Wednesday, February 15, 2012

This isn’t my day job (most days)

I am an archaeologist. Yes, it is a real job. This is the career I’ve wanted since the 3rd or 4th grade (see pictures for proof). I used to work on excavations, but about 12 years ago I took some classes on conservation and some major guilt kicked in. I learned all about how the evil “agents of deterioration” were acting on everything I had ever excavated, and I knew from experience that artifacts sometimes turn to powder because of neglect. Since learning that, I have worked to assess and research collections instead of creating new ones. It’s not that I have a problem with new collections being generated, far from it, I just find it more rewarding to be the one caring for the artifacts when the excavation is over. I’m now a curator in a museum where I compile research on archaeological collections, keep them organized, and make sure they are kept according to archival museum standards.
Behold my first archaeological dig. I am a 5th grader in these photos, and I had gotten a book about how to do archaeology. It went over the supplies needed, and said to set up a grid. Grammy Rivers and my parents helped me gather the tools, and then Grammy, in rollers, helped me drive in the grid stakes (top left). But the book didn't really say what to do next. For example, it didn't point out the folly of sifting into the unit you are digging. Still, I got a school project and a boat load of 19th-century artifacts out of it. Big thanks to the 'rents for cutting the lumber off our land in Maine, revealing the site, and for donating the use of the dining room table as my mending station for a year or two (bottom right). I didn't do it right back then-- Elmers glue is not recommended on archaeological ceramics-- but I was a kid with the coolest jigsaw puzzle I could have ever hoped for. I kind of regret the bangs and the purple moon boots, but not my interest in archaeology, even if I didn't do it according to professional standards. 

Usually, this career has nothing to do with the private collections that I post about on this blog. My personal treasures are almost entirely clothing articles made of fragile textiles, and fabric rarely survives underground in the Chesapeake region where I work; there are too many little microbes that find them tasty. So in theory, home and work should not overlap.  But, of course, they do.

Collections management is collections management no matter where you are. I’m trained to do it professionally, and I can’t discard that knowledge when I get home. In a professional museum setting, collections care calls for organization, inventories, tracking, archival materials, safe handling, pest control, and sufficient storage space. Ideally, you should have a budget and staff to maintain this order. Pest traps, acid-free boxes, sufficient shelving, database software… You get the picture. Also, when you are paid to care for collections, you have 40 hours a week to stay on top of these things.

At home? Well, the budget isn’t really there for one thing. Archaeology as a career isn’t lucrative from a cash standpoint, though I do feel rich when it comes to enjoying my work. So my house is small, archival storage is expensive (and not something I want to use to decorate my living room), climate control is impossible because my small house is also old, and pest control is only going to happen if my cats take an interest. Conditions for my collections at home include such curatorial no-nos as overstuffed boxes, boxes stacked perilously high, major fluctuations in temperature and humidity, use of wooden storage containers that off-gas acids, and the placement of collections in a closet that is known to have had mold and moths.

I do my best to monitor things and get the right storage materials as my budget allows, but even when I purchase archival-quality supplies, there’s no telling when I’ll get around to using them. As I write this, a brand new pack of acid-free tissue sits on a table in my living room and it has been there for well over a month. Because here’s another thing I usually lack at home: any motivation whatsoever to continue doing what I did all day at work.

I like getting my collections out, looking at them, inspecting how they were made, taking pictures, and putting garments on a dress form to see how they once fit. I do not, however, like putting it all away again, nor do I let myself dwell on a stain I saw or a smell that lingers. If my goal in getting things out is inventory or condition assessment, that takes all the fun out of it! Truly, if the word “systematic” enters my mind with regard to going through the collection, I immediately feel some urgent need to check Facebook or watch TV.

All that being said, I do know what I’m supposed to do as a responsible steward of collections. I do make myself put things away, and I do eventually use those storage supplies. From time to time my posts will focus on techniques for caring for costumes in a non-museum setting. I have to take a practical, low budget approach, even if it’s not up to par with what I would do at work. If my readers also have collections, maybe it’ll be useful to share what I like to call “best-ish” practice for collections care at home.

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