This past summer, I was a Curatorial Intern at Historic Deerfield, which is an outdoor museum dedicated to the history and culture of the Connecticut River Valley and New England. It is made up of a series of antique houses, some that are interpreted to various periods in the 18th and 19th centuries and some set up with thematic exhibits. I worked in the Curatorial Department in the Flynt Center of Early New England Life—Historic Deerfield’s modern museum facility—under the supervision of the Collections Manager, Kate Kearns. We undertook two projects: the first was completing an inventory of all objects in viewable storage in the attic of the Flynt Center and the second entailed designing and fabricating custom storage mounts to rehouse the shoe collection.
The inventory was a daunting undertaking. Moving case by case, shelf by shelf, we examined over 3,000 objects. We cross-referenced the objects present on each shelf with a printout from the database. These objects ranged from forks to chairs, teacups to clocks. I checked off objects that were in the correct location, took note of objects that were on the shelf but missing from the list, and marked as missing objects that were not actually where they were supposed to be. After each session I would return to the computer to update each object’s record, to verify or update its location. I was surprised by how many objects ended up being missing (many showing up in later cases), and how many objects that were previously marked as missing were right there on the shelf (those records were particularly satisfying to update).
This was the first comprehensive inventory done on the viewable storage cases in several years. I realized just how challenging it is to keep tabs on every single last item with a small staff and thousands of objects in the collection, some of which are frequently moving around for study, photography, loans, or special exhibits.
I also learned about the nitty-gritty logistics of collections management, from keeping track of different numbering systems used over the decades to accessing a particular case only before the museum opens to the public as not to obstruct the entrance to the elevator. Throughout this process, I became proficient in Mimsy XG, the collections management system shared by the Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium. Many times, I had to split one record into multiples, like for tea sets or matching cutlery, so that individual objects could be separately described and tracked.
I found myself frequently thinking about the cataloging work I did last spring for the Hadley Farm Museum in Prof. Marla Miller’s Museum Studio Practicum. Those of us in the class each chose about 50 objects to document, research, and create records for. The goal was to update the museum’s catalogue from a list typed in the 1960s and added to by hand in a spiral notebook. Even with the amount of time we collectively put into this project, we only but began this large undertaking.
Often, I had to pry myself away from artifact analysis to keep working through the objects. As an archaeologist trained in close observation and materials analysis, I wanted to find out everything I could about each object. The ketchup bottle had a particular scar on the bottom and number stamped in. What machine was it made on and in which factory? I noticed that one pair of ice skates was made from a cut bar of steel. Was it mass-produced as opposed to the other, more carefully handcrafted pairs? These questions for the most part had to be sidelined in order to accomplish the task of cataloguing my share of objects in a reasonable amount of time.
Museums are so important as repositories and stewards of material culture. I knew this going into the summer, but I did not yet appreciate the magnitude of objects management and care.
At Historic Deerfield, I also worked on a preventative conservation project where I designed and fabricated custom storage mounts for thirty-four pairs of shoes, approximately one third of the shoe collection. The shoes were in need of attention, housed on crowded shelves and some sagging under their own weight. Kate, along with Ned Lazaro, Curator of Textiles, had identified the shoe collection as a priority for some preventative care and rehousing and I was excited to put my crafting and sewing skills to use. I am proud of the quality of the mounts I created, but am very conscious of the shoes that I did not get to.
Conservation is an ongoing, iterative process. Museum collections must be frequently reevaluated as they age and within the context of evolving best practices. But given the realities of limited time, staff, and/or money, prioritization becomes a crucial skill to practice.
I’ve been thinking about the concept of prioritization, as well as the volume of collections in museums such as Historic Deerfield, from the perspective of an archaeologist and researcher. Archaeologists approach material culture with different questions than a curator. Context is very important for archaeologists. Historic furniture, decorative arts, and textiles that have changed hands, been bought, sold, collected and never excavated lack archaeological context and sometimes lack any provenance at all. Can archaeologists shift the kinds of questions they ask, and their mindsets, to reduce the amount of destructive excavations? Why are we unearthing more and more artifacts to catalogue, document, and care for in perpetuity while there are so many objects—metal, wood, glass, ceramic—gathering dust on shelves? Can archaeological materials analysis instead focus more on museum collections?
When I was a graduate student in the Archaeological Materials program in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, I took a two-semester series on Materials in Ancient Societies. The theme for the year was metals. For the lab component of the course, we teamed up with the Department of Conservation and Collections Management at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to carry out a metallurgical analysis of Nubian mummy-eye inlays in their Ancient Egyptian collection. These were metal frames in the shape of eyes that were inserted into wooden coffins.
I destructively analyzed one metal eye inlay by cutting it into two pieces to reveal a cross-section of the object’s interior. This artifact had been in storage for almost a century. It had never been put on display, and was likely never going to be. The staff at the MFA had decided that the benefits of studying it metallurgically and chemically outweighed the irreversible act of cutting a piece of it off. I determined that the metal was a copper-tin bronze and it was cast into the shape of an eye using a mold. It was a low-quality cast, cooled slowly, and it was not subsequently worked. Our research contributed to understanding the method of production of these metal objects and, in a small way, towards grasping the ritual significance associated with the tombs of Nubian royalty.
In what ways can such partnerships be promoted and fostered between archaeologists and museums of history and art? We should consider how, in the field of archaeology, excavating new sites could be deemphasized with a focus instead turning to existing collections. At the same time, what is the best way to start the conversation with curators and collections managers on the benefits of conducting scientific investigations of (and perhaps destructively sampling) an accessioned object?
Danielle’s summer internship at Historic Deerfield was made possible by a Dr. Charles K. Hyde Public History Intern Fellowship. To read more about the shoe mounting and rehousing project, check out Danielle’s post on the Historic Deerfield Blog from August 22, 2019: https://www.historic-deerfield.org/blog/2019/8/22/gaining-a-foothold-on-the-shoe-collection
Danielle Raad is a Public History Graduate Certificate Candidate and PhD student in Anthropology, UMass Amherst