Power to Preserve: Creating a Collection Care Culture: AIC’s Collection Care Network Hosts a Session at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting

–By Marianne Weldon, Objects Conservator and Collections Manager of the Art and Artifacts Collection, Bryn Mawr College
On Sunday, May 29, I attended the panel entitled Power to Preserve: Creating a Collection Care Culture moderated by Rebecca Fifield.  This session was developed by AIC’s Collection Care Network (CCN) for the Collection Management track at the Annual Meeting of the American Alliance of Museums in Washington, D.C.  The AAM Annual Meeting Theme for 2016 was Power, Influence, and Responsibility, encouraging exploration of “how the themes of power, influence and responsibility shape the work of museums in the U.S. and around the world”.
A goal of the presentation was to share influencing strategies to support development of collection care, as well as to highlight resources and partnerships available through AIC. The three presenters spoke of ways that they have been working at their institutions to foster relationships with partners within and outside their institution to better enable them to care for their collections.
 Maryanne McCubbin spoke to fostering aligned goals across an institution.  She emphasized the importance in finding common ground among museum staff and that most people working in the museum are collections stewards in some way whether directly or indirectly.  She outlined the importance of fostering that relationship with others that work in the museum in a variety of ways including:

  • Avoiding rhetoric and demystifying what collections staff are doing. Avoid terms that people won’t understand, such as agents of deterioration.
  • Being proactive and available so people don’t feel like they are bothering you or that you are too busy for them.
  • Provide frequent, regular, repeated communications on many levels and in many directions up and down the chain.
  • Make sure to demonstrate that you have the “big picture” in mind and that you understand and present things in an inter-disciplinary way.

Kathy Garrett-Cox spoke to the importance of working with community partners to enable smaller institutions to create a collection care culture beyond their institutions.  At Maymont, an American estate in Richmond Virginia, the staff numbers 3 full-time and 3 part-time, which is small when considering the needs of institutions during emergency response.  Garrett-Cox spoke about the formation of The Museum Emergency Support Team (MEST), which was formed by a group of small local organization in 2006 in response to Hurricane Katrina as an alliance for response to help to share resources, planning and training.  She additionally outlined many specific examples of the way the group grew and changed over the years, introducing challenges associated with volunteer group continuity, what worked, and what didn’t.
Patricia Silence works at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation where she manages the preventive conservation team of 20 members.  She gave numerous examples of ways that demonstrated the power of communication strategies to strengthen staff partnerships in supporting collection care. Overall, these ideas helped create relationships where colleagues in other departments wanted to help further collection care. These strategies included:

  • Meeting with over 150 site interpreters and supervisors in small groups and explaining the reasons for temperature set points. This included a briefing on dew point and how they use temperature to reduce the possibility of having water in the walls. This has helped their facilities department get fewer calls regarding comfort issues.
  • Tracking the number of hours spent cleaning gum off of items and cleaning up soda spills in order to explain why these items should not be allowed in historic buildings with collections.
  • She emphasized the importance of expressing professional “needs and desires” in terms of value. Giving reasons beyond collections value when necessary and aligning the rationale with the goals of colleagues in other departments.

Additionally Patricia spoke of areas for improvement, where things haven’t gone as well as she would like.  One specific example was in the area of excessive lighting, where additional buy-in by leadership and security staff is still needed.
As a result of all the panelists discussing both things that worked well and areas that needed improvement, discussion with the audience then centered around how we respond to hearing “NO” at our institutions and what are the most compelling arguments to win institutional support for preservation programs.  Several  members of the audience responded with ways that they build partnerships with allies within their institution or develop data to support their argument before again attempting to implement change.
The panelists presented a variety of examples, both successful and unsuccessful, to promote collection care cultures at their institutions. It contributed renewed energy to go back to our institutions to continue to forge stronger relationships to support collections care in a variety of creative ways.
Find out more information about the activities of AIC’s Collection Care Network.
Rebecca Fifield is Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections at the New York Public Library. She is a graduate of the George Washington University Museum Studies program and a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation. A 25-year veteran of large and small art and history institutions, she is Chair of AIC’s Collection Care Network and an Advisory Council Member of the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists.
Maryanne McCubbin is Head, Strategic Collection Management at Museum Victoria. Maryanne has worked in archives and museums for close to thirty years. An expert in history and care of heritage collections, her work has centered on the development, care and preservation, use and interpretation of collections. Her current position involves addressing the big, tough issues around managing a major, complex state collection.
Patty Silence is Director of Preventive Conservation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, responsible for preservation in the historic area, museums, storage, and loans. Her focus is on site maintenance, environmental management, emergency preparedness, exhibit preparation, pest control, and safe transport of collections. Patty has over 30 years of experience in encouraging colleagues to gain and use expertise in collections care.Kathy Garrett-Cox is Collection Manager of the Preservation Society of Newport County, Rhode Island and formerly Manager of Historic Collections at Maymont in Richmond, Virginia, where she worked for 11 years. She currently serves as President of the Virginia Conservation Association and as Chair of the Richmond Area Museum Emergency Support Team. Kathy speaks frequently on coordination of conservation projects and writing disaster plans. She recently coordinated the Central Virginia Alliance for Response program.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Outreach to Allies Session, May 9, Collection Care Network Brainstorming Session: Table 9 – Collections Managers and Other Collections Staff

