TLC for museum collections

by Jeff Tenuth, Science and Technology Collection Manager

[Continued from The museum behind the museum]

The Indiana State Museum has the largest collection of artifacts in the state, numbering several hundred thousand items. With a collection that large, a museum has to have a way to manage the use and preservation of the collection. Museums no longer collect just anything that comes their way, like they used to decades ago. A century ago, museums in the modern sense didn’t exist. There were collections that the public could see, but they were more often curiosities or oddities rather than reasoned out collections that told their visitors something about their past. Outside of private collections, that kind of collecting is no longer done because it doesn’t serve the needs of the community. Resources are scarce and communities and funders want to know how their dollars are being spent. The public might come and see a collection of oddities, but they don’t want their tax dollars supporting it. The modern museum visitor wants collections that can teach their children about their past and their present. Over the years, museums have had to change their ways to ensure their survival in a competitive, economic, public environment.

One of the best ways to ensure a museum’s survival is by having a justified, goal-oriented mission statement and then carrying it out. The mission statement is followed by a comprehensive set of policies that carry out and enforce the mission. A mission statement is one or two sentences that explain the goals of a museum. Our mission statement [link] is simple: to collect and preserve the cultural and natural history of Indiana. But with such a large collection, how do we manage it?

The blog author in one of the museum's storage areas.

Most museums, including the Indiana State Museum, incorporate a Collection Management Policy. A Collection Management Policy is a group of smaller policies that define how we carry out the mission statement. The Collection Management Policy includes an acquisition policy (along with collection strategies), a de-accession policy (a way to remove items from the collection), a loan policy, an access policy, a conservation policy, a photographic reproduction policy, an ethics policy, etc. The acquisition related policies are the most complex. Each collection has to have its own collecting strategy. The use related policies tend to be shorter because they simply state how the collection will be loaned, used, photographed, etc. With collections in geology, paleontology, mineralogy, petrology, fossil plants, Ice Age mammals, modern mammals, birds, fish, insects, eggs, seeds, textiles, clothing, toys, art, decorative arts, military, televisions, radios, vehicles, paper, books, records and more, you can see how complex the acquisition policies were to create. But it doesn’t end there. Once you’ve determined what you are going to collect, then you have to decide how to use, and care for the collection.

Collections are used mainly for exhibits and for research. But even if a collection is seldom used in these ways, it still has value because the objects themselves speak to past lives and human accomplishments. If an artifact is to be used in an exhibit, then it must be inspected to make sure it can withstand the rigors of being moved and put on display. Then it has to be conserved before being exhibited to stop or reduce deterioration. If an artifact is used for research, then you have to have a way to vet the researcher to ensure the artifact remains safe during the process. But what happens if someone, or another institution, wants to borrow an artifact? Or what if your institution wants to borrow an artifact for an exhibit or for research? In that case you have loan policies that determine under what conditions you will loan or borrow artifacts. The Indiana State Museum’s policy is not to lend to individuals unless they are trusted researchers. We do lend artifacts to other institutions for research and for exhibit. If the loan is for exhibits, then we require the borrowing institution to fill out a Facilities Report that tells us about their environmental controls, their security and other factors about their institution. We use this report to determine if our artifacts will be safe at the requesting institution. Our goal with all these policies is not so much to restrict use of our collection but to ensure that whoever or however the collection is used, it remains safe for future generations to enjoy.

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What a beautiful baby boy! Oops, I mean baby girl!

by Meredith McGovern, Art and Culture Collections Manager

You know how it goes — you’re at the grocery store and a well-meaning stranger attempts to compliment you on your child, but accidentally mistakes it for the opposite gender. Some parents try to curb this by dressing their son or daughter in a gender-specific color (pink or blue) or clothing style (dresses). What about our ancestors? How did they avoid this problem, particularly during the 19th century when the littlest children — both girls and boys — wore dresses? The answer: hair styles! Back then, parents meticulously combed and parted their sons’ hair on the side, brushed it forward, or curled it in a topknot; they parted their daughters’ hair in the center and combed it down.

Let’s look at a few examples from the Indiana State Museum photograph collection. Remember, the trick is in the part — little boys wore side parts, little girls wore centered.

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If you have any, look through your family’s 19th-century photographs. Can you identify the boys and girls based on their hair styles?

The museum behind the museum

by Jeff Tenuth, Science and Technology Collection Manager

I give a lot of tours at the Indiana State Museum. These are mostly “behind-the-scenes” tours, not gallery tours. Visitors can take themselves through the galleries, but behind-the-scenes tours offer much more.

When visitors come into the museum, they see galleries, attend programs, eat at the restaurants or shop at the museum store. They tend to think that’s all there is to a museum. But in reality, what they see is the end product. Most of the work for the galleries (and programs) is done behind the scenes and the public rarely sees any of it. Nor does the public see the actual size of our collection. The artifacts they see in galleries represent only one or two percent of our total collection. The larger the collection, the more of it is in storage. This is true in most museums. Take the Smithsonian for example. Their collection numbers well over 250 million artifacts. Imagine how big their galleries would have to be to show all of their collections. For a large museum like the Indiana State Museum, we show a few thousand artifacts at one time, but we have hundreds of thousands of artifacts in our collection. It’s simply impossible to put everything on exhibit — we would need galleries the size of football fields! That’s why it’s so important to show visitors and other guests what lies behind-the-scenes. I’ve never had a tour participant who didn’t walk away astonished at the size and breadth of our collection. Only then can the public see what a daunting task it is to care for the largest publicly held collection in the state. With a greater understanding of what the casual visitor doesn’t see, a tour guest usually comes away with a greater appreciation for the collection and what it takes to care for it.

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Another reason the public doesn’t see and doesn’t know about the size, diversity or location of the collection is intentional. We do that to maintain the security and environmental integrity of the collection. The collection is actually hidden in eight storage rooms in the Administration building, not the building where the galleries, restaurants and other public facilities are located. The eight storage rooms allow us to store the collection by type of material. Continue reading