girl looking at pictures in an art gallery exhibition

Curating an external exhibition

Posted Posted in Exhibit, museums, libraries, archives, collections, planning, Using archives and collections

As a freelance curator, I do get asked to mount exhibitions for other organisations, sometimes in their location, sometimes not. Putting on an exhibition of unfamiliar objects with an unfamiliar subject in an unfamiliar location brings one or two challenges and more than a few questions. Invariably an initial conversation goes something like this:

‘Hello, are you a curator?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Can you put on an exhibition for us? What will it cost? How long will it take?’
‘Yes I can. First I need a few details about what you’d like, when you’d like it, how long for, who does what….’
‘Oh. I thought it was just putting pictures on walls?’

In case you’re unfamiliar with museum exhibitions, here are a few initial questions and considerations before a budget/timescale can be set. What is the size of the exhibition? Where will it be? How many objects might there be? How long will it run for? What do you want to see in it? What is the exhibition saying and to whom? And at what level to say it – beginner, intermediate, expert? What are the aims of the exhibition? Do they fit the aims and mission statement of the display location? Will the objects be worthy of display? Will they be in good condition? Will the organisation’s intended budget cover their initial ideas? (Usually, no!) How will objects move from place to place? Who will be responsible for packing/crating them? How will they be physically displayed? Who will organise and pay for the mounts and frames? Who will actually get up on a ladder to put paintings on walls? Who will condition check them on arrival? Who is responsible for advertising and promotion? Who selects each object – those with subject specialist knowledge or those with an oversight of how museum exhibitions work? How will the exhibition be monitored and evaluated and by whom? How long might research take – what information will be provided to the curator? Who will develop the concept and write the panels – those with the knowledge of the subject or those who know about writing text for visitors? Who decides the layout, lighting, display? Is there anything that already exists that can be re-used? Who is responsible for finding, putting together and mounting any audio visuals? What of insurance? Who pays for it in transit or in the museum? Who puts the objects in position? What’s in the budget for interactives? And speaking of budgets…who sets the budget? And who, from the company or organisation, will liaise with the curator – marketing, purchasers, company historians, secretaries, technicians, volunteers, MDs, CEOs? Depending on the organisation’s structure, all might have to be prepared to give some time to make it happen.

You see, it’s not all ‘just putting pictures on walls’. A simple one room exhibition of mixed media will take a minimum of three months (and that’s rushing it) exhibitors at a national museum will probably allow three years to plan and implement something new. As to budgets – a very simple temporary display will probably be upwards of £10,000; a blockbuster will be many millions. Most of the time taken is in liaison and making arrangements. Even a simple thing like a difficult mount for a single item might take hours to research, order and present. Curators are keen to do as much as possible to ensure that the exhibition works as a whole; clients are keen to do as much as possible to avoid curatorial fees. Discussion, early decisions about who does what and open lines of communication are key to smooth relations with stakeholders.

If you’re thinking of putting on your own exhibition – perhaps for an important anniversary (congratulations!) – here are The Company Curator’s Top Tips:

1) It will take longer than you think. Work well in advance. Think years, not months.
2) Have an accessible budget ready to go.
3) Communication and early, transparent decisions about who does what – in writing – are vital.

Happy exhibiting!

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.

green and white emergency exit sign with peson running

Emergency planning: company collections and archives

Posted Posted in Environmental monitoring, Opinion, planning

green and white emergency exit sign with peson running Most companies have undertaken emergency planning involving staff and visitor evacuation, IT and furniture removal – depending on the threat –  but how many of you include your historic company collections and archives in your plan? For instance, how many of you would even consider the unique antique oil painting of the company’s founder in the rush to remove the easily-replaceable-backed-up-centrally-overnight laptop?

If your plan does include your company’s irreplaceable history, bravo and well done – you’re on the right track not only to keeping your own history, but a history that will have impacted on the town and society around it and upon the business world too. What of those who don’t?

Emergency planning is often seen as a theoretical exercise carried out only for insurance or policy purposes. This is fine until it’s needed. At that point you realise how important it is.

Years ago, as a museum curator, I created an emergency plan. It featured a description of the museum and collections, the evaluation, access and salvage procedures and the correct post-emergency process. It  had an appendix of emergency contacts and detailed where to find useful items like the disaster boxes, ladders and torches (by all the doors – elementary. Are yours?)

This was an interesting theoretical exercise  until I was contacted at 4am one dark, windy, winter morning to be told that ‘the highest ever storm surge will hit our area in four hours’. I had to persuade the police to let me through a total road block ‘You understand that if you die it’s nothing to do with us?’ in order to get to the museum. On arrival, my fab local team were there already assessing the situation, disaster boxes open and waiting. The boxes included lists of the most important items to remove, in what order, and what tools were needed to remove them. All the necessary tools, equipment and clothing to save the collections was in the boxes. We moved the most important items upstairs while the flood waters rose and the police and fire engines kept vigil, along with camera helicopters overhead.

In the event, the flood waters missed the building by only 30 feet. Businesses down the road were not so lucky. Another museum was watching the advancing flood from the front door when they realised that water was bubbling up through the floorboards. They had their own emergency plan which had enabled them to save their collections and demonstrate their survival skills. Can your company demonstrate that?

If you have an emergency plan, do check that your historical assets are included. Tables, chairs, PCs  etc can be replaced – the physical record of your company’s history cannot.

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.