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 project 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 the 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 9. Look for the other 8 posts if you would like to review all the discussions.

 Table Nine: Collections Managers are not bountifully represented at AIC – we are in the minority. However, in my role as Collections Manager for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my responsibility is to put conservation theory into practice. I work closely with our departmental conservators. The Collection Care Network encourages all staff vested in collection care to get involved, so it was important that one of our discussion groups talked about working with allied collections professionals.

The video: The video presenter was Derya Golpinar, Assistant Registrar for Collections at the Rubin Museum in New York. In the video, Derya described her daily responsibilities, including maintaining proper environment, security, identifying potential condition issues with the collections, and identifying appropriate conservators and other experts to consult on overall preservation issues impacting the collections. It is a role that Derya described as liaising with all departments of the museum to create a coordinated preservation effort.

In her former position as Collections Manager at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, many of Derya’s responsibilities were the same, even though her title was different. This underlines the occasional lack of clarity of roles among collections staff. From this discussion of her role, the following questions were posed to meeting attendees:

  • Collections Managers and Registrars apply much of the conservation ideals the field establishes. How can we support them as a professional in reaching these goals?
  • How can titles affect professional standing for this group? Is there a benefit to having more standardized titles?
  • In some cases conservators are the employers of collections managers, and in others, collections managers are the employers of conservators. What are the skill sets that we share? What information do museums need from us when establishing preservation staff roles?
  • Much of what collections managers do is implement the ideals of preventive conservation, but they themselves do not have a professional organization, or clear pathways to entry level or mid-career training. What programs do you feel to be the best? What training would you identify for a collection manager at mid-career? In what areas should conservators and collection managers train together?
  • How do we increase visibility, and therefore better support collection care?

The discussion:  The topic – discussing collection staff – came as a surprise to Table 9’s participants. Interestingly, most of the participants at Table 9 were not institution-based conservators, but instead worked in private practice. They also usually were contracted to perform treatments, rather than examine and establish collection care policy and procedures. It was evident that traditional conservation training often does not address how conservators will work with others in preserving collections – one participant noted that she didn’t learn about collection managers until she was interning with a paper conservator. Another point made by Table 9 participants was that they often want to address collection care policy that may have led to damage they are contracted to repair, but that museums may not be receptive to this approach.

The ideas for Collection Care Network projects:

  • Mid-career training for collection staff is often difficult to identify. Available training has often targeted conservators or is more entry level in nature. Needed training that would be useful to both conservators and collection mangers included mentorship opportunities, self-assessment, benchmarking, and fundraising.
  • Create tools to assist the private practice conservator address collection care when creating a contract with an institution.
  • All collection activities and staff need more visibility to generate support for collection care. Some ideas included public interaction when some collection care activities are taking place and web features that highlight behind the scenes work.
  • Increased communication and visibility of collection staff and their work can also assist conservators in furthering a preservation message.
  • AIC collaborations with organizations such as ICON, Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, Association of Registrars and Collection Specialists, the Society of Historical Archaeology, regional organizations, and others can only help us to better understand each other’s goals and develop methods to work together.

The contributors:Moderator – Becky Fifield; Note Taker – Christian Hernandez; Table Participants – Molly Gleeson, Amy Brost, Kathryn Oat Grey, Nicholas Dorman, Melanie Brussat, Felicity Devlin, Ann Shaftel