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Book Review: "Storage of Natural History Collections"

Friday, April 25, 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Kaia Landon
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I know – there aren’t that many natural history museums in Utah. Even I only bought these books when I realized how much I still had to learn specifically about that part of our collection. BUT, this is an excellent set that could improve most any museum’s (or museum professional’s) library. Just ignore the title for a minute, okay?

I think it’s fair to say that most of us could improve how we store our collections. This set will help you do it – in ways that are both right and smart. While some chapters will be irrelevant to those of you in art or history museums (such as Storage in Fluid Preservatives) most of the chapters will be useful to all. The two volume set was first published in 1992 and 1995 with a grant from the Institute of Museum Services. Each volume has a glossary and an index.


A Preventative Conservation Approach

The first of the two volumes covers the big picture types of issues that are often identified in a Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) report. What sort of fire detection and suppression systems do you (or ought you to) have? Do you have a way to measure and record temperature and relative humidity? Are you storing objects in a way that is lkely to lead to damage (perhaps on the floor or without adequate supports)?

Filled with case studies, checklists, citations, and recommended reading, this volume will walk you through the processes needed to analyze your current protections for your collections, and will give you the literature-backed information to improve those protections. While it will not hand you the money necessary for such improvements, there is a section on finding funds for collections care, and it provides a healthy dose of evidence for what improvements will do (or prevent) with regard to your collections. I love facts to help in making my case, and so do funders. I can also personally attest that this book has helped me sound smarter than I am in grant applications.

Section IV addresses the storage of archival collections, including photographs. There are figures to help you select appropriate housings for different types and sizes of items as well as explanations of what improper storage conditions of varying types will do to your archival collections. (I don’t know about you, but I always like to know why we do things the way we do, or rather what could happen if we did not.) The appendices cover deterioration problems in collections and offer phased solutions to those problems (with some needing the skill of a conservator, and others more readily accomplishable), appropriate housing options, and document handling guidelines.


Ideas and Practical Solutions

The second of the two volumes covers in great detail how to improve storage of collections at the object level. 113 short articles walk you through creating supports, trays drawers, padded hangers, covers, folders, microenvironments, and more for different sorts of objects. It shows how to create your own custom-sized boxes from museum board (I once had a bright volunteer figure this out on her own, but my spatial reasoning skills aren’t that great). It suggests ways to house objects of abnormal shape, size, fragility, or materials.

I think we all know that the broken glass plate negatives should not still be in the (not archival) envelopes they came to us in. But how should they be stored? A chapter written by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts provides a list of needed materials, illustrations, and step-by-step construction instructions for making the proper housing. Some of the materials may be unfamiliar, but the volume also includes an extensive appendix which gives other names for materials, as well as recommendations on where to acquire them.

While there are sections not immediately applicable to museums without natural history collections, those sections of this volume are rare and can generally serve as a basis for other types of storage. For instance, the “Support for Fin Whale Skulls” section may not seem relevant for most of us, but the concepts in the chapter may help guide your thinking on how to safely and securely store large artifacts (how many of you have plows or other large heavy farm machinery?).

Final Thoughts

I know many of us have concerns about the cost of improving our collections care. Completely rehousing a collection can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. But these two volumes provide detailed steps to make rehousing collections easy for any museum professional – paid or volunteer – to accomplish.

For most of us, the most reasonable way to go about this is in small sections. Pick a particular collection – maybe by donor or by type of object or by severity of problem (there’s nothing wrong with picking low-hanging fruit) -- and make a plan to improve how it’s stored. There are a variety of project-based grants that can help you with discrete projects of this type. While it may take many years, eventually you will have made substantial progress.

After Museum Registration Methods, this set should be a top pick for any museum’s collections-related library.


Storage of Natural History Collections: A Preventative Conservation Approach
Carolyn L. Rose, Catherine A. Hawks, Hugh H. Genoways, editors.
1995, Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections
446 pages, $45 from University Products

Storage of Natural History Collections: Ideas and Practical Solutions
Carlyn L. Rose, Amparo R. de Torres, editors.
1992, Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (most recent printing in 2009)
346 pages, $45 from University Products


Reviewed by Kaia Landon

Kaia Landon is the director of the Brigham City Museum of Art and History and the Box Elder Museum of Natural History.  She also serves as the Secretary for the Utah Museum Association, and as the AASLH state team leader for Utah.

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