box with old photos in it

When it really is too late

Posted Posted in Care, Storage, Using archives and collections

Recently I was approached by a large global company who needed my help with their heritage collection, which they were very proud of. They weren’t sure what they had and had no idea how to use it. I looked, assessed and quoted for cataloguing and digitising the collection, which comprised boxes of photographs, promotional material, old newsletters, ledgers and company documentation with a few other objects thrown in for good measure.

Last week I was informed that they were ‘unable to proceed with the project’. Intrigued, I asked why – was it me? Was it my price? Was it the market? No, they said, it was the collection itself. They had collected items for the archive since the company had been founded – that’s 50 years – and this process involved one simple step: putting suitable material in the archive location. Over the years, a large collection had built up, which occasionally a staff member would sift through to find useful items.

However, at this time of deciding what to do with the collection and how to move it forward, they had come to a simple shocking realisation – the photographs in the collection were entirely undocumented and therefore meant nothing to anyone. They had no idea of who the people in the photos were, what the occasion was, where the photo was taken or its date. No-one had ever thought to write this down. Much of the collection that they thought they had was, in an instant, proved intrinsically valueless. Without interpretation and documentation a photo means very little. If your collection is built on undocumented photographs then I would say that you have a problem which is often, without a lot of research, cost and effort, going to compromise your heritage.

What not to do if you have an undocumented collection? Don’t rush out, ask colleagues who the people in the photos are and write that information on the back of the photo. Why? You’re creating more problems – you might then discover the next time you look at the photos that the ink you used has now transferred to the photo below it. Archivists record photos in ways that don’t damage the photo and do ensure that the information stays with it.

box with old photos in it
old photos

What should you do? Ask a professional! Plan for this aspect of the future and learn about the right way to ensure that your collection will be understandable and meaningful to people in 50 years, 100 years or more. Don’t let your someone in your company be faced with the decision that this company is now facing: what to do with 50 years of now-meaningless history?

Digitisation: one way to be remembered at work

Posted 1 CommentPosted in Opinion, Storage, Using archives and collections

Digitisation is a hot topic at the moment (OK, I’ll qualify – it’s a hot topic in the world of collections and collectors).  By 2008 the number of devices connected to the internet outnumbered the human population.  We love to be online and digitisation can only enhance this.

Digitisation (the scanning or photographing of physical items into a digital form) is a great way of recording the object’s condition at that point in time, sharing information, showing and  protecting objects which are too rare or fragile to be on show, making collections accessible, using them in new ways, supporting new methods of research, allowing new audiences to interpret content, and generating income from image sales.

So what’s the problem?

The main problem (after ‘what to digitise’ – I mean, who wants to pay for and manage a second, virtual collection because – unthinkingly – they digitised everything?) is that it’s very tempting for companies, particularly those with limited space, to think ‘Let’s digitise it and chuck out the originals!’.  Seeing as we’re talking tech,  I’ll use an emoji:  It’s very hard not to run away screaming when a client says this.

 

I have only one answer to the person who asks ‘Do you think we should keep our collection after we’ve digitised it?’ and that is yes.  If you are considering the digitisation-and-bin method, ask yourself why anyone ever visits museums and galleries.  Do they go to look at copies or at the real thing?  Would you be happy if our great national museums and galleries took photos of everything inside, threw out the originals, shut up shop and said ‘yeah, but you can see them online now, and we don’t have to pay for a museum any more’?  Do people value cut glass rings or diamond rings?  Real pearls or fake?  Genuine artwork or prints?  Tutankhamun’s death mask or a postcard of it?  I hope you see where I’m going here?

 

Your company heritage is your own unique record of your company’s history, people, working conditions, processes, developments and successes.  It is tangible, physical, real, genuine.  It can be held, seen from three sides, displayed this way and that, passed round, shown off;  it has an associated feel and smell which a scan or photograph does not.  The past becomes the present when you’re in a space filled with that past, feeling the hands of time, people and place wrapping around you and pulling you in – this cannot happen when you’re on a computer looking at single objects one by one.

 

Don’t go down in company memory as ‘the one who threw out the collections’. Be remembered as the one who did something with them.

 

Faith Carpenter curates for The Company Curator, working across Berkshire, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. We can help you to tell your story to your customers and clients.

www.thecompanycurator.co.uk

https://uk.linkedin.com/in/faithcarpenter

https://www.facebook.com/thecompanycurator/

07842 320691

Love devouring a good book? Meet the real bookworms – and they’re better at it than you.

