INTEGRATING PREVENTIVE CONSERVATION INTO A COLLECTIONS MOVE AND REHOUSING PROJECT AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN
EMILY KAPLAN, LESLIE WILLIAMSON, RACHAEL PERKINS ARENSTEIN, ANGELA YVARRA MCGREW, & MARK FEITL
2 BACKGROUND OF THE MOVE PROJECT
During the course of the five-year Move Project NMAI transported more than 800, 000 Native American archaeological (607, 089) and ethnographic (168, 622) objects from the NMAI Research Branch, a crowded warehouse in the Bronx, New York, to the museum's Cultural Resources Center, a purpose-built research and storage facility in Suitland, Maryland. For the duration of the project, a truckload of objects was shipped between the two facilities almost every week. One hundred and seventy-seven people participated in the project: 140 staff members and contractors, 25 volunteers, and 12 interns. In order to speed progress, a fine art moving company was hired to pack, rehouse, and shelve the archaeological collection under the supervision of NMAI staff. NMAI staff were responsible for moving and rehousing the ethnographic collection. The project finished in June
Registration, Conservation, Photography, and Collections Departments staff coordinated efforts to prepare objects to travel from the Research Branch, and to receive and rehouse them in Maryland. While the Move was considered a successful project because it was completed safely, on time, and under budget, other long-term benefits were realized at the same time. Every object was cleaned and, if necessary, stabilized. High-resolution digital photographs taken of each object, in addition to assisting in the move, have helped increase access to the collection, and it is hoped, will minimize the need for handling in the future. The Move Project also served as an impetus to upgrade the museum's system for tracking individual objects and facilitated reconciliation of registration and inventory problems.
The Move Project represented a turning point in the history of the NMAI collection. George Gustav Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian, built the Research Branch specifically to house his Native American collections. For 80 years, the Research Branch served a community of scholars who sorted through textiles, ceramics, beadwork, and the many other objects in Heye's richly varied collection. The facility preserved the collection relatively effectively, despite the decreasing resources and the limitations of early 20th-century museology. In 1989 the Smithsonian Institution acquired the Museum of the American Indian through an act of Congress, forming the National Museum of the American Indian. The collection's new home in the Cultural Resources Center is designed to provide for better long-term care of the objects and to enhance accessibility of the entire collection to NMAI's Native and non-Native constituencies.
2.1 PREPARATION FOR THE MOVE
The implementation of good preventive care methods began in the planning stages of the move. Move preparations consisted of three main elements: a complete registration inventory, a collection-wide condition survey, and a Pilot Move Project. The registration inventory and condition survey were carried out concurrently. Five conservation technicians and twelve registration technicians were hired on a temporary basis for the one-and-a-half-year project.
2.1.1 Registration Inventory
The goal of the inventory was to reconcile discrepancies in the museum's database and record existing storage locations at the Research Branch for each object. The registration inventory and collection-wide condition survey were conducted with one conservator working with two Registration staff. This teamwork ensured that objects were handled only once while both registration and conservation data were gathered. The conservator was able to provide advice on handling problematic artifacts as well as education on materials and deterioration. This type of collaboration became a hallmark of the later Move Project.
2.1.2 Condition Survey
The condition survey provided an opportunity to anticipate the needs of the collection with the presumption that the Move Project would proceed more efficiently if objects were stabilized ahead of time. The goal of the survey was to identify all objects with condition problems severe enough to require treatment in order to safely transport to Suitland.
Objects were ranked on a scale of 1–3. A designation of #1 was given to objects requiring some form of treatment in order to be moved safely. Comments about condition and anticipated needs were entered into a database and the objects reshelved for later attention. Objects with a #2 designation were those that did not require treatment before transport but could benefit from monitoring and/or treatment, which could be done at some point in the future once the objects arrived in Maryland. A #3 designation was given to objects that were stable.
Many of the objects assigned a #1 designation were given temporary or minor “triage” stabilization treatments conducted in situ in the storage areas during the survey. Temporary treatments included bagging objects with loose elements or using Teflon tape to secure unstable pieces. Minor treatments included using adhesive to secure loose beadwork or consolidating areas of spalling slip on ceramics.
2.1.3 Pilot Move
A Pilot Move project was undertaken before the official start of the Collection Move. The Pilot Move was designed as a way to work out strategies for data tracking, conservation, packing methods and materials, digital imaging, and staffing in order to make an informed plan for the move of the entire collection, and as a way to make necessary space available for the first of several staging areas for the move of the rest of the collection. Later, it was used as a test for the data tracking system when the objects were unpacked at the Cultural Resources Center.
During the Pilot Move, 16, 450 archaeological objects from a discrete portion of the Ecuadorian and Caribbean collections were moved by museum staff to off-site storage; the Cultural Resources Center was still under construction. This segment of the collection was selected because the material was mostly inorganic, relatively robust lithics and ceramics. Sizes ranged from small finds and sherds to 200–300 pound stone thrones from Ecuador. It was anticipated that with this group of objects, packing methods could be easily standardized, the objects would be relatively straightforward to image, and environmental and pest management concerns would be minimized.
The Pilot Move was broken down into four essential activities that were executed by members of different departments acting together as a team. First, objects were de-shelved and cleaned by Conservation Department staff. Second, Registration Department staff matched objects with their corresponding barcodes and tracked data throughout. Third, Photography Department staff digitally imaged objects, and finally the Collections Management Department packed the objects.
Several important lessons learned from the Pilot Move influenced the development and procedures of the main Move Project. For example, people from each department worked together as a team during the course of the Pilot Move. Although this seemed like a good idea, it resulted in bottlenecks in the workflow. For example, some objects could be cleaned and imaged quickly but required a great deal of time to pack, and vice versa.
The Move Project ultimately was organized more like an assembly line, which improved efficiency and at the same time required more flexibility. For example, in the Pilot Move objects were removed from storage and cleaned first by Conservation staff. This worked well as conservators could address an object's stability problems before it received much handling. During the main Move Project, the Registration team was responsible for removing objects from storage. The change in the work order required that Registration staff receive thorough handling training and assistance from the conservators.
Another lesson learned was that the systems that were safest and most efficient for transit were often not practical for storage. The decision for the Move Project to separate packing and rehousing processes allowed the museum to use non-archival packing materials that could save money and be easily recycled during the project. An exception to this was oversize objects for which it was often best to construct a mount that served for both travel and storage.
The Pilot Move helped in the initial development of move procedures but could have been even more useful had it included a more representative group of objects such as a variety of organic objects.