THE LEGACY OF ANTHROPOLOGY COLLECTIONS CARE AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
MICHELE AUSTIN, NATALIE FIRNHABER, LISA GOLDBERG, GRETA HANSEN, & CATHERINE MAGEE
The specific details of this history have had profound effects on the current condition of collections and influence their potential for present and future use by those who care for and research anthropological artifacts at NMNH today. Although the history of each artifact was not always documented, it is clear that many individual objects were handled and treated multiple times as part of these efforts.
The first 150 years of treatment history were reconstructed using references to treatment methods and probable treatments as gleaned from published papers and unpublished laboratory records. This study shed light on records which identified specific treatments that were applied to entire portions or accessions within the collections. It is now possible to begin the process of associating historically documented, mass treatments with departmental accession records in an effort to clarify conservation treatment history for individual objects. An example of this is illustrated by the long history of pesticide and fumigant use, where the list of possible contaminants is well documented. The future use of portable instrumentation such as x-ray fluorescence will aid in verifying historically documented treatment histories for individual objects.
Beginning in the 1960s, object-specific treatment records documented extensive treatment campaigns to stabilize rapidly deteriorating objects. Ironically, these individual reports themselves, written on fragile carbon-copy paper, now show evidence of significant deterioration. Recent transfer of the information to a searchable electronic database has preserved the research potential of this information for future use. The records document a compendium of materials used during the past forty years for conservation treatments, including solvents, waxes, consolidants, and chelating agents. Observations of collection-specific conservation problems during the most recent collections move indicated that some objects have treatment-specific characteristics, such as increased embrittlement, salt efflorescence, and significant color change. These resultant changes in condition may significantly affect the future work of conservators trying to preserve the collections, and researchers in their attempts to use and analyze the collections. Studies to evaluate the long-term effects of the recorded treatments are under discussion.
The history of collections care was entwined with exhibition techniques such as the creation of mannequins and dioramas. Although not collection items themselves, these dioramas, mannequins, life masks, and cast replicas, reflect skills in collections display and a history of collections care priorities that are different from our own. Their manufacture was an important part of the workload of early laboratory staff, and these cast replicas and life masks remain a neglected portion of the collections holdings. Casts of exterior sculptures and architectural elements from other institutions have preserved details now worn from the surface of the original artifacts. In some cases the original objects that were cast are now lost, increasing the importance of the casts as records. Additionally, some of the collections items that were replicated for other institutions may retain residues from casting and molding efforts. Because the history of materials used in the casting process is not known, it is not clear whether or not residues will affect the research potential of these objects. At the very least, researchers need to be apprised of the history of the collections in order to make informed decisions.
Older exhibitions with outdated object mounting, such as gluing and nailing, retain indelible evidence of past techniques and treatments. In recent years, the pace of dismantling of permanent exhibition halls has increased, leaving current staff to deal with difficult treatment challenges presented by damage from early exhibition techniques, as well as new priorities that include more active rotation of objects.
The multiple moves of collections both within buildings and between buildings over the years, combined with crowded storage, have left a plethora of disassociated and broken parts. Damage resulting from inadequate storage was documented in historical comments about poor storage conditions, but the 1970s inventory of collections brought its extent into sharp focus. During the most recent collections move to the MSC, the extent of damage was corroborated, and some inventory problems associated with multiple part accessions were resolved by collections management staff. However, current lack of staff resources leaves no time for concerted, centralized efforts to reassociate missing and broken elements. Individual projects such as the recent conservation of two Yup'ik masks have allowed reassociation and re-attachment of multiple collection fragments, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education (SCMRE).
Initial efforts to rehouse collection objects during the move to the MSC have evolved into a more minimal approach that allows for safe handling while providing researchers as much unrestricted access as possible. New storage configurations such as shallow-shelved, closed cabinets for ceramics, oversized flat screens for large textiles and mats that might have been rolled, and individually bagged and labeled archaeological specimens, have led to ease of access. The collections move to the MSC has resulted in a comprehensive streamlined approach to the move of collections that has been used as a template for many other institutional moves.
Fluctuations in staff levels and continual pleas for additional assistance resonate throughout the history of collections care. Initially, the laboratories were staffed by a host of individuals who performed multiple duties for exhibition, collections care, and curatorial assistance. During the mid-twentieth century, staff levels dropped, and the creation of a separate exhibition department, followed by a separate processing laboratory, relieved the ACL of some exhibition and collection maintenance duties. The advent of a more active treatment program and conservation training courses led to staff increases through the incorporation of project-based, parttime, or contractual conservators, as well as interns and volunteers. But the lamentable gap in full-time conservation staff when compared to staffing levels at other SI museums is particularly noteworthy (NAA, Series 14: Annual Reports 1979–1983). In recent years, a staff of two conservators has supported the care of over 2.5 million artifacts, as well as the holdings of the National Anthropological Archives (NAA). Larger preventive conservation and collections care projects, especially for newer accessions, have been able to proceed only with the help of interns and volunteers.
In spite of Rose's remarkable achievement as a non-curatorial chair, the “subprofessional” status first of preparators and then conservators has been slow to change within the Department of Anthropology; effects of this disparity linger even today. The role of curators, early on so involved in the day-to-day care of the collections, has also changed dramatically to reflect the focus of the museum as a research institution. The centralization of collections management staff and the creation of the exhibition department also served to remove curators from day-to-day involvement with collections. When the collections and the attendant staff were moved to the MSC, curatorial staff remained stationed at NMNH, imposing physical as well as organizational distance. As a result of limited curatorial communication, the ACL has in recent years used digital images and electronic versions of treatment proposals to reach curators otherwise unavailable for consultation.