All posts by Anne

Nomenclature 17.2 – A Registrar’s Vision

CC0 - by Master Tux via pixabayOkay, I have a vision flashing in front of my eyes as I go through the database cropping photographs and renaming artifacts. Like the toasting fork that had been catalogued as a Pan, Roasting. My vision is of the future of the ungainly, poorly bound green book that tells me what I am and am not allowed to call these objects. Some of these things are difficult for a child of the mid twentieth century to identify. So I am seeing a future digital version of Nomenclature, and if you are willing to fork out the extra bucks, you get a version like Leafsnap where you photograph the item on your portable device and show it to the Nomenclature 17.2 program and it says, aha! And you say eureka! Because the device tells you what to call the item. How cool is that?

Anne T. Lane


Off the Shelf: Pair o’ Docs

Communication about objects, no matter what they are, is made easier if all parties know exactly what is meant by the names of those objects. I offer to you the following scenario:

flowerThe Extremely Amateur Garden Club is having its annual meeting and plant swap. A group of members is gathered around a robust pot of something green and lacy and hairy covered with deep purple flowers. Mrs. Soapwort exclaims, “Why, I remember those from my grandmother’s garden. That’s a Hairy Purplecup!” Mr. Thymus rubs his jaw and grumbles, “No, no, my brother used to raise those commercially. They’re Lake Lucy Laceleafs, anybody knows that!” “Laceleaves,” mutters his wife, who used to teach English. “Actually, when I was a kid, my mother made tea out of the leaves and called it False Chamomile.” At that point, they all decide to consult Dr. Plantaverde, the University extension agent. “You’re all right,” he says. “Those are all common names for jargonius confusus, or Common Aliasleaf. It probably has other names in other parts of the world, and some of those names could easily refer to more than one plant. However, if you wanted to specify this particular plant anywhere in the world, its two part scientific name would identify it unmistakably.”

The expert was using a type of controlled vocabulary; in this case, the system of binomial nomenclature we all learned about in high school science classes. It allows scientists all over the world, no matter what language they speak, to know exactly what type of plant of animal is meant by jargonius confusus. Let’s go now to our museum. A donor has given us a collection of furniture, bottles and instruments from a doctor’s office. I have no idea what a lot of these things are called. Fortunately, our family doctor is also a long time friend. I call him in to provide proper medical terminology instead of the “chrome-plated thingy with a long wire sticking out of it with a little ball on the end” that is all I know to call it. He brings with him a retired doctor friend who practiced with just the types of instruments that came with this donation. The two have a great time examining the collection. I notice that, sometimes, one of them calls an item by one name and the other calls it something different. Usually they come to some sort of agreement, so I’m reasonably sure that the term I am writing down in the inventory is the equivalent of the scientific name for our potted purplecup.

That’s not the end of it, though. Most museums, in order to facilitate communication about artifacts, make use of their own controlled vocabularies. In the case of museums that collect man made objects, many use a book called Nomenclature1, in which the author has classified artifacts according to the way they are used. There are ten categories, such as Furnishings or Tools and Equipment for Communication, under which are numerous sub-categories such as Bedding and Floor Coverings, or Written Communication Tools & Equipment. If you look under each of these sub-categories, you will find a list of words. These are the names that you are allowed to use for artifacts in this sub-category. In this way, if I call up a museum and ask to borrow a dining chair, they will know not to send me a hall chair. If I ask for a sofa, they will know not to send me something that only has an arm at one end. However, problems arise when the only name you know to call something isn’t in the book. Sometimes you have to find the closest approximation and then put the name you want to use in the description. Now, in the best of all possible worlds, Nomenclature would come with definitions. Since it doesn’t, I often have to resort to a dictionary, or to the Getty’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus2, a wonderful on-line vocabulary that includes definitions. Or, in a pinch, I can rely on my pair o’ docs.

