by Suzanne Voce Stephens, Collections Database Administrator
In the “old days” of Museum Registration, we used to type colorcoded cards to cross-reference our collection records—white cards for object records, pink for donors, green for loans, yellow for media. We started moving away from that in 1989 when we invested in our first collections management software. At the time, we were among the early advocates nationally of computer systems. Now, 24 years later, virtually all museums have automated collection records. We continue to expand our use of the database and have recently completed a major upgrade of our software, The Museum System (TMS), which is widely used by museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Chrysler Museum of Art, New York Historical Society, and hundreds of other museums around the world.
We are working to expand our database to further enhance our access to and understanding of the collections. New features and projects on the horizon include enhancing data related to conservation records, attaching scanned archival documents, expanding our exhibition history records to make them more easily searchable, managing current exhibitions with new features of the software, and continuing to attach images to object records. The database currently includes over 33,500 object records, 5,000 artist records, and more than 30,000 image files. Perhaps the most important aspect of our upgrade has been moving to a virtual server that provides more hard-drive space and speed for faster growth of the collection data. These more robust features of the database are available to curators and museum staff members for research, inventory, and archival use.
Public access to TMS data is available in the online searchable collection database on the Museum’s website, which offers highlights of the collection as well as greater depth in some areas. The online collection is drawn from TMS data as well as images from the Museum’s digital asset management system (a separate image database). The number of works available online continues to grow at a steady pace as a team of several departments work to edit collection data, photograph works of art, and review copyright issues. Our goal is to make more works of art and search tools available to the public in the coming months and years to expand public awareness and scholarship of the Museum’s best loved works and hidden gems in the collection.
In 1957, Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Wells bequeathed to a young Birmingham Museum of Art an important collection of 53 works on paper. From American masters such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Taylor Arms to Old Masters such as Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn, it provided a core collection to build on and it set the bar very high for future acquisitions. The works on paper collection now constitutes about 17% of the collection, and that number is actively growing.
What is a work on paper? The category is very broad. A work on paper might be a print such as a lithograph or an engraving, a drawing, or even a collage made up of multiple pieces of paper. Whatever it’s called, a work on paper is generally made of two components. First, the paper, usually referred to as the “support,” whose primary component is probably cellulose. On top of the paper may be a layer of sizing, or other fillers, used to control the properties of the paper. Applied on top of any sizing is the “media” such as ink (whether applied by hand or mechanically), pigments, graphite, and a whole host of other traditional and modern surface applications.
Prior to the mid-19th century, paper was generally created using cotton or linen fibers, and while the process was labor intensive and expensive, it produced a surprisingly strong and durable product, dubbed “rag” paper. After the mid-19th century, the quality of paper declined as technological advances produced methods for extracting the fibers from the wood. While paper was made inexpensive and abundant, it was also rendered unstable and quick to deteriorate. This type of paper, referred to as “pulp,” becomes acidic, stains easily, and can be very brittle. Because the Museum collection includes works made on both “rag” and “pulp” paper, we work hard to provide optimum conditions for this fragile but important collection.
Caring for works on paper requires careful handling, optimum storage conditions, and strict limitations to light exposure. The works are stored in acid-free (aka archival) mats, and when in storage a sheet of acid-free tissue is inserted between the work of art and the window mat for an additional layer of protection. Attaching a work of art to a mat is usually accomplished with either archival photo corners or, most likely, a Japanese paper hinge carefully adhered with an archival paste. If possible, we store the work of art flat, unframed, in either an archival storage cabinet, or in specialized containers called Solander boxes. Careful handling is always in order, usually wearing nitrile or cotton gloves. Most often we frame our works on paper in a simple walnut stock and protect the work of art from ultraviolet exposure by using Plexiglas glazed with a UV filter. Exposure to light creates irreversible fading; therefore, we strictly limit display of works on paper to three months or less. Afterward, the work is allowed to rest in complete darkness until it is again placed on display. The environment is a critical component to the long-term care of works on paper, so we make certain to provide enough moisture to prevent desiccation of the paper fibers, but not too much moisture, as mold may form. We strive for a range of 45-55% relative humidity, allowing for a very slight seasonal fluctuation. We are frequently asked how to apply our museum standards for home use. Here are somebasics:
1. Control exposure to light. Hang works of art in areas away from windows and strong light, perhaps in a central hallway.
