This is a transcript of the paper I gave for the ICOM CC meeting in Edinburgh in 1996. The paper was not included in the pre-prints.

The Deltaplan, The way it worked

Summer 1996

Jaap van der Burg
Projectmanager Deltaplan Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde


During the ICOM conference in Washington Jan Buijse gave a paper about the Deltaplan-project as it originated and was planned. In this paper Jaap van der Burg tells something about, as the title suggests, the way it actually worked. After a short rerun about how this all came to be he goes, more extensively, into the way this project has developed. Most of the time is spend, not on the successes but about, some of, the problems ran into and mistakes made. To get it all back into perspective there is a short sum up of the results and spin-offs. At the end a list of tips in planning projects is given.

Keywords: Preventive Conservation, Project-work, Storage, Accessibility

In Washington in 1993 Jan Buijse, then Head of the Keepersdepartment of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, The Netherlands, gave a paper about the set-up and planning of the Deltaplanproject for Cultural Heritage in the Netherlands within the National Museum of Ethnology. Now, three years later, we are close to the end of the planned project. I want to tell something about, as the title suggests, the way it actually worked. Rest assured I am not going into a step by step comparison with graphs and diagram's.

I will give a, short, rerun about how this all came to be, then I will go, more extensively, into the way this project has developed. I plan to spend most of my time, not on our successes since, however great and worth mentioning they are, someone else's successes usually are quite a boring topic, but about, some of, the problems we ran into and mistakes we made. To get it all back into perspective I'll finish with a short sum up of our results and spin-offs.

How It All Came To Be

The National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden was founded 155 years ago and is therefore one of the oldest in its field. The cornerstones of our first collections are

These collections were put under the care of the museum in 1883, and since then were enriched with important collections from Indonesia, Africa, America and Central Asia and now total about 190,000 objects.

In the decades after the war we know that the priorities of most museums' staffs, and the financial means and time and manpower too, were supposed to go towards exhibitions, in order to attract the public. People wanted to know more about a lot of things, television broadened their view and the next hot item, called education, was regarded as most important for museum staffs after that.

Little in the way of money, time and attention thus was given to collections management, the registration, preservation and storage of objects. It was so in all museums, our museum just had the biggest concentration of mistakes and consequences. While the first floor and the ground floor were in use for exhibitions and university classes, the collection was housed in the cellar and the attic.

In the cellar the collection was stored in cabinets, manufactured by the museum's own carpenter. The museum building has its foundations on the same level as the surrounding moat. In the basement the climate was and still is very nasty and humid. In the cupboards and cabinets this humid environment, which often reaches a relative degree of 80 %. In these climates objects of organic materials grow mouldy. The situation in the attics was much brighter. Alas, this is not meant figuratively. Daylight of far too great intensity and far too much ultraviolet radiation poured in there.

With no existing buffer between the roof and the room, temperature and humidity varied to the same extent as outside the building. Incoming rainstorms, melting snow, birds guano, all of it was there, and more.

Fragile house models of wood and plant material suffered from accelerated decay. In some cases countermeasures were no more than a futility, taken incidentally, without any schedule or plan.

Because collections tend to grow while buildings don't, spaces that were sufficient to start with in a couple of years were to small. Eventually many more objects were stored than space was available, making handling nearly impossible and even the storage itself causing unavoidable damage. Worst of all might be the effect that in situations like these only a small part of the collection will be used. The rest is either to difficult to get at, in too bad a state, or just unknown.

The abundance of the collections sometimes caused storerooms to be over-crowded.

Renovations on the building started in 1986. These renovations, their scale, style and quality always depended on the financial situation of the museum at the moment of the start of that particular part of the renovation. This led to a result that resembled a patchwork design as well as the fact that investments, results and movements at a later stage were deemed not sufficient and corrected. For the necessary improvement in climate control some stores had to be emptied. So objects were shifted from one place to another and back again. This for sure caused an unreliable administration of the whereabouts of objects. Sometimes it was unrecognisable which is what, where the collection ended and the junk began.

In 1988 the Audit Office made a report about the conditions of the Nations Cultural Heritage. In this report the stores of the National Museum of Ethnology were named as an example of how bad it had all become.

As a result the Minister of Culture thought it necessary to launch a plan which would improve the conditions of the Dutch National musea with one big injection. This was called the Deltaplan.

Although the members of the Houses of Parliament did not actually see for themselves the catastrophe in the national houses of cultural heritage, they believed the Audit Office's report at its word. Everybody agreed it was a major problem. Evidently a great disaster had overcome the Netherlands. Something had to be done about it, fast and efficiently.

Soon the word "Delta Plan" fell.

Situation before the Deltaplan started

THE WAY THE PROJECT DEVELOPED (including some of the problems) Within the conditions provided by the government Delta Plan for the preservation of cultural heritage, our own plan was made to deal with all the trouble you have seen. A group of seven registrars was appointed for four years to automate the collections registration. First of all the standing staff of curators, conservators and storage attendants strongly were advised to participate in a course concerning the care and handling of museum objects, under the simple title "Keeping House". Then four new conservators were appointed. They were crucial at the start of this project, in order to disseminate their knowledge of how to handle pieces of art and other museum objects, how to transport them, how to clean them and how to prevent further accelerated decay.