Anne T. Lane

  1. Nomenclature is a controlled vocabulary for the classification of cultural objects invented and first published by Robert G. Chenhall in 1978. Refined ever since it is a standard work for classifying cultural artifacts in U.S. museums. Version 4.0 was published recently:
    Paul Bourcier, Heather Dunn and The Nomenclature Task Force (ed.): Nomenclature 4.0 for Museum Cataloging, Robert G. Chenhall’s System for Classifying Cultural Objects, 4th Edition, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers /AASLH 2015
  2. The Getty Vocabularies including the Art & Architecture Thesaurus can be found and used free of charge here:

Off the shelf – Put a lid on it

lotus_closedLet’s say you buy a widget that comes in a box. This protective container might have on it colorful pictures of what is inside, instructions for setup and use, and barcodes by which the manufacturer, the shipper and the store keep track of inventory and price. Once the box’s usefulness is over, you flatten it and send it to the recyclers.

Think ahead, say, fifty years. You give the widget that was in the box to a museum. What does the museum do? Put it in a box. This box serves purposes very similar to the original one, and sometimes even has the ubiquitous barcode on it. There are important differences, however, between the original packaging and the new housing. The old box might have served as short-term physical protection to save the widget from damage during shipping and storage, but it was almost certainly made of materials that would have done long-term damage to the poor widget. Acidic paper and cardboard, foam that offgasses harmful chemicals, perhaps plastics that deteriorate and form sticky films that mar the finish. Adhesives that break down and migrate from tapes and seams onto the contents.

lotus_adviceThe new box is made of specially manufactured acid-free cardboard, buffered against acid migration. It is made without adhesives. Internal trays or supports may be made of inert foams, undyed and unprocessed cotton or polyester fabrics or fibers, or crumpled acid-free tissue paper. The box is labeled with the widget’s number and description, sometimes even a digital photograph of the it so you don’t have to open the box to see what’s inside. If necessary, instructions for opening up the box and taking the widget out safely are included.

lotus_open1Many objects in the museum’s collection are able simply to sit on shelves or in drawers, and a great many others are put into commercially available acid-free boxes with minimal padding or support. Some items, though, are too fragile, or odd-shaped, to fit in ready-made housing. That’s where the box-maker comes in. I use simple tools – a knife and cutting mat and a glue gun. My arsenal of materials includes acid-free cardboard and card stock, foam in sheets and blocks and rods, archival double-sided tape, muslin and cotton tying tape, as well as the acid-free tissue.

lotus_open2Laying out a box involves measuring the object and figuring out the best way for it to sit, working out how much extra space to include for padding and supports, and figuring out how to get it into and out of the box with the least amount of handling. Sometimes the item is nestled into a cushion of polyester fiberfill, sometimes it is tied to its supports, sometimes it is blocked in with removable foam blocks, complete with numbers and instructions. How do you figure out what to use? Experience, and for me, an ability to imagine myself as the object, able to detect any stresses or weak points that need to be taken care of.

The box illustrated here is of the type known as a lotus box. It has four drop-down sides, allowing the Native American jar to be seen without lifting it out. The lid holds the sides together when the box is closed up. I am currently involved in designing a similar type of box for an artifact belonging to the Levine Museum. It will have a tray and only one drop-down side, with internal foam blocks that will allow two objects to travel safely one inside the other. I have also been asked to teach a box-making workshop this summer for the North Carolina Preservation Consortium.

lotus_open3Containers have fascinated me since I was a kid. I always have saved boxes and tins and bottles. I used to sit in geometry class and design tiny fold-up boxes on my graph paper. Graduating to designing housing for museum objects was a very natural progression, and this is still my favorite part of the job of Collections Manager.


Give it a Rest – Thoughts on Exhibiting Light-sensitive Objects

matt2It is common for museums to include in their collections management policies a schedule for the exhibition of light-sensitive objects such as works on paper and textiles. Frequently these policies include recommendations for light levels, and specify the length of time an object can be exhibited before it is returned to storage for a “rest.” The length of the exhibit period and of the rest time are actually purely arbitrary – in reality, all light-sensitive objects have a finite life span. Think of it as each object having a bank account from which you can make withdrawals, but to which you cannot make deposits. Each amount of time on exhibit is a withdrawal. The “rest” period is not a period in which the object recovers from its exhibit time, because – all together now – light damage is cumulative and irreversible. Once the account is gone, it’s gone. You simply have to tell anyone who asks you to shorten the rest time or lengthen the exhibition time that they are really asking you to spend the object’s life faster. Or, to look at it slightly differently, you can display the object frequently now, or you can display it seldom so that your great-great grandchildren might get a chance to see it.