2. When framing, ask your framer to use archival mat board, and insist that all plys are acid free, not just the upper layer. Attach an acid-free backing board, too, for additional support. Ask the framer to use UV-filtering Plexiglas. If you are framing a pastel or charcoal, glass is preferred to prevent static electricity.
3. When storing works on paper, always store them on the primary living floor, not the attic or the basement.
4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if in doubt, seek out professional advice. Archival supplies may be purchased from a variety of suppliers such as Gaylord at www. gaylord.com or University Products at www. universityproducts.com.
Some of the most fragile objects in the Museum collection are made of fabric. Our textiles range from delicate silk brocades to hardy raffia piles, collected from all over the world, and ranging in date from 1100 AD to today. Unfortunately, natural fiber textiles are in a state of deterioration literally from the moment of their creation. In order to make these works of art available for the enjoyment of future generations, the Museum carefully controls how they’re displayed and stored.
What actually causes a textile to deteriorate? Poor handling, storage, and display play an important role. A hostile and fluctuating environment accelerates the inevitable degradation of the fibers, but it also contributes to the formation of mold and invites pests, particularly the very damaging clothes moth.
The Museum collection contains hundreds of quilts, rugs and other flat textiles. When a textile arrives at the museum, we perform a physical assessment to determine if it’s stable, or if outside treatment is required. Sometimes the object is compromised and requires the services of a professional textile conservator, even for something as simple as cleaning, since we know that during the cleaning process the dyes can run and permanently damage the object.
If deemed to be in sound condition, the object is prepared for storage. Flat textiles, such as quilts, rugs, and runners, are rolled, never folded, as folds will stress the fabric and inevitably cause creases and breaks. As a general rule, the textile should be rolled “right side out”, so as to reduce stress on layers and minimize possible wrinkling on any dimensional component such as trapunto, beading, or thick pile. We leave several inches of exposed tube on each side for ease of handling, and fully interleave the entire textile with acid-free tissue.
The final step is to cover the rolled textile with a protective covering, secure the cover with cotton twill ties, and attach an identification photo to the tube end. The tube is then threaded with a dowel and suspended in a custom-designed textile storage cabinet. The storage environment is maintained at a constant 68 degrees and 50% relative humidity, with this humidity range high enough to avoid desiccation of the fabrics but low enough to avoid formation of mold. Occasionally a flat textile will incorporate some type of paint treatment, and since rolling might cause the paint surface to delaminate from the substrate, these textiles are ideal candidates for a flat type of storage and should not be rolled.
Many of these practices can be adapted to caring for your family heirlooms. Acid free rolling tubes and interleaving tissues are available for purchase from www.universityproducts.com or www.gaylord.com. A low-cost substitution for an acid-free tube would be a rigid carpeting tube or a new construction Sonotube, covered with a high quality polyethylene, then wrapped with a pre-washed 100% cotton bed sheet or pre-washed muslin. Instead of a tube, some collectors opt instead to make a “snake” from tightly rolled pre-washed bed sheets.
When preparing your personal collection for storage, first make sure the textile is stable and appropriate to roll. Before handling the textile make certain your hands are freshly washed and devoid of lotions or jewelry. Carefully roll the textile around the tube or “snake”, using the principles briefly described above, making sure to roll straight and not crease the fabric, all the while interleaving with acid-free tissue or a pre-washed bed sheet.
Now, protect the object from dust by rolling the exterior with one final bed sheet or muslin, tuck the ends inside the tube ends, and secure all with several loose ribbons of cotton twill tape. If you opted for a fabric “snake” as your central support, the ends can be gathered and secured with the twill.
Next, consider where you will store the textile, since humidity in a typical home fluctuates according to season and time of day. A good rule of thumb is to always store the textile where you live. In other words, never store the textile in the attic or the basement, opting instead for storage on the home’s main floor, perhaps under the bed or on a designated shelf in the bedroom closet.
