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Object-filled Crates Present a Challenging Project to Museum Staff

a woman cleaning objects
Manda Kowalczyk cleaning objects 

Processing the Crates

Since there was no set procedure on how these crates should be processed, one had to be created. Below is an outline of the steps followed to ensure a smooth process.

1. Survey Crates: Before the crates could be opened and the contents inspected, surveys and pictures of the outside of the crates were completed. The goal of this step was to gather information valuable in discovering the provenance of the objects inside. The crates were also numbered 1 to 27 for identification purposes.

2. Decontamination of Crates: After testing, the outside of the crates showed evidence of lead dust. In order to remove any threat of lead, the crates were washed down using water and a sponge.

3. Open Crates: Using a variety of tools (e.g. drills, crowbars, screwdrivers, etc) the crates were opened one by one. Removing the lids presented a challenge because of the age and low quality of the wood, which could pose a risk of damaging the contents inside.

4. Transport Contents: After a crate was open the interior was photographed and the contents were cautiously removed and placed into rolling cages. These cages would then be wheeled down the hall into the processing room. Crates were only opened if there was a cage available for their safe containment and transport.

blue carts used to transport objects
Carts used to transport objects

5. Clean the Objects: All the objects were covered in some sort of dust or grime. It was important to clean the objects to uncover any pertinent information that would lead to identifying the object and discovering its provenance, for example, the manufacturers mark.

6. Survey the Objects: Because the crates’ contents presented daily surprises, an extensive survey sheet was created to record information from almost any type of three dimensional objects. Museum staff recorded marks, weight, measurements, condition, description, and many other details on the survey. Any tags attached to the objects were removed and attached to the survey. 

Most importantly, the survey is where they object would be assigned a tri-parte temporary number, for example, an object would be assigned the number T2008.22.3. The “T” means the number is temporary, “2008” signifies the year it was found, “22” is the crate number the object was found in, and the “3” means it is the third object pulled from the crate. 

Two dimensional objects, such as ledgers and magazines, have their own numbering system and Excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet gathered information such as measurements, dates, authors, and locations. Their numbering system used the crate number as an identifier, for example, 2301 is a number that was used. The first two numbers, “23”, identifies what crate this material was found in, while the last two numbers “01” means it was the first book pulled from the crate.

7. Photograph: Every object as photographed in detail to provide the maximum amount of information and to enrich the text-based records.

a woman preparing a wagon model for photography
Ana Gutierrez preparing a wagon model for photography

8. Re-house: After all the hard work to remove, clean, and survey these objects, it was imperative that they be stored in a museum quality environment. Containing a wide range of objects, the crates’ contents required a plethora of re-housing supplies. After opening a crate, a quick glimpse at its contents would allow museum staff to determine what sort of boxes and materials were needed to store the objects. Many times, boxes had to be custom built either by the staff or outside vendors.

9. Research: The final step of the process was to use information gathered from any of the steps above to discover provenance information. With only a last name, manufacturer’s name, or a hunch to suggest a research direction, this step is particularly tedious. So far, 30% of the objects have been linked to their provenance.

The Future of the Objects Found in the Crates

The last crate was opened in December 2008 and museum technician Rebecca Johnson finished processing the contents in January 2009. 

Museum curators will then study the object surveys and pictures to determine which objects may be added to the museum’s collection. Objects that are in poor condition or redundant may not be included in the collection. Curators also weigh the appropriateness of the object to the museum’s collecting plan, sometimes finding an object better suited to another museum’s collection.

After the curators have decided what objects will officially be added or not added to the collection, the collections staff at the museum will begin the long process of accessioning or de-accessioning the objects. Objects being accessioned will be assigned new accession numbers and housed permanently at the museum. Objects being de-accessioned may be sent to a more suitable institution or transferred to the museum’s Education Department to be used as teaching tools in accordance with the department’s collection policy.

Glossary

Accession - the formal process used to accept and record an item as a collection object.

De-accession – the formal process used to remove an object from the collections permanently or, when an object has been lost or destroyed, the formal process used to document loss in the collection records. (Legal Primer, pp 48-49)

Provenance - The history of the ownership of an object, especially when documented or authenticated. (Dictionary.com)

Temporary Number - a number that helps track objects not in the museum’s collection until they are accessioned and given a permanent number or are returned to the owner. (New Museum Registration Methods, p 43)

Re-house - to use storage furniture, boxes and other enclosures to create a better environment, additional support, and surface protection for museum objects and it helps limit handling, facilitate movement, and enable safe access to the collection. (New Museum Registration Methods, p 121)