By Katelyn Dickerson, Museum Coordinator
In recent months I have become increasingly familiar with the question “so what does a museum coordinator actually do?” People seem genuinely unsure of what the day-to-day duties of a museum employee might look like. This may stem from the view that museums are stagnant institutions, which put objects on display and leave them there. While in some ways this is true, it largely overlooks so much of what a museum is and does. It is true that most museums have some version of a permanent exhibit; an exhibition always on display that focuses on the core of the museum’s mission, but that is by no means the end of the story. So for this week’s blog I am going to talk about one aspect of museum work, collections management.
One of the best ways I have heard to describe the collections management side of museum work was from a nine year-old named Andrew. During the youth raptor class this past week, we focused on the museum aspect of the foundation. So I posed the question to the class “What does it mean to preserve something?” Andrew’s hand shot up, as it does for most questions. He wiggled and squirmed trying to get my attention. I relented, pointed to him, and asked him to tell me what he thought. He immediately and confidently stated “to preserve something is to keep it awesome.”
I respected this definition. He got a gold star in my book for the day. A large part of collections management and by association, preservation, is sustaining an object’s state, protecting and preventing any further deterioration. In other words, keeping it awesome. There are a variety of ways and methods that museums employ to achieve this, most revolving around regular, scheduled, and comprehensive housekeeping.
Twice a year the American Bald Eagle Foundation undergoes a thorough cleaning of all of our collections. This serves a number of purposes. It allows us to check on objects that are not normally seen up-close, so that we can see if there is any damage from pests, light, or other environmental factors. This semi-annual cleaning also protects against future problems by allowing staff members to identify potential issues and resolve them before they can cause any real damage.
The reality of cleaning collections can seem pretty funny to the untrained eye, honestly it’s still pretty funny to me. My fanny pack of museum tricks normally includes paintbrushes, cotton swabs, latex gloves and dust masks, as well as a vacuum strapped to my back, Ghostbusters style. I move through the collection methodically, sometimes twenty feet off the ground on scaffolding, brushing the dust off of the specimens with a paintbrush and checking them for damage. The vacuum hose stays close to the brush to suck up any dislodged dust, but far enough away so as to not disrupt the specimen itself. I clean the eyes, noses, teeth, claws, and talons with cotton swabs.
The diligent museum professional does all of this in hopes that his or her efforts will further delay the effects of time on valuable museum collections. Natural history museums, in particular, have their work cut out for them. Objects made from metal and plastic are designed by humans to withstand time, natural materials, such as fur and feathers are predisposed to deteriorate over time. When an animal dies in the wild natural processes take over. Bacteria eat away at the carcass, other animals and bugs take bits for themselves, the elements cover and wash away other traces. Museum professionals work hard to counter all of these naturally occurring developments, through accepted museum standards.
Museum professionals, like myself, go through all of this, complete these meticulous tasks, and roll around the museum looking like Bill Murray searching for ectoplasm, for the sole purpose of protecting and maintaining artifacts for visitors. Every object you see at a museum was selected, researched, prepared, designed around, interpreted, and regularly cleaned so that present and future generations can appreciate it and learn from it. So in short, taking care of the collections, i.e. keeping them awesome, is only one small, though important, aspect of a museum coordinators’ job.