be completely sure that Manzoni was in the best of health when he… safety first, right?

Summing up

After the collection manager knows

  • if the object fits into the collection,
  • if the content and its container are worth preserving,
  • if they can be separated of have to stay together unaltered, and
  • if they are hazardous and what these hazards are,

the collections manager will

  • advise on whether or not to acquire the object,
  • store the container and its ingredients in the most appropriate way,
  • label hazardous objects if necessary, and
  • write handling procedures for future colleagues.

I desperately tried to find a closing sentence for this article that is not a bad pun or for other reasons inappropriate. I failed. So I just write: Stay safe!

Angela

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How Should Museums Equip Themselves For Rapid Response Collecting?

by Kathleen Lawther

by Liz Lemon via flickr (CC0)Following the Women’s March on Washington and the marches which took place around the world in solidarity on Saturday 21st January, I began to see posts popping up on Twitter and from the Museums Association in the UK highlighting the fact that museums wanted to collect protest signs, pink pussy hats and other artefacts relating to the marches. It’s great that museums want to document this moment and this movement, but I wonder if by the time museums have put out the message that they were collecting, it is already too late? Do people commonly bring their signs home with them? I didn’t personally attend a women’s march on the 21st but I have been to demonstrations before and I certainly didn’t lug any cumbersome signs home with me at the end of the day. They are not objects which are meant to last longer than a day or serve a purpose other than getting a specific message across at the specific time. This does not mean museums should not be collecting them, museums have always collected and preserved things which their makers never intended to last. But it does make the business of physically collecting them that much harder.

By Mobilus In Mobili via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)One of my concerns about museums putting a call out for signs after the fact is that the available signs are limited not only by the amount of people who will have bothered to take their signs home with them after the march, but by the amount of these people who will see these call outs and volunteer to donate their signs. This reduces the amount of available material to a tiny proportion of the millions of signs created for the day. It is therefore unlikely that museums will be able to pick and choose acquisitions which reflect the diversity of signs on the marches, from funny, light-hearted but pointed attacks on the new administration to signs highlighting the importance of intersectionality and making links to other movements such as black lives matter and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) rights. You cannot encapsulate the breadth of these events in a pink pussy hat. Again, collecting specific items which stand for themes and events and using them to reflect on those themes is part of the everyday work in museums, but doing so at speed makes the process much harder. Social media also means that the people all over the world have already seen and shared images of the most thought-provoking, powerful and funny signs from the day, so if a museum is only able to collect a couple of items that don’t measure up to what has already been shared from the marches, people will know that what has been collected is not a true reflection of the protest.

by Liz Lemon via flickr CC0What is the solution to this? To be able to collect the best and most relevant objects from a protest, museum staff would need to be there at the event, either physically taking in objects on the spot, or at least handing out flyers with contact details and information about how to donate. Both of these approaches have their practical problems. To take in items there and then, museum staff would need to have entry forms on them, take the time to explain the donation procedure to protesters, and get them to sign the forms, all of which is taking up time in the day of someone who is there to take action, not record that action for posterity. By just handing out information, you place the burden on donors to take their sign home, keep it safe, and then bring it to the museum on a later date. A further option could be an alternative entry form designed for rapid response collecting, something quicker and easier to administer on the spot, which would allow museums to take in items with the minimum of fuss for donors and collectors, while upholding good documentation practice.

by  AnubisAbyss via flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) That is just the practical side of things. First a museum has to make a decision that an upcoming event will be significant enough to warrant on the spot collecting. It’s easy to say in hindsight that the Women’s March was significant and that items from the march should be preserved. But in the current climate protests are happening all the time, in quick reaction to new events. On 28th January people flooded the terminals of several US airports in protest at the executive order banning refugees, the following day spontaneous protests also happened in US cities. How can a museum as an institution react quick enough to be on the ground collecting at protests that erupt in multiple locations on a Saturday night? An individual member of staff could, perhaps, but would they be able to represent their museum in these circumstances without approval from their institution?

by Liz Lemon via flickr CC0The other question this raises for me is whether it is ethical for a museum, or the representative of a museum, to attend a protest just to collect donations? A relevant parallel might be that of journalists and photographers, who attend protests as observers and recorders. In reacting to current events museums may have to act more like journalists, covering events with a detached eye. But museum staff and established museum practices for collecting are not prepared for this type of fieldwork. The protesters being asked to donate may be sceptical of museum workers being there in this context, especially if they believe the museum to be at odds with their cause, or taking a neutral and unhelpful stance on whatever they are protesting. There is something uncomfortable for me in the idea of a museum taking up space, and taking up people’s energy and time at a protest if the museum is ultimately only there to serve its own interests. Perhaps this will change in time if museums do take up a more active social role, as opposed to their more traditional role of collecting and recording.

by Liz Lemon via flickr CC0The answers to at least some of these questions come down to individual museums having a clear mission and a collecting policy which supports it, as well as robust collections management and documentation processes which can meet the needs of rapid response collecting. Museums have traditionally been reactive and they need to find ways to be more proactive. This might mean the staff who are usually responsible for approving new acquisitions taking the time to look ahead to upcoming local events which have the potential to produce interesting ephemera or other objects worth collecting, and assigning someone to go out and actively seek donations. It definitely means museums putting targeted policies and processes, like an on the spot temporary entry form, in place now if they want to be equipped to act quickly to what is happening around them. Like so many things it comes down to good collections management: museums really knowing their collections, and knowing what they want their collections to achieve.

Kathleen Lawther is keeper of local history & archives at Hastings Museum & Art Gallery in South East England, and a freelance museum consultant with an interest in collections management, learning and engagement and the places where they intersect. She has worked in a range of organisations in the U.K. from small local authority museums to a national museum. She writes a personal blog about current issues in museums as acidfreeblog.com

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