The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 12, Number 7
Nov 1988


Museum Surveys: IMS and Canny Conservators Help Museums Catch Up with Libraries

by Ellen McCrady

At its annual meeting in New Orleans, the American Institute for Conservation held a day-and-a-half-long pre-session on conservation surveys in museums--not inventories, but assessments of the environment and condition of collections, or item-by-item surveys of a selected group of artifacts, for the purpose of planning and setting priorities. Since 1987, the Institute of Museum Services has considered environment and condition surveys to be basic, and insists that they be performed first, before item-by-item surveys or treatment projects.

This new policy has resulted in more judicious spending of federal money and more conservation of entire collections, not just the popular, pretty things. As someone said at the beginning of the seminar, "We shouldn't be presiding over the decline of our collections, and then treating objects just before they disintegrate." Prevention of deterioration is the main idea.

Museum surveys have to be done by conservators, who have cone into such great demand that a shortage has developed of conservators with survey experience. Each conservator who does this work has had to work out their own forms, survey techniques and schedule of charges, since surveying is not taught in conservation school yet and there are no written guidelines. The speakers were very interested in what the other speakers had to say, since they had never gotten together to compare notes before.

The sessions were chaired by Paul Himmelstein and Steven Weintraub. All 15 speakers were good, but I was particularly impressed by the ingenious methods used by several of the independent conservators to involve the museum's curators and trustees in the survey at all stages, even meeting with then to get their input into the final report. Surveyors in libraries and archives would do well to study their methods. Among the speakers I was most impressed with were Paul Himmelstein, Meg Loew Craft, Louise Roomet, and Robert Mussey. They generally favored requiring a great deal of preliminary work and consultation by the museum personnel before the survey, a minimum of two days for the survey, and a post-survey follow-up, in order to avoid the too-common result of the garden-variety survey: the report gathers dust on a shelf, the trustees and director may never read or understand it, and they may in time commission another survey, forgetting that the first one was ever done.

Because environmental control is an important part of the survey, a session was devoted to it. Speakers were Bill Lull, Steven Weintraub, Murray Frost and Richard Kerschner.

The text that follows was taken from my personal notes at that seminar, and must not be seen as reflecting a consensus of opinion among the speakers, or as reflecting the position of AIC or any other institution.

It's what you [the conservator] say and do before and during the survey that makes the difference in whether the report's recommendations get implemented. Who initiated the survey--a curator, director, trustee? Find out how they see the problems of the institution. Insist that trustees be present at some point of the survey.

[Most panelists described the presurvey work they do and have the museum people do, e.g. to have all the objects accessioned and numbered beforehand. They also described the follow-up contacts, e.g. mailing of information and supplies.]

A survey is not a one-night stand. Many objections to surveys have come from that type of experience. Make then into a meaningful relationship.

To update a survey [someone asks], can the staff be trained to do it? How can you convince institutions that it is important to keep up their relationship with an experienced conservator, for this and other reasons? Answer:

There is no answer.

How to get a grant: The IMS urges museums strongly to involve a conservator in planning and applying for a grant. The proposal should be practical and address the needs of the museum, without using jargon. A conservator who has boon involved in the review process will find it easier to prepare a persuasive proposal.

Variable air volume (VAV) systems don't work for museums, though they are economical for offices. For control of dust, a 95% bag filter is better than the HEPA filter. [Another participant recommends using a 25% filter ahead of a 95% one to cut costs.]

Boiler compounds in the water used to humidify the building are dangerous. They are added to water that was not intended to be put into the air; their purpose is to prevent scale formation in the pipes. You can use "electric cans" (made by Armstrong, On-Steam and Nortec) to collect minerals from the water so they won't precipitate throughout the museum.

Who can one consult for advice on an HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) system? You can hire an engineer, or talk to contractors and equipment dealers. Don't put a room humidifier in a closed space, or let it run out of water.

[Reprinted in revised form from the Utah Preservation Consortium Newsletter 1(2), Aug. 1988, p. 8.]

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