Posted 2 CommentsPosted in Care, Insect pests, Storage

It’s World Book Day on Tuesday March 2nd. Our nation loves books. Adults, children, even babies, we all love devouring a good book. Unhappily though, we aren’t the only ones. The larvae of moths, booklice, carpet beetles, spider beetles, silverfish, woodworm (also known as bookworms), and death watch beetles, (true!) all enjoy books even more thoroughly than we do.

That’s gross. Why would they do that?

They’re hungry and you’re providing a food source. Books can provide a feast for larvae which feed on wood, animal substances, mould and mildew. Let’s look at these in turn.
The larvae of deathwatch beetles and woodworm love to eat wood. Books are made from wood pulp, so if a beetle lays eggs on the book its larvae will bore in and around the pages and covers for up to four years before emerging as adult beetles, possibly laying eggs on the way out.
The larvae of silverfish, moths and carpet beetles will only graze on animal substances, shredding the book as they go, so they like a bit of leather binding, a side order of size (a glue made from animal hooves) and possibly a dessert of parchment or vellum, if you’re lucky enough to have really old books.
Silverfish and tiny psocids (booklice) are choosy and feed on the starches and proteins in cellulose, which is contained in wood pulp. They like to graze, so create a scuffed appearance on pages and covers. They prefer certain colours and have been known to create patterns as they hunt out the dyes and pigments they prefer.

How can I avoid things eating my books?

Make sure your books aren’t damp. Most of these insects prefer their food a bit wet, so damp books – those stored in lofts, cellars or sheds, or placed on shelves against colder outer walls, will suffer most. To encourage air circulation, don’t push books right back against the wall or shelf.
Insects enter through windows in the spring and summer and lay eggs. Vacuum and dust regularly, unless your books are extremely rare or valuable, in which case seek specialist advice.

Any other tips for looking after books?

Yes! While we’re looking out for things that might spoil our enjoyment of a good book, we can also consider light, chemicals and bad handling. Light will fade the covers, so store them away from windows. Store them upright instead of stacked. Dropping books and opening them too wide weakens the spine and bindings, so handle them carefully. Chemicals from modern paints, glues, waxes and varnishes, as well as from some woods, can cause books to degrade, so be careful where you store them.
Most importantly…. Enjoy reading, enjoy your books and use these simple tips to make sure that you’re the one who enjoys them the most.

Cold frosted window with sunset behind

Cold: why collections and archives don’t much like it

Posted 5 CommentsPosted in Storage, Temperature

It’s been cold – below zero – in the UK the last few days, with days more chilly weather to come. I’m keen to have warmer weather (unless there’s snow coming, in which case bring it on) and it’s a sure thing that if you’re storing collections and archives in basements or attics, they’ll be suffering too.

Why? How can cold cause problems? I’ll use an analogy from last week. My seven year old wanted to take an inflatable plastic globe to school. We rescued it from her bedroom by the radiator and blew it up fully. We set off on foot to do the 10 minute walk in -2 degrees. After a few minutes, we noticed that it had ‘blown down’ and that the feel of it had changed – it had gone from being plump and springy to brittle and hard to move. I explained that it hadn’t blown down but that the molecFrosted window with sunset behindules of cold air within the globe and the particles of plastic in the globe had contracted in the cold, causing the blown down effect and the plastic to feel delicate. I told her to take it in to the warm classroom and see what happened and later she was able to tell me that the procedure had reversed.

Items in archives and collections react in exactly the same way to differing degrees – and there lies the problem. If you’ve two items together, say books with parchment glued onto paper or buckskin glued to card, they will expand and contract at different rates, causing loosening and tearing. Add a bit of condensation into the mix, which freezes in the layers, and you’ve got trouble heading your way – mould, mildew, shrinkage…

18 degrees is considered a stable temperature for most objects. It is worse to have daily fluctuations than seasonal ones as this causes more expansion/contraction cycles. Any area getting down to near freezing temperatures is a cause for concern. If your collection is in a poor space, consider a long term insulation plan with false walls of battens and foamboard – this will help with heating costs in the rest of the building. If you haven’t already covered windows, do so, either permanently or with blankets or thermal blinds at the windows. Allow some heating on the coldest days. Keep the area dry at all times. Consider a proper plan to look after your history and take care of your unique collections.

The importance of correct storage packing

Posted Posted in Care, Environmental monitoring, Insect pests, Mould and mildew, Storage

As a museum curator, I know that packing items correctly for storage is vitally important. This is something that trainee museum curators are taught on the MA course and which is drummed in during our working lives every time we come across damage, as it’s so often due to incorrect packing. Most people aren’t aware of this, and why should they be?

