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  • Writer's pictureNLPB Pharmacy Museum

Transformation Tuesday: An Introduction to Collections Reorganization

Hello everyone!

We hope you’ve been having a wonderful start to your new year. It’s been busy here at the Newfoundland and Labrador Pharmacy Museum, with grant season well under way and a couple of huge internal projects starting in earnest. The biggest of these projects is our Collections Reorganization project! Though this project started last summer, this year is when the bulk of the progress will begin.

But, what is the project? What have we done so far? What are we doing next? What are we hoping to accomplish, and why are we doing it? These are all great questions, and we hope to answer some of them here. Museum work can often be complicated, and it is our goal to make sure that the process of organizing our collection is as transparent as possible.

As mentioned, the Collections Reorganization project began in July of last year, when we began the inventory of our Museum space.

Three oak cabinets in a corner, filled with clear labelled bottles. The wall behind the cabinets is white pressed tin, which has decorative art-nouveau embossing. The decorative crown molding is also visible in the top left corner. There is a bronze-painted funnel on a black stand in the foreground.
These solid oak cabinets were imported from Britain in the 1890s.

This inventory is important to our project because it allows us to collect necessary information about our collection that is missing or never existed in the first place. Our collection is an inherited collection; that is, these items existed in the space that is now the museum before it was a museum and were left to us when we took over management of the space. While this means that we inherited a mostly-relevant and complete collection, which is a huge deal for a new museum, it also means that some of the information that is essential to museum operations is missing. For example, we don’t have listed, reliable information about where any given artifact is located within the museum.

To combat this, we started the inventory project, which is step one in the Collections Reorganization effort. Our staff have been working since the summer to complete an inventory of all the permanent artifacts in the front-facing museum space, and we have inventoried approximately 500 artifacts so far, with an estimated 200 left. This inventory prioritizes certain types of information that are essential to keeping our museum operations running smoothly: current location, general condition, and basic descriptive information are just three of the necessary information categories.

Small, stout glass bottle set in front of antique books. A piece of the neck has chipped off and is set in front of the bottle. Bottle is blue-tinted, with a glass stopper, and a crooked label that reads "M. Connors, Druggist. DILL WATER. Water Street West, St. John's, N.F."
Dill Water from Druggist M. Connors. This artifact was taken off display so staff could store both pieces of the artifact together. Broken glass is also too dangerous to have on display.

Not only will this give us a good idea of the types of artifacts we have in our collection, this survey is helping us identify those artifacts that are in poor condition and may need to be taken off display.

This year, in 2022, the inventory will continue in both the museum and collections storage spaces. While we estimate there to be about 700 artifacts in the museum space, our conservative estimate for the storage space is double or triple that amount, not counting those artifacts that are currently awaiting processing and are stored in our offices. The artifacts you see pictured below are those that are either awaiting accession (legal entry to the collection) or deaccession (legal exit from the collection). If you’d like to learn a little more about the accession and deaccession processes, let us know and we’ll make a blog post detailing the process!

The Collections Assistant, Drew, is sitting at her office desk, which is very cluttered. She is wearing a purple shirt an giving a thumbs up with a grimace on her face.
The Collections Assistant's office. While it looks organized, there shouldn't be this many things in here!

Here, you can see the current state of our offices. We recently had tenants move into the upstairs space of Apothecary Hall (yay!) which means that the space we have left to store our artifacts has shrunk dramatically.

A very messy office with beige walls. Artifacts are stored all over every surface of the desk, on the floor, and behind the door.
The Collections Assistant's office from a different, more revealing angle.

Ideally, we will have our offices clear of everything except what we're actively working on, and everything else will be stored downstairs in its proper place. As the Collections Reorganization project is in its infancy, we have to keep things in less-than-ideal spots until we can get the collections storage spaces sorted out. Hopefully this mess will be largely dealt with my the end of February!

