If you are a beginning reenactor, or someone who wants to refresh your presentation, I think this librarian’s guide is a good one. There’s excellent logic in the tabs and good suggestions. Thank you, Laura, for including me, and for such a wonderful resource.
Who doesn’t wish they could wave a wand and make a collections emergency disappear? You have to be a serious masochist not to want that.
But as my architect says, Silver linings, silver linings.
Every disaster has a silver lining. We’ve had what we call a “water event” at work. That’s a terrible thing in a place full of historic and irreplaceable items. But there is good news!
1. We found it and contained it quickly.
2. We had rapid response from staff, building mitigation professionals, mechanical engineering contractors, and our architect.
3. No one was hurt.
4. Collections were moved off-site and into freezers rapidly.
We were lucky: we have an emergency preparedness plan and we’ve been through several smaller events both in the Museum and in the Library, so we know when to roll out the wet-vac, call the HVAC technicians, and call the NEDCC hotline. We know to make lists and document as we work. We know who is good at what, and how to work together, and we trust each other.
Because of our plan, our rapid response and super team, we were able to contain the problem and less than 1% of the affected items, which is phenomenally good fortune, were actually “wet.” Everything else was “damp.”
We’re also very lucky to have responsive vendors who are already familiar with our systems and our rules, and who we always pay on time. Some shared history) helps, too.
So, what will help you successfully manage your next emergency?
Each of these things takes time to build. We’re re-vamping our kits now and have already seen improvements based on this experience. Why not make a New Year’s resolution to make a plan for home or for work? You’ll never regret it if you need it!
So, how do you get into museums?
Most of us come into through the front door, pay a fee or show a membership card, and enjoy whatever spectacle we’re after. Some of us like jelly fish, some of us like taxidermy, some of us like clothes.
A universal constant for going behind the scenes is a specific, and not a general, request. You can say, “Show me all your spoons,” but not even please is going to help when there are thousands of spoons.
I like researchers: they’re always interesting, they see the collections in ways I don’t, and they have insights that are valuable and useful. But someone who wants to see all the spoons, or all the chairs, or shoes, or fire buckets is really hard to help: There are too many of each of those things. Specific shoes, chairs, fire buckets or coats are manageable and realistic. “May I make an appointment to see spoon 1492.1.12, please?” is a question a curator, registrar, or collections manager can work with. One spoon, two spoons, five spoons, a few pairs of shoes: Studying these few things can take a great deal longer than you might expect.
Think about it this way: in a Special Collections Library, you generally don’t begin with, “I’d like to see all your material on the Civil War.” For one thing, that will be a lot of stuff. Chances are good you won’t be interested in all (or even much) of it. What you’re really after is usually more specific. “All your home front diaries written by women over the age of 44,” or perhaps it’s “Battle accounts written by chaplains in the field.” Those requests archivists and librarians can and will gladly handle, and through a reference interview, can help you identify not just specific items on your topic, but help you think about your topic. But asking to see all the diaries (or anythings!) at once, is usually a non-starter. They’re all in separate collections, in separate boxes, on separate floors. Heck, I work in a place with hundreds of diaries, and I am pretty sure they’d call my therapist and the cops if I asked to see all the diaries at once. (Tempting thought that it is.)
Once in my life have I seen “all the somethings” pulled out from storage in a museum. The Curator of Photographs and Prints and a visiting (contracted) scholar were selecting daguerreotypes for an exhibition, and in my very junior role as the Curatorial Assistant, I got to pull out all the daguerreotypes by Thomas M. Easterly and help spread them out on an enormous mahogany table. I’ll never forget how beautiful that was, and how special, to see so same silvered plates and brass mats spread out on a dark surface. If this link is stable, you can get a sense of what it was like. Once, in a quarter century of working in museums. Sad, isn’t it? more people should get this chance, but it’s rare. However, this rule is in place for the preservation and security of the objects.
These kinds of restrictions are part of why museums have open storage, and it’s why I wish we could have open storage. But most museums don’t, so the key to getting into the storerooms (or the research rooms) is to ask the right way. I did a presentation on the process, and there’s more good advice over at the Still Room Blog.
Always, in museums or in libraries, if there’s a catalog, start there! You can narrow down your choices with database searches and questions in advance so that you can make the absolute most of the time you have. Your time is precious. Focusing in on what you really want to see will help the museum’s staff help you better. And if you really enjoy a collection, please consider supporting it financially, with a donation to a collections care fund, annual fund, or a membership. Your dollars count, they’re noticed, and they’re truly appreciated.
Ah, the Met. You have to love them, so much wonderful material available online, and free. Collections of immeasurable depth and wealth, an incredible professional staff–this is the pinnacle, right? And yet…
They have a weakness. It’s a weakness shared by many places, but it is a major one, for the online user. It’s the lack of subject headings or dates assigned to their Library’s Digital Collections. They use OCLC’s ContentDM which has a pleasant enough interface, and fields that, in the Met’s Costume Institute Fashion Plate Collection, include Thumbnail, Title, Subject, Description, and Date.
They’re only putting data in Thumbnail (see image; I love that dress), Title, and Description. Description is what I would call Credit Line, and contains the donor name.
Title is a trifle vague. The image above is “Women 1790-1799, Plate 009.” No date, no subjects. The date is October, 1791, right there in the image, but not searchable, not sortable.
Catalogers, I implore you: subject headings. If not subject headings, the date, please, when it is on the item. That makes the collections not only sortable, but searchable.
Enough with my lunch-too-late commentary! I’ve been immensely grateful to have a new digital plaything while waiting for the lunch room to clear, and this plate is delightful: April 1797, which was certainly blustery, if not cruel.
This weekend, I am off to the Farm for the Christmas Sale. Not such a pretty dress as these, but one I am pleased with nonetheless, and which (with wool petticoat, stockings, and cloak) should keep me warm–I do expect to be quite busy.