Remember, too, that light is an enemy of textiles, so whether in storage or on display, be sure to control or eliminate exposure to both natural and artificial light. By applying these simple concepts you’ll preserve Grandma’s quilt for future generations. In the next newsletter we’ll discuss how the Museum cares for its works on paper and how you might apply those principles to caring for your collection, too.
For those affected by the recent tornadoes, whose family photographs are now wet, salvaging them may be possible. We’re providing a link to the Northeast Document Conservation Center, Andover, Massachusetts, and their guidelines for how to rescue photographs, with specific instructions on air drying.
Have you ever visited the Museum and wondered how a 500-year-old work of art could look so good? That’s easy—it’s all about proper care. The Museum provides a multi-faceted approach to caring for the art. In the previous article we discussed the importance of providing a stable temperature and relative humidity. Another important way we care for the collection is to make certain that it is exposed to only safe and archival materials.
Some works of art, such as textiles and works on paper, are just too fragile to be on display most of the time, as exposure to light will cause permanent fading. In order to prolong their lives, these light-sensitive works of art are shown for very short periods of time, usually about three months, and then they are returned to the darkness of art storage until they’re shown again. While in storage, works of art are supported by an array of very specialized archival materials, all designed to preserve and extend the life of the art. Acid free tissue is a staple for many of the collections, used for everything from padding out creases on historic clothing to providing a comfy cushion for delicate glass and ceramic objects to interleaving the quilts. It is used routinely to cover light-sensitive material, so damage doesn’t occur when located in a bright collection processing work area. Acid free mat board is another mainstay for us, used for matting our works on paper, with this matting and framing done in house by carefully trained museum preparators (art handlers). Volara, an archival padding material, has many applications in the gallery and storage. Ethafoam, another cushioning material, is used for everything from lining storage shelves to lining crates and is even customcarved to serve as supporting devices such as hat mounts and crate cushions. Tyvek, developed for and commonly used in the construction industry, linesour crates, enabling us to restrict the fluctuations in relative humidity when art is on the road. These are but a few of the products and materials we use every day when caring for the collection.
Exposure to light is a critical concern in the Museum environment. Quantity of light and types of light sources are closely monitored to ensure that we’re properly displaying the art while at the same time making certain to severely limit light’s damaging effects. Our light bulbs have ultraviolet (UV) coatings on the face, then a filter is placed on the bulb to further reduce UV exposure and, finally, a rheostat is manually adjusted to control the brightness of the light fixture. For the works of art glazed with Plexi-glass, there is additional protection built into a UV coating on the surface. Careful measurements are constantly made with foot-candle and UV meters to ensure we are within carefully prescribed ranges. Even the Museum’s exterior windows have a UV coating, and light from the windows is periodically measured, too, to ensure the coating’s integrity.
The Museum’s care of the collection even extends to carefully selecting the safest paint for the walls and safest fabric in the display cases, noting that an odor usually indicates “off-gassing,” an emission of harmful substances that could damage the collection. We select low VOC latex paint, allow it to cure for an extended period, and we use conservator-vetted fabrics free of dye and sizing to line our casework. The wood used to construct the display cases must be a high-grade wood such as birch and be formaldehyde-free.
In future articles, we’ll delve more deeply into how specific types of art are stored and displayed at the Museum, and hopefully you’ll be able to apply some of these principles to proper management of your personal collections.
What is a museum? One dictionary definition states that a museum is a place where important things are preserved. The museum staff enthusiastically embraces that definition and constantly strives to preserve the art that is entrusted to us. One critical component for long-term preservation is the means to provide a constant, appropriate, and stable temperature and relative humidity. Our abilities in this effort have been somewhat impeded in recent times as our aged environmental system began to fail and became incapable of producing the stable climate we require. The good news is that over the past year the City of Birmingham generously provided us with funding for a complete system replacement, and now our new chillers and boilers are in place and fully operational. We have backup equipment, too, if needed, with the entire system monitored around the clock in-house by a state-of-the-art control center manned by our building engineer. The control center carefully monitors the temperature and relative humidity in each gallery and storage area, making certain that the climate stays within our very narrow prescribed ranges. Daily environmental reports are shared with the Registrar’s department, its partner in environmental monitoring.