As for how long this lifespan may be, that depends on many factors – your storage environment, the amount of light and other environmental factors in your exhibit space, and the fibers, dyes, inks and what have you that make up the object itself. Along with time spent on exhibit, these factors, both those you control and those you can’t control, will determine how long that bank account will last.

Anne T. Lane
Mountain Heritage Center
Western Carolina University

This post is also available in Italian, translated by Silvia Telmon.


Collections and Exhibitions – a Symbiotic Relationship

by Anne T. Lane

Installing an exhibition is teamwork. Thanks to Matt Leininger for the picture.

Installing an exhibition is teamwork. Thanks to Matt Leininger for the picture.

An exhibition may be conceived in a number of ways. Usually the idea is first, and the text and artifacts are brought together in support of the idea. Sometimes an artifact or group of artifacts embodies an idea, and the rest of the exhibit is built around them. Sometimes, in order to be bomb-proof or portable, an exhibition is done entirely with graphics, and it is images of the objects that support the idea. Whether the objects are part of the museum’s collection or are to be borrowed from another institution or individual, the collections department becomes part of the equation early in the process.

Choosing of candidates from among available objects is first a matter of research – into the database, into the holdings of potential lenders. A list of possibilities is given to collections staff who bring them out for the curator and exhibition designer to see. Each item is evaluated not only for suitability in telling the story, but for its condition and its vulnerability to the stresses of handling and light exposure. Sometimes mere size or weight are limiting factors, or whether or not the item can be protected from curious visitors who don’t recognize the damage their handling can cause.

Once choices are made, a series of steps is followed in order to prepare the items for exhibition. Condition reports are updated or written, and images made to support them. The exhibition designers must know sizes and lighting requirements in order to determine casework and placement, as well as the possible need for rotation of vulnerable items. Collections staff in turn must determine what mounts or supports to construct to ensure stability of each object. Both exhibition designers and collections staff must have a thorough knowledge of acceptable materials for a safe exhibition environment. This includes not only casework, mounts, and coatings, but also graphics substrates and inks, and adhesives.

Just in case... the registrar makes sure the lights are alright. Thanks to Abbi Kaye Huderle for the picture

Just in case… the registrar makes sure the lights are alright. Thanks to Abbi Kaye Huderle for the picture

Installation is always a joint project. In order for it to go smoothly, everyone has to know where and when each piece is to go in. Staff and volunteers work together to transport items from storage to the gallery, clearing the path and opening and closing doors as needed. Once any objects are in the gallery, someone has to be there at all times to keep unauthorized people from wandering in. Mounts and isolating material are placed, objects are installed, and then lighting levels must be adjusted. Exhibitions staff up on ladders, collections staff on the floor, work to aim and control light levels so the objects are clearly illuminated but not endangered by too much light. The comfort of the public must also be taken into account, as a brilliant light striking into a visitor’s eyes from across the gallery is a serious flaw. A last polish of plexi vitrines, and the opening can take place.

Even after an exhibition is buttoned up, exhibits and collections staff must check regularly that vitrines are clean, that nothing has been jarred out of place, that visitors haven’t found ways to handle or disturb the objects, and that light levels are properly maintained. Collections staff also inspect for evidence of pests. If anything is found to be awry, it is reported to the appropriate department and remedied with as little disturbance to the exhibition as possible.

This text is also available in French translated by Marine Martineau, in Russian translated by Arina Miteva and in Italian, translated by Silvia Telmon.


