As I uncovered recently, we registrars, collections managers and curators of collections are a strange breed of animals rarely spotted. As we know from Discovery Channel there’s nothing more interesting than spotting rare animals in their natural habitat. I’m really glad that my colleague Anne T. Lane started a series about the work in the collections departement. So, if you follow this series, next time your kids ask “Mommy, Daddy, what does a collections manager do?” you can come up with much smarter answers than “Well, a collections manager manages collections!”
It’s a different life back here. There are no windows, because light is detrimental to museum objects. We have our own separate climate control system, because heat and high humidity are detrimental to museum objects. So is low humidity. So if you see us blinking owlishly in the light and wearing long sleeves during a 90 degree heat wave, you will know from whence we come.
So, you’d like to hear about a typical day in the life of a collections person? Sorry, there’s no such thing. I’m designing a storage mount for a WWII gas mask. I’ve been doing this for about two weeks. I get to work on it, oh, maybe 10 minutes at a time, in between labeling a collection of hairpins, packing some Victorian era women’s clothes with acid-free tissue in acid-free boxes, updating the collections database, doing condition reports on the prints for the upstairs hallway exhibit, visiting a potential donor’s home to look at a collection of WWI-era baby clothes, getting a quote on having some posters framed, updating the database, supervising the volunteer doing data entry from our old catalogue cards, cleaning the Hezekiah Alexander House, washing the gloves we use to handle collections objects (mild detergent, rinse twice, no fabric softener and don’t let the cats sleep in the bag), updating the database, ordering new sleeves and boxes for the postcard collection, attending planning meetings, doing the homework for planning meetings, photographing a beaded jacket and purse, steaming out creases in a quilt, discussing the exhibit calendar for the next three years with Kris, oh, and did I mention updating the collections database?
It’s not a boring job. You get to work with other people; then you get to weasel away by yourself for hours at a time. You get to be creative, you get to build things, you get to handle all the neat stuff, you get to do research, you get to solve problems, you learn new things every day, you get to work with like-minded folks – fellow employees, interns and volunteers. Oh, and did I mention…..oops, wrong paragraph. You have to be precise and detail-oriented to a fault. You have to be organized but also very flexible. And you aren’t allowed to eat lunch at your desk. Ever.
I will be writing here about some of the things, old and new, that reside on shelves or sit in crates in a museum. And about some of the processes and procedures for taking care of them. So many people have no idea what goes on behind the locked doors of a collections departement. You’ll find me trying to build a mount for this poor gas mask; or, updating the collections database.
Text: Anne T. Lane