The Artifact Collection
Organizing storage has always been a problem for museums, libraries, and archives. Space is limited and comes at a premium. Housing and archival practices must be sustainable for the collection to remain within the limits of its designated space in an organized, coherent fashion. Pressed by this need for such a prized commodity, staff are even undertaking a massive transfer of books from the general collection stacks in Parks library to an off-site storage facility. It is imperative to revise current practices for the artifacts storage area in order to provide an efficient framework for the future.
The artifact collection is no small deal. There are over 4,000 objects in the special collections storage space. These range from the typical swag bracelet you might get at an engineering college event to signed Greek Life paddles from the second half of the 20th century to surveying equipment used in the construction of Iowa State College in 1858. There is quite a range of both types of artifacts and sources. Items began being accessioned as far back as 1993—nearly 30 years!
The artifacts occupy two aisles of rolling stacks, a back wall of stationary shelving, and are sprawled along the tops of map cases in an adjacent aisle. As the rest of the storage space hosts archival and special collections, there is no more room for the artifacts to go. This is not simply a case of having too many artifacts and not enough shelf space: many of the artifacts have been housed improperly, resulting in wasted space both inside the box and out. Small pins have been placed in much larger boxes along with wads of tissue. This tissue often conceals additional artifacts, putting them at risk for loss. Some artifacts are without proper housing or without any housing at all.
A fair few of the artifacts (nearly 300) do not have records in our museum database, Past Perfect, making them impossible to search for and retrieve. These are at high risk for dissociation, one of the ten primary agents of deterioration, as related artifacts are in separate locations, often without proper documentation linking them. This has rendered the purpose of the artifacts—to be utilized by researchers and archivists—null. At the same time, staff with extensive institutional knowledge of the artifact collection have moved on to other positions, taking some of the objects’ origin stories and associations with them.
Our goals with the artifact rehousing project was to provide documentation for all of the artifacts in the collection, and to implement a more sophisticated and effective housing system than the current method of just throwing things onto the shelf in a box.
We began surveying at the beginning of October, 2018 for 1-2 hours a day. This involved examining the item, inferring its place within the collecting scope, and brainstorming ways to categorize them during the rehousing phase. We entered this information into Past Perfect, our museum database software. As the lead on this project, I organized survey times with colleagues and managed the various tasks involved with documenting objects and researching the collection. Additional time was spent outside of survey hours adding photos into the database as some pictures were blurry or dark, and some records did not have photographs. I utilized the project management software to converse with archivists. There we could ask questions about how seemingly arbitrary artifacts fit into our collecting scope by creating a task. I made tasks for items that needed records in the database so archivists could add them. Tasks were also used to note exact duplicates to be considered for possible deaccession by archivists, or flat, paper objects that could be added to their associated archival collections.
The main challenge at the beginning of the survey was coming up with housing categories into which we could organize the various objects. Archivists had to come to an agreement about how the objects should be grouped that also satisfied the requirements of preservation and supported ‘browseability’ by staff. In preservation, we wanted to group items by type, and, at a deeper level, subject. For instance, grouping buttons together or textiles together would result in better and more compact housing. Each type of object would then be grouped by subject, such as agriculture or 4-H—two notable collecting areas for the library. This would allow safe, effective and secure storage while supporting archivists’ ability to see a variety of related items at once.
Throughout this process, several resources have been extremely useful. STASHc provides useful solutions to various storage situations, such as this tutorial on hanging rolled storage for oversized objects. We participated in Planning your Re:Org Project, a webinar that helped us to reconceptualize our storage planning process through worksheets and examples that took us through the processes several institutions went through using the Re:Org method. Free additional workbooks and resources are available on the Re:Org Method page hosted by ICCROM.
We are closing in on the final leg of the survey, after which we must organize the object records into working spreadsheets that can be used to plan the rehousing. This plan will involve calculating for rolled and hanging storage for large flat textiles and garments, and possibly incorporating vertical storage for long, thin items like surveying rulers, canes, and flat, obtuse objects such as muskrat skin stretchers.
And now for some highlights from our artifact collection…
Be sure to check out a great blog post by staff in Special Collections for more neat artifacts!