 

If organic items are stored incorrectly several things can happen:

  • They can be broken
  • They can become dusty: as dust is acidic it will eat away at the item, damaging the surface
  • They can become a target for insects or rodents
  • They can become mildewed or mouldy

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Mildew and woodworm on an incorrectly packed Nigerian wooden mask
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Mildew on am incorrectly packed Nigerian wooden mask

This last is what I will talk about here. Recently I worked with a collection that had been packed for international transport and then put straight into storage in the same packing. The storage conditions were not optimal as the collection was placed into an attic with (as with all attics) extreme seasonal temperature fluctuations. The collection had been in storage for between 7-20 years depending on individual items.

 

The collection had been carefully packed for international transport into cardboard boxes, then into packing paper and then either bubble wrapped or put into plastic bags. This was adequate for the transport of a personal collection, but on arrival, the items should have been removed from the bubble wrap and plastic bags and re-packed for storage. While useful to stop damage during transport, the plastic around each item creates a micro-climate. Fluctuating temperatures in the storage facility had added to the micro-climate, causing water vapour collected in the winter’s chill to condense inside the plastic in the warmer summers. Bubble wrapped items had become mildewed. Mildew is a superficial growth made of hyphae, small filaments of fungus, which is mainly associated with garden plants but can also affect organic items indoors.

 

Once mildews and mould take hold they can grow quickly and we were fortunate that these were only small growths, easily brushed off. Correct re-packing for long term storage (a sturdy acid free box, to prevent acid leakage and insect ingress, acid free tissue rolled into balls to support the items, further museum-quality materials for delicate or very important items) will keep this collection in a far better condition even in a poor environment such as an attic.

 

Sometimes it’s too late. Some things are in such a poor state that the mould has damaged the item irretrievably and it has to be disposed of. Simple regular housekeeping checks can prevent this and keep collections going for many more years.

 

close up of Clothes moth Tineola Bisselliella

Company history or lunch?

Posted Posted in Care, Environmental monitoring, Insect pests, Storage
clothes moth tineola bisseliella
Clothes moth

Everyone has heard tales of Granny pulling out her fox fur, clothes moths flying everywhere and the once-beautiful fur in tatters. Recently a Scottish relative showed me his kilt and jacket. These 60 year old family heirlooms had been ruined over one single winter. He’d even had to buy new socks as when he’d put them he had found that the heel had been eaten away entirely. Clothes moths (notably Tineola Biselliella and Tinea Pellionella) are a serious pest of stored organic items.
It’s not actually the moths eating your heritage, it’s their larvae. Females lay clusters of 30-200 eggs and they hatch 4-10 days later into tiny caterpillars which begin to eat. And eat, and eat, until they are ready to spin cocoons (a few months to two years). They then spend 2-6 weeks developing into moths, at which point they leave their cocoons and begin the reproductive cycle, dying within a month or so.

 

Moths go for organic in a big way – think silk, wool, hair, skins, sometimes linen or cotton, in carpets, curtains, rugs, runners, cushions, clothes etc. So how does this relate to your historical collections of books, papers, paintings or prints? You’ll be delighted to hear that they also enjoy a bit of leather (books) and cloth (book bindings) as well as parchment or vellum and occasionally the animal glue on canvases. Yum.

clothes moth tineola bisseliella
beige, brown and cream with a cream head, the  clothes moth blends in well with organic fibres

 

To find moths, think like a moth. They prefer dark, humid, warm, undisturbed places. Quiet parts of modern homes and offices are perfect. Look in cupboards, in cracks, under chests of drawers. And remember, if you don’t do this and it’s your collection falling into tatters, you can’t just go and get another one. You don’t want to be the one who allowed 200 years of your company’s history to become lunch.

radiator

Autumn’s here: Why turning on your radiators could be turning off your revenue stream

Posted Posted in Care, Environmental monitoring, Storage, Temperature
old radiator with peeling paint
Turn off radiators under artwork