Off the shelf – Requests from the public

Just in case you thought I’d been twiddling my thumbs in between all the stuff I’ve written about in past issues, let me tell you about

Requests from the Public

Let me set the scene – I have two interns waiting for me to tell them about their next project. Not just what it is, but how to do it. And not just tell them but show them. And do a few myself so they get the idea. Then Kris is on the phone to tell me that she needs me to proof the texts for the Eagle Project panels before she sends it to the printer at 2:30. It’s 1:00. I bring up the texts on the computer, and then go over to the table to show the interns how to pad and wrap children’s dresses in tissue and put them into boxes. But the phone rings, it’s an elderly voice soft as sorghum molasses……

In attic, 1780s house, Nine Mile Point, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. View towards 20th century closet constructed within the attic. by Infrogmation via flickr“They told me that I needed to talk to you. We’ve been cleaning out the chicken house at my great grandpappy’s farm and we found this rock, I think it’s really old, it looks like something the Indians must have used, it’s all sparkly but it has these scratches in it. We washed it real good so it doesn’t smell too bad, and I went over it with a file to get rid of some of the scratches. I’m bringing it over in 15 minutes, I hope you don’t mind. I’m sure it’s valuable.”

Well, yes, I exaggerate. But by far the greatest number of calls from potential donors start out with “We were cleaning out the attic at my (choose your relative)’s house.” If it sounds like something we might want, I check with Kris and we arrange to go see it or have it brought in. If it doesn’t fit our collections parameters, I suggest other museums that might take it. If the caller wants to know something about the value of an item, particularly if they plan to donate it, I am forbidden by museum ethics to give them an appraisal. We keep a list of appraisers and websites to which we refer them. If they just want to know what something is, I try to help them over the phone, but if I can’t, I either have them bring it in or I try to suggest somebody else to help them.

Another common type of call is from a person wanting to know how best to preserve a family treasure. I try to find out as much as I can – what the object is made from, what condition it’s in, what the person wants to do with it. I also ask whether the area they want to store it in is heated and air conditioned, and what kind of light it has. It’s a ticklish situation sometimes, because I have to try to get an idea over the phone about whether the person is willing or able to spend any money on specialized storage materials. If so, I suggest what they might need and give them information about where to get it. If not, I often resort to the old quilt-in-a-pillowcase strategy. There’s also the zip-loc- bag strategy, the if-you’re-comfortable-it’s-probably-comfortable-too strategy, and the anything-but-cardboard-boxes-in-the-attic-strategy. I usually try to convince them that washing or polishing up something frequently does more harm than keeping it in less than ideal conditions. If I find I need to do more research myself, I tell them I’ll call back. And I do.

I even got myself into a volunteer gig of my own through a phone request for information. Later this month I am going to a small local museum to teach their only paid staff member and some of their volunteers how to mark objects.

I love helping people with these things, but it takes time. And I’ve got to go update the database.



Off the shelf – Mapping Maps

Map of Downtown Charlotte 1954, Map by Dolph Map Co., picture via flickr by davecitoThings have been kinda quiet around here lately. I’ve just about gotten the database updated. Only have about 100 or so digital photographs to rename. We’ve started processing some of the 2000 acquisitions, and we’re almost up to date on the ones that have come in during 2003 1. The problem is, though, that when interesting things come across our tables, it’s impossible just to write them up, slap numbers on them, and stick them on a shelf. You get involved with them. Lately, it’s been maps. Kelly, one of our oh-so-wonderful interns, and I were looking at a bound set of blueprint real estate maps of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County that date from the 1930s. They outline the lots downtown – excuse me, UPtown – and list property owners and assessed values. Property values have changed a bit since then, but Trade and Tryon was the place to be! This sort of documentation is of inestimable value to anyone researching the histories of buildings and businesses in the city. We were given in the same accession a fine Official Lot and Block Atlas of Charlotte, N. C. that is dated 1928. It is printed on heavily coated linen from hand-drawn originals and shows, among other reminders of a vanished past, the trolley lines that used to serve as mass transit for the city.