For this we needed more personnel. These new co-workers were selected from the human resources of the unemployed from Leiden. In cooperation with the Social Service of the city of Leiden a project for these people was started. They were recruited and selected on quality, attitude, enthusiasm and team spirit. We would teach them a job in one year and during this year they would be payed by the social security funds.

For the registration we thought we needed students in anthropology and for other work students in art history, but also we recruited high school students who had stopped their career for some reason or other, housewives, a female men's hairdresser, a gardener, a housepainter, in short anybody who is willing. An short education course was given, followed up by training on the spot.

Because 'handling of artefacts' is a huge field, to big to be learned in one course, we decided to split the work into separate tasks. These tasks would complement each other to a full product. It could be regarded as a conveyor belt construction. The new employees were each given one task where they were closely supervised by the conservators and project-managers. These tasks were:

In average the time used per object was about 43 minutes. After a certain period, about 1 to 2 months, the group would rotate along the conveyor belt and learn a new part of the job. After a year they were familiar with the complete project.

We had a good group and/or we taught them well. After one year they were the best trained group of conservation technicians in Holland. (Which was not that difficult in itself because it was a brand new profession. We call these functions Behoudsmedewerker which might be better translated as Assistant in Keeping the Collection) They were so good that we could convince the Ministry of Culture that they should be hired for another year. Because they were hired we could convince the Social Service in Leiden that this expertise had a future, and we were given another group to train. After another year we used the same argumentation to get a third group. Now we have a group of payed and volunteering 'home trained' conservation technicians of 28 persons adding up to 19 full-time positions.

When we had unpacked our Japan collection the created expertise in unpacking was, after about a year, used to pack some other parts of the collections. Such as about 10.000 artefacts of our Oceanic collection and the complete collection of our 'sister museum' in Breda. Another 12.000 artefacts. This packing was extended to the collections still stored in the cellars (a total of about 60.000 artefacts). Because these packing moves were under pressure from the renovation time-schedules we just packed the artefacts and moved them to our outhouse storage. Once we created enough time between the renovation deadlines and our own schedule we started to 'treat' the objects before packing them.

During these packing moves we continued the unpacking of the Chinese collection. Because this collection's registration was automated before we started to work on it we had the labels printed out beforehand. This did cut down on our time used per object we still needed the curators often to match the registration to the artefact. There were a lot of artefacts that were not, or unclearly numbered. The curators could help in the (re)registration of these artefacts. Unfortunately this was not regarded as a priority by the curators themselves. So this resulted in a terrible bottleneck in the project. We decided that if they didn't have an answer or took to long in giving it, we gave the object a '0'-number. The moment a curator has any time to spare he or she can use the computer to list all the objects that have an undefined status (0-number), and prioritise these in the validation of the registration. And we can go on with our work regardless of their prioritising.

After the Chinese collection was treated the renovated storages in the main building in Leiden were full. In the mean time we had acquired the use of some old Cold War warehouses for the temporary storage of the collections. These buildings were in a complex some 37 kilometres from Leiden, one hour drive, and outside the reach of public transport. Here we started to treat the collections from Insular South East Asia, Central and West Asia and South Asia. We were storing the collections per culture. This means that e.g. within the Indonesian collection the Western Molukkan artefacts were grouped together. Only exceptions are, textiles and furs and large artefacts. We decided this because we did not know what we could expect to come out of the boxes except that it would be a mixture of materials and sizes. We expected to be able to come back on this decision when:

I am convinced that an optimum storage regarding conservation and economic use of space wants a different approach towards 'grouping' of artefacts.

However our temporary solution turns out to be final.

Other Problems We Ran Into

To start we had to cut down the time spend on each individual object. We already cut down on the time needed for labelling, but we had to cut down more. We found this, amongst others, in the condition reporting. For near to two years 17 persons had massed an enormous amount of data about the collections of Japan and China. However it turned out that what first was just a 'cross reference' with a small space for remarks had changed to a small cross-reference with about one A4 format of remarks. Instead of the conservators using these forms to indicate which objects needed treatment all conservation technicians used these forms to show how much damage could be found on the artefact. A lot of these damages will never be treated, simply because there is no treatment possible or because ethics won't allow it. Further everybody had its own reference of 'urgent' which developed in itself again during the project.

In short we had a lot of time spend on massing data that couldn't be used for the purpose we were collecting the for. So we decided to stop this method of condition-surveying. Now it was the task of the conservators to make condition-reports of (parts of) collections.

Another cutback in time came from the switch from utter perfectionism to desired pragmatism. It is possible that an object can be supported, but that this support is not necessary. Sometimes it is possible that a solution doesn't look perfect but actually is perfect enough to suit the purpose.

Last, but not the least factor was the sheer size of the group and the project. This had by now become so large, and so divided over the buildings that it had become impossible to keep everybody informed and 'up to date'. Meetings with over 25 participants just do not work. This resulted in an obvious loss of motivation.

We solved this problem by cutting the project into much smaller tasks. The group was split up into several smaller 'task-forces' and each of these were designed a certain task. Now everybody knew exactly what he or she was working on, and could see an end-result. The method in which the specific task was going to be tackled was planned with the taskforce members. This got everybody 'involved' in the job at hand again.

Results and Spin Offs

(all these numbers of course will change before summer 1996)


If ever you get the change to embark on a project of any scale then make sure:

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