Radiators – oil filled heaters – storage heaters – under-floor heating – at this time of year, the chances are that your office has some form of heating (and I do hope so!) and that you’ll be discussing whether or not to put it on. Perhaps it will go on for a few hours in the morning and a few more in the afternoon, if you work in a small cost or environmentally-conscious office, or perhaps you work in a space where your office becomes a blast furnace, with the windows open and the staff in t-shirts, from October 1st until March 31st.
No matter which heating style you live with, it probably won’t suit your company collections unless they’re in a dedicated climate controlled location. Most offices with historical collections fail to prioritize them and so store them wherever there’s room – the attic, the basement, cupboards, open shelving in offices.
So why is heating a problem? How on earth can being warm entirely ruin collections? Well, I’ll explain, and as it’s nearly my lunchtime I’ll use a few food analogies. Imagine putting two litre bottles into the freezer. One contains water, one contains alcohol. They’d both freeze, but one would expand more than the other. As they melted, they’d contract back to their original sizes. Now, think of the way in which pasta absorbs water, and how it dries out again when the water is removed. This happens, to a greater or lesser degree, to everything in a collection.
Take a traditional oil painting as an example. Usually, oils are painted in many layers of differing paints over a canvas, which is usually made from cotton, linen or hemp. The canvas will have been initially treated with a layer of gesso, comprised of linseed oil and calcium carbonate, applied over a rabbitskin glue ground (called a ‘size’). The whole is stretched over a wooden frame. The painting might be varnished after completion, before being inserted into a plaster and gilt frame. On average, you therefore have at least nine different mediums – canvas, linseed oil, calcium carbonate, size, wood, varnish, plaster and gilt, not to mention the paint and everything that it’s made from. ALL of these things will absorb and lose heat and moisture and, crucially, this happens at different rates, like the frozen bottles and the pasta. As they do this, they expand and contract, again, crucially, at different times. Back to the food analogies – imagine a flaky pastry, with different layers becoming larger and smaller at different times – a smaller bottom layer rucks up the larger top layer; a larger bottom layer stretches and cracks the smaller top layer. The end result is an oil painting with cracked, flaked paint, shrunken or loose canvas, warped canvas frame and lost chunks of gilt plaster – I’m sure you’ve all seen one somewhere. The paintings in the worst condition are usually those still hanging over the Victorian fireplace, which expanded and contracted hugely every day in the fierce heat generated.
Every single thing in a collection is susceptible in one way or another. Some items take decades to show degradation while others have visible damage fairly quickly. All the time that your heaters are cycling on and off, causing wide temperature fluctuations, they are causing damage. Moving items away from fluctuating heat sources can help, as can creating micro climates by boxing – best of all is a temperature controlled room, or one which has no heating or windows and so has a more even, less spiky temperature chart.
Once your items are damaged they are less useable for advertising campaigns, merchandising, corporate gifts, inspiration, research, image licensing and heritage strategies. Do take steps to protect your company’s valuable history – moving collected items away from heat sources is a simple, easy thing for you to do.

Dust: eating into your company archives

Posted Posted in Care, Dust, Environmental monitoring, museums, libraries, archives, collections, Storage

I read a humourous line recently: ‘Dust is a protective coating for fine furniture’. Obviously that’s a joke, but the joke is more about perceived standards of housekeeping than the realisation that dust is anything but protective.

 

Preservation specialists have known for a long time that it is actually harmful, so much so that the very image of a museum curator is bound up with dustiness. That’s why, upon telling people I was a curator, often the response was ‘Do you do a lot of dusting?’ A good collection won’t be like this – a good collection excludes it in the first place.

 

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s unsightly, it’s acidic, it’s abrasive, it’s allergenic and it’s hygroscopic. Dust comprises particles of soil, sand, volcanic eruptions, pollution, pollen, exhaust fumes, mould and fungi spores, of dead skin and hair, fabric and paper fibres and house dust mites, which eat the organic matter contained within and leave their faeces behind them.

 

The overall composition is acidic, and if left, will eat away and etch into items if left lying upon them. It will discolour and stain fabrics. Dust is mainly organic and as it decomposes it rots, leaving the products of decay in its wake.

 

Fibrous dust only contributes about 3% to the total but as it’s larger, it is unsightly; it is the fibres in the dust that often alert us to its presence. Skin and hair also don’t contribute much, but in homes and offices, they create enough particles to ensure the presence of house dust mites. Microscopic louse-like creatures, these cosmopolitan pyroglyphids flourish in these stable environments. Particularly fond of warm, humid bedding, they also do well in carpets and soft furnishings in similar office environments.

 

Dust sticks to surfaces because of the presence of exopolymers, made of the waste products of microbes. As dust gathers it provides more food for the colony-forming microbes which produce waste (called ‘biofilm’) on the surface of your object. Warm humid rooms are perfect for this breeding to take place.

 

To avoid the heavy consequences of ruining a collection with this problem, exclude it. Gently vacuum items before boxing or covering them. Don’t use a duster as this just moves and unsettles it – use a conservation vacuum. Items which don’t need boxing can be protected with archival tissues but not all items need this protection. These can be shelved as long as the doors and any windows are sealed or have excluders. Ideally a store wouldn’t have windows at all – if it does, they should be boarded over and sealed up – this helps with security, excludes dust, stabilises temperature and humidity and maintains low light levels.

 

If stringent precautions are taken and a regular cleaning programme implemented then your collections should be an asset to your company for many years to come.