For my collections project, I was able to work first-hand with a specific niche of the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History’s cultural objects: wooden spoons from the Philippines. They came to the museum from the 1904 World’s Fair. These spoons showed evidence of careful craftsmanship, and they seemed to be used to the point where they are now quite delicate. It was fascinating to work with the objects and consider where they had been, who had previously used them, and how their previous uses had impacted their current condition.
The overall goal of this project was to get experience working with collections as an emerging museum professional in order to apply the knowledge I was learning through the Museum Object Preservation course. More specifically, the direction of my project was to complete condition reports, photographic documentation, and custom supports for anthropological objects at the University of Iowa’s Museum of Natural History. My personal goal was to learn about routine collection care tasks to discover how my existing skills would be transferrable and to inform my object conservation career goals.
In order to learn about condition reporting and documentation, I first read introductory information to help me understand the importance of these collection maintenance activities before doing any work with the objects. To begin my tasks, I photographed the object from multiple angles and uploaded the pictures to the online collection catalog. Next I completed the condition report, which meant carefully observing the object and documenting every detail so it could be uniquely identified by my description. I then created a support for the object with the noted concerns in mind using B-flute board, cotton batting, and polyester cushions. After nearly 23 hours of work, I finished two custom supports and documented the conditions of two spoons. Due to collaboration with another student, I was able to complete the full process for one object.
As a newcomer to condition reporting, object photography, and custom supports, each step presented its own challenges. Condition reporting is a daunting task because the uniqueness of each object makes it overwhelming to document in words. I found myself wondering how I should describe features so that those who read my report would easily understand what I meant and be able to identify it on the object. Consistency between reports was also important for me to keep in mind and something I adapted to as I did my second report. Object photography was probably the most deceptively difficult part. Taking pictures is easy enough but showing the object in the right light and the right amount of detail was not simple. I had to figure out the settings on the camera enough to know what each did and how I could make the most of the tool as a whole to capture the object in a series of images. Finally, crafting custom supports was the most unfamiliar part of the process to me. I had to learn step-by-step about each component, how to make it, and how to put it all together. The sewing was definitely the most challenging aspect of the whole project and also probably the thing I spent the most time doing. I had no prior experience sewing by hand; however, after doing it a few times, I soon remembered how to wrap the fabric tightly, where to tie knots, and in which direction to move the needle. The opportunity for improvement was frustrating at times but it all came together for the better.
I enjoyed photographing the objects, moving around and focusing on different details to get the best shot. It was exciting to see how the images turned out and it felt great to include my work in the condition reports and collection catalog. The tedious work of support-making was not my favorite activity. While I did appreciate the sense of accomplishment at the end, one support took many hours to complete when the board, the pillow, and the ties all had to be sewn by hand. With what we have learned in the course, I fully acknowledge the need for these objects to have custom housings before they are placed in the archival cabinet drawers. However, I kept wondering if there was a more commercial method of giving the objects the support they needed while using volunteer and staff time more efficiently. Expenses are an important consideration in determining a solution, but I would recommend starting with a reconsideration of the materials. Perhaps stiffer blocks of Ethafoam with Teflon components would be equally as effective in providing objects a sturdy home while eliminating the need for so much sewing.
Everything I did for this project was new to me. By personally working on condition reports, photography, and object supports, I gained practical skills that I can use in nearly every collection I might work with to promote long-term preservation. This foundational knowledge about object documentation and storage supports is especially valuable for an emerging professional like myself who wants to be a conservator because there is no replacement for preventive conservation. While the tedious tasks I took on during this project are not ones I would want to do every day, I believe they will be an asset when applying to work with collections in the future. These physical skills are something I needed to learn by doing and I am grateful I had the opportunity to do so this semester. Ultimately this project strengthened my determination to become an object conservator. I appreciate the physical history of objects, and I want to play a part in preserving them for future generations. Proper documentation and supportive storage is key in making that possible so I will undoubtedly repeat this type of work with numerous other collections in my future career.