AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Outreach to Allies Session, May 9, Collection Care Network Brainstorming Session: Table 8 – Natural History Collections

The last presentation of the Outreach to Allies Session at the AIC Annual Meeting 2012 was an interactive session organized by the Collection Care Network. The leadership team of the network designed it as a way to identify priorities and projects for the network. Imagine nine groups of 7 to 9 people sitting around tables discussing the content of a nine different short videos. Each video presented a collection care challenge or question. The discussion aimed to suggest projects the Collection Care Network could develop that would provide tools to overcome the challenge or answer the question. Now imagine people engaged in conversation. So engaged they didn’t get up for food when asked to do so! So engaged they had to be asked a second time!! Now you have a very small idea of what the session was like. This particular post gives you more details about the discussion at Table 8. Look for the other 8 posts if you would like to review all the discussions.

Table eight: I was particularly pleased to be able to moderate the discussion at table eight as natural history collections have been a focus of my conservation career. While the materials that make up these collections are familiar to all conservators, the approach to their care and management varies from that for art, humanities, and technology collections.  Archaeological collections are the only ones that rival those in natural sciences in terms of size. Holdings in a mid-sized natural history museum often number in the millions, if not tens of millions of specimens, plus their associated documentation, ranging from books and manuscripts to all types of photographic formats and digital media.

The video: The video presenter was Dr. Christopher Norris, Senior Collections Manager for Vertebrate Paleontology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History.  Chris is also the President of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC).  In his presentation, Chris noted that for natural history curators and collection managers, the biggest challenge is the size of the collections. “We have so many specimens, so many objects to deal with, that it’s very hard for us to make decisions about conserving those objects on the basis of individual object-based treatments; we have to focus in on preventive conservation. This, I think, is a very good area where SPNHC can work with the Collections Care Network at AIC to come up with some really creative solutions to our problems.” He suggested that this could be a two-way process in which SPNHC members, who have a great deal of experience in working with large collections, could tap into the conservation expertise of AIC and those in AIC that have had more experience in object-based treatments can begin to learn about and understand some of the conservation challenges that we face in natural history collections. He closed the video by commenting that he viewed this as a great opportunity for the two groups to work together and that SPNHC looks forward to working with the Collection Care Network.

The discussion: The discussion around table eight started with the ways all the recognized agents of deterioration impact natural history collections and how the impacts can vary among these collections.  A number of questions were asked about the overall goals for collaboration—solutions to specific problems or simply greater understanding between the groups. This led to brainstorming about available resources and mechanisms to deliver these to a relatively new audience.

The ideas for Collection Care Network projects:

  • Given the range of materials in these collections, all expertise has applications. Would conservators answer questions in an open forum? The answer was decided positive, even though it was recognized that there were limits to the kind of information that can be shared effectively in this manner. A forum could foster a discussion model for information exchange.
  • Would be good to compile a list of resources that are currently available. There are many useful sites and freely available publications, but not all can be found easily. Possible topics include funding opportunities and risk assessment methodologies.
  • Use websites to help disseminate information. The planned AIC Storage of Technology, Arts, Science, and Humanities (STASH) project, which is based on a book published by SPNHC, will be a web-based resource with broad applicability and will involve a variety of organizations.
  • Might be able to use the Wiki format as a way to link to other sites and other information resources. Could post case studies or link to case studies, using a formats employed by other organizations (e.g., the Getty Conservation Institute), although it requires a great deal of work to create and maintain this type of site. AIC is a good group to tackle this and already has experience in creating Wikis.
  • In engaging other organizations, appreciate their standards and the ways they approach and use their collections. People enjoy talking about their collections and this can be an opening for dialog.
  • Conduct surveys to find out what people in various fields want/need to know.
  • View this as an opportunity to promote networking among mid-career professionals, pre-program interns, and museum studies students.
  • Create opportunities for conservators, collections managers, and curators to meet to exchange ideas. This might be done through joint meetings with representatives from other organizations, or possibly have special one-day joint sessions affiliated with annual meetings of both AIC and other organizations. Could begin with a half-day session with representatives from various groups as part of an upcoming AIC meeting. AIC could follow-up with sessions at the meetings of other organizations.
  • Highlight the Collection Care Network whenever AIC has a booth at another organization’s meetings.
  • Some of the richest and most useful sessions now held at AIC meetings are those in which an array of different perspectives are presented,  including perspectives from outside conservation. We could use this format to encourage dialog across numerous fields. This would aid in introducing all of us to each other, bringing a range of organizations to the attention of the natural history field and simultaneously allowing conservator, mountmakers, registrars, etc. to share expertise among themselves as well as among colleagues in natural science disciplines.

The contributors: Moderator – Catharine Hawks; Note Taker – Ellen Promise; Table participants – Catherine Badot-Costello, Lisa Goldberg, Leslie Goldman, Kazuko Hioki, Andrea Knowlton, Katie Mullen, Betty Seifert, Bill Wei, Emily Williams.