It is also instructive – and fascinating – to go back forty more years to 1888. The map, donated this year, is of Mecklenburg county. The center city is not detailed, but the names of property owners are written in for outlying areas. Sure enough, there are “our” Alexanders (see for details). On many of these properties, we can see names that are now given to streets, to parks, to buildings and businesses and neighborhoods in the area. Along with this map, we received as museum property an indenture of lease from England, dated 1696. It used to hang in a Charlotte law office and will hang in our library before long. It is hand written on calfskin vellum and hung with three red wax seals at the bottom, and I challenge you to try to read it! Not only is the script archaic, but the language is an opaque legalese that would put any modern writer of fine print to shame. Lee, another collections intern, started trying to transcribe it for me. Fortunately, the donor found a transcription done by another lawyer in 1975. We’ll probably make this available in the library for those who are curious, or are looking for lessons in obfuscatory verbiage!

Well, I better go update the database. And slap on a few numbers.


  1. The article was written 2003.

Off the shelf – Notes on spring-cleaning

One of the weird things about this job is that you can’t touch any of the stuff you’re working with. Nowhere is this more bizarrely evident than when we are cleaning the house. In we come, armed with our $1400 vacuum cleaner, our white gloves, our specially treated electrostatic dust cloths with no unnatural ingredients, our horsehair dusting brushes, our large pieces of unbleached muslin and our fluffy, all-cotton, washed without dyes or perfumes, dried without fabric softener sheets, white towels and diapers. Yup, the humble cloth diaper is one of the chief weapons in the preservationist’s arsenal!

springcleaningSo we bring all this into the house and lug it up those oh-so-narrow stairs with that railing that is specially designed to catch and hold vacuum-cleaner hoses, and we put everything down. The only trouble is, there isn’t any place to put it down. Except the floor or the windowsills. Can’t put your dusting brush on the dresser, can’t lay your vacuum attachments on the trunk, can’t sit on any of the chairs when you get tired. Ever tried putting together a vacuum cleaner while wearing gloves? Ever tried vacuuming in a house that has exactly two outlets? Ever tried vacuuming in a house where you can’t touch the furniture with any part of the vacuum or with your bare hands? Where you have to vacuum with the grain of the floorboards instead of across? Where, to get behind or under a large piece of furniture, you have to have two people wearing gloves lift it up to move it so you don’t scar the floorboards?

Then there’s the dusting. At home, where everything is smooth and shining, you just spray your spray stuff on your rag and sweep it across that gleaming wood. In the Hez House, all the wood is older than your great great grandmother. It has chips and cracks and uneven finishes and splinters. If you run a dust cloth across it, it ends up wearing bits of the cloth. So you have to use a brush to dust it, then pick up the dust with the vacuum. Even if the wood is smooth enough to dust, you aren’t allowed to spray anything on it, hence the fancy dust cloths. And the diapers. Now, often you have to move an artifact to dust the furniture under it. You have to remember that if it has a rim, you can’t pick it up by that, and if it has a handle, you can’t pick it up by that, and if it’s made of glass or ceramic you can’t use gloves, and if it’s not glass or ceramic you do have to use gloves – by the time you remember what you are and are not allowed to do, seven more layers of dust have been deposited.

I think the hardest thing to remember is not to put anything on the beds. The majority of the coverlets and many of the sheets are historic textiles, so the nasty sharp things you took off the table in the boys’ room can’t be put there unless you remember to put a thick pad of muslin over the bed. The other thing I have trouble with is remembering not to lean on the furniture. It’s so automatic to put your arm on the dresser for support when you’re trying to find the outlet behind it, or to lean against a bed so you can reach the far side of it to tidy up the linens. Well, let me tell you, if you lean on some of those beds, they’ll just keep on leaning over until you and bed are on the floor! So, as you watch your maid whisking about your house making tidy all your little indiscretions, have pity on your poor collections staff, cleaning up after hundreds of children not their own while trying to figure out how not to lay hands on the very things they must clean….

Well, got a little update work to do on the database. TTFN



Off the shelf – A day in the life of a collections manager

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.

mask1So, 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