While inventories and accessions are essential projects, the most exciting projects are the improvements that we are planning to make to our collections storage spaces. Currently, the artifacts that aren’t on display are being held in the same spot where they were left to us when we inherited the collection: the building’s basement. This is a fairly typical set-up for small museums like ours, which often have extremely limited space and therefore lack options for storage. Our storage space is approximately the size of a one-bedroom apartment, and its location in the basement is not ideal for conservation.

For example, our greatest enemy at the moment is moisture. It is no secret that St. John’s is a wet and humid place, and this problem is compounded by the limitations of our historic building. Our museum is often subject to leaks and high humidity, and there is a surplus of unusable shelving that is cluttering the area and taking up valuable artifact space. The artifacts that are downstairs are kept safely on their shelves, but there is no discernable organizational structure determining where the artifacts are stored. Additionally, there are a number of artifacts that we have identified that do not meet our collections policy, which means they need to be disposed of or relocated. Leaking or damaged medicine, outdated hospital equipment, and modern pharmaceutical ads from other provinces are all examples of inherited artifacts that do not fall under our new mandate, but are taking up valuable real estate in our storage spaces.

This seems like a lot of problems for one museum to have - and it is! Unfortunately, having this long laundry list of issues that need to be addressed is a typical experience for small museums, especially those that are inheriting collections from institutions that were not trained in artifact preservation or administration. There are a lot of things for us to do, but we have resources, strategies, and plans in place to help us achieve them.

The first step, as mentioned, is the inventory. Museums can do what they do because they have authentic and reliable information about their artifacts, and we are well on our way to ticking off this box by gathering as much information as possible on what we have. After that, we will be upgrading our internal database and using that information to make new and improved physical and online exhibits.

The next step - the one we're working on now - is improving our collections storage space. We will be removing the superfluous shelving, installing dehumidifiers to control the humidity in the space, and lining all the shelves with acid-free paper to ensure their environment is as neutral as possible.

A long grey hallway with grey shelves on either side. The Museum Manager is waving from the end of the hall, and there are yellow light flares from the lightbulbs.
The collections storage area with the old incandescent bulbs. Our Museum Manager, Deanna, is waving from the back!

We have actually already made some small progress in this area: we installed new LED lightbulbs, which will help prevent unnecessary light and heat damage to our artifacts. Our stored artifacts are usually kept in the dark in order to prevent light damage - one of the benefits of having a basement storage space - and it is important that when we have to access the collection, we are doing as little harm as possible. Here, you can see the difference these new lightbulbs make!

The same long grey hallway with grey shelves. The hall is better lit, and the bulbs are giving off white light.
The same space, but with the new LED bulbs. These bulbs will both help us see better, and be healthier for the artifacts!

We also plan to create dedicated spaces for certain functions. Our main storage space will remain the same, but The Vault - a small room with a picturesque vault door, which was likely used to house more dangerous pharmaceutical products - will be our new library, and the intermediary room will be our new holding area for the artifacts that are awaiting processing. Finally, we’ll be able to move some artifacts out of our offices!

Hopefully this blog post has helped you to understand some of the things we're planning to accomplish this year. Our goal with these posts is not only to keep you updated on our progress - though that is an important part - but to shine some light on parts of museum administration that might be confusing to those who don’t have any experience in the field. Your questions are welcomed and encouraged: feel free to ask about why we are doing something in a certain way, how we go about solving certain problems, or what exactly a museum’s responsibilities are. In turn, we will do our best to describe what we’re doing in an accessible and transparent way, so that you feel as involved in the process of Collections Reorganization as possible.

On that note, the next blog post - scheduled for late February - will likely be on the topic of what we’ve already done to improve the museum’s operations. We’ll talk a little bit about our Collections Policy and why it’s important to have one, as well as delve a little deeper into the topic of inherited collections and how that affects us here at the Newfoundland and Labrador Pharmacy Museum. If you have any questions on those topics, feel free to ask in the comments, and we’ll do our best to answer them in the next post!

Thank you for reading, and we look forward to talking to you again soon,

~Drew, Collections Assistant


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