39th Annual Meeting – Workshop, May 31, “Best Practices for Conducting General Conservation Assessments” by Mary Jo Davis, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Michael Emrick and Wendy Jessup

The workshop was organized by Heritage Preservation and provided a practical look at conducting conservation assessments for small-sized museums. The particular focus was on carrying out CAP assessments, but much of the information would be really useful for an overall look at any collection.

The morning portion of the workshop was a series of presentations, starting off with an introduction to CAP surveys by Sara Gonzales, who is the coordinator for the Conservation Assessment Program. The focus of the CAP program is to provide general assessments of small to mid-sized museums that will help those institutions with practical and realistic ways to implement preventive conservation. The Heritage Preservation website has all kinds of useful information regarding specifics about the CAP program, with lots of FAQs and so forth, so for more details, take a look at http://www.heritagepreservation.org/CAP/index.html.

The next presenter of the morning was Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, who spoke about working with small museums. Presently the executive director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, ME, she also has previous experience at several small museums in the Midwest and has been through the CAP process several times. Cinnamon gave an overview of how to approach the staff of a small museum. After defining a small museum and the type of environment frequently found, she discussed four main strategies for successful interaction – (1) put staff at ease, (2) understand board politics, (3) understand the museum’s resource base and (4) create achievable recommendations.

Mary Jo Davis spoke next about communications and reporting, going from the initial phone interview to the completed report. M.J. gave lots of really useful details to think about in planning a site visit and provided examples of an agenda for the two days of an on-site assessment. Presenting prioritized and achievable recommendations was also stressed in this presentation, as was keeping the language simple, the tone positive and making sure to be sensitive to efforts the museum has already made.

Wendy Jessup also addressed the process of doing a CAP survey, as well as reviewing the museum environment. She spoke about the survey process not only as an opportunity to put together a report outlining conservation priorities, but also as an occasion to educate the staff and other stakeholders of the museum. Additionally Wendy spoke about collaborating with the architectural assessor and how each of those assessment reports (or a combined report) can complement one another. She stressed thinking about potential capability of a building to perform as the primary protector of a collection and how to structure environmental control for the objects within that capability – taking into account the vulnerabilities of the collections. If possible, she suggested getting a sense of the environmental data before going – even if all that is available is the outside data (she recommended http://www.pemdata.org for ambient info). The presentation finished with the thought “Don’t let perfection get in the way of good,” which I think she got from someone else, but I didn’t write that part down fast enough. Apologies for not giving proper credit – I like the thought though, so I am still including it.

The last speaker for the morning part of the workshop was Michael Emrick, an architect with lots of experience in CAP building assessments. The building assessor is brought in to a CAP survey when the structure is historic and he discussed this process a bit. The two main areas he focuses on as a building assessor are the condition assessment and maintenance of the building, particularly since maintenance is often something museums aren’t necessarily thinking about.

The afternoon portion of the workshop was a hands-on session at a nearby small museum – The Fireman’s Hall Museum (http://firemanshall.org/). The museum houses a collection of objects encompassing the history of firefighting in Philadelphia and ranges from small scale objects to fire engines. Additionally there are a number of archival materials in the collections. It is housed in a 1902 firehouse with a 1977 addition at the back. Run by the Philadelphia Fire Department, has a small but devoted staff, most of whom are part-time or volunteer. Although a usual CAP assessment takes place over two days, we got to experience the super quick version over the afternoon.

The workshop attendees broke down into four groups and rotated between the four presenters, each of whom mainly focused on the aspect of the general assessment that they presented in the morning. During the morning all of the presenters highlighted the importance of emphasizing the good things the museum staff is doing and not just what they are doing wrong, and the advantage to that type of approach became very clear during the afternoon portion of the workshop. We had the opportunity to speak with many of the staff members and some of the volunteers at the Fireman’s Hall and their enthusiasm and passion for the museum and its collections were obvious. Although time was short, we had a good chance to see how a survey was conducted and the types of interactions and thought processes involved.

Many thanks to all for a very interesting day!