The Registrar’s department maintains its own independent environmental monitoring equipment—a kind of checks and balances—whose readings are regularly shared with the building engineer. You may have seen some of our monitoring equipment in the galleries, sitting high on a shelf or resting on a pedestal. The primary device we use is a recording hygrothermograph, which utilizes sensitive human hair bundles to determine the humidity in the air, and then transfers the readings to pens that record the information on a paper chart. Augmenting this device are little digital hygrometers, located throughout the galleries, and usually placed in discreet locations such as under furniture or inside exhibition display cases. We also have digital, hand-held, instant read monitors, and those are used daily for spot-checking. Another critical aspect of monitoring is ensuring that the monitoring equipment is functioning properly and giving us accurate readings. To ensure accuracy we use old-fashioned sling psychrometers, and then double check them with sodium chloride and magnesium chloride salts.
With our new environmental system, a dedicated staff, and an incredible collection—keeping cool is no sweat!
One of the City’s most beloved landmarks, the Frank Fleming fountain of The Storyteller, is located in the heart of Five Points South. The fountain consists of nine cast bronze animals that form a circle, with frogs spraying jets of water within a cast concrete basin. The primary sculpture in the figure group is a seated “ram-man” holding a staff with one hand and an open book with the other as animals sit clustered around him and appear to be listening to the story read from the open book. A bronze plaque on the fountain basin reads, “Storytelling is a deeply rooted southern heritage. The animals are listening to a story intended to convey the idea of a peaceable kingdom. Fleming’s deep respect for the dignity and honesty found in nature is symbolized in these figures.”
But did you know that this landmark is part of the Birmingham Museum of Art’s permanent collection? In 1990, when the casting was complete and the figures permanently installed, the Museum agreed to take over the fountain’s care, custody, and control, thus ensuring it would be available for future generations to enjoy.
As with all our other outdoor sculptures, The Storyteller needs to be examined and assessed twice yearly in order to determine if our maintenance protocol is keeping it stable and safe. Protecting it from the elements, like acid rain, and the occasional unintended harmful actions of fountain visitors, requires a strict program of examination, washing, and waxing.
Logistics, however, can be daunting when you’re caring for a sculpture that sits squarely at the juncture of five major traffic arteries and serves as a gathering place and photographic backdrop for throngs of residents and visitors. In order to accomplish our treatment, we must first enlist the aid of the City of Birmingham Department of Public Works to drain and pressure wash the fountain’s basin interior. As soon as the fountain is emptied, our art handlers quickly move into place to examine the sculptures up close to determine the efficacy of our treatment program and document current condition. After the exam is complete, they begin the process of carefully washing the figures with a specialized detergent and, if needed, removing any mineral deposits that may be deposited onto the surface. After the washing is completed, and the figures are dry (which doesn’t take long in that unrelenting noon day sun!), they apply several protective coats of a clear or pigmented wax to all the surfaces. The wax saturates the surface and gives the patina a luminous, rich quality but, most importantly, it serves as a protective barrier against harmful substances such as dirt, grime, and acid rain. The fountain basin is then quickly refilled, providing once again a beautiful backdrop for those visitor photographs. In a few months the conservation process begins again because one chapter of The Storyteller’s "never ending story" is the Museum’s deep commitment to protecting this important work of art.
Caring for the collection is one of the primary responsibilities of the Museum staff. In addition to careful maintenance of the works of art inside the museum building, we also adhere to a strict conservation program for the works of art on display outdoors. Harsh outdoor environmental conditions can take a toll on even the toughest work of art. Ultraviolet light can fade pigments and break down protective lacquer and wax coatings. Dirt can become imbedded in crevices and also cause unsightly streaks. Pollutants can permanently etch even the most durable surface. Occasionally our seasoned Museum staff will consult with professional conservators, but usually they know how to address even the most difficult problems.