Transformation Tuesday: The Beginning to Now
Now that the year has begun again, it's the perfect time to take a look back and see how far we've come. There have been some bumps and bruises along the way for our Collections Reorganization project, but we're finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
As you know, the project began with a huge cleaning project. The area that we delineated as our holding area was unusable, buried in debris, and prone to flooding. The space was filled by old rusting filing cabinets and cleaning supplies. We definitely weren't sad to see them go!
Cleaning the space out allowed us to see what could be done. It was decided that temporary shelves would be the best bet; that way, we could construct something that would fit the awkward space, stay elevated above the floors, and give us the freedom to change the configuration as necessary.
Eventually, we came to this conclusion. Three temporary shelves, each about 5 1/2 feet tall, raised at least three inches off the ground at the bottom. The slatted metal shelves have been outfitted with plastic bins, so artifacts can be temporarily stored on the shelves without worrying about their stability or size. Items stay here only temporarily. Here, they await accession, deaccession, or their new permanent home on our freshly lined shelves.
Of course, displacing artifacts means that we had to sort through all the items we have stored down here in the collections space, to figure out what exactly belongs to us and what has simply been stored with us for decades. This is a familiar problem for any museum with an inherited collection; there are a multitude of things that simply have no place within our collection, and never did, but predate the existence of the museum.
A lot of the items we disposed of were from the 1990s: small, empty plastic pill containers, mostly. There were a few unfortunate surprises as well: split bottles of what used to be olive oil, tablets that had deteriorated to the point of melting into something resembling refried beans, and medical equipment that will be better suited to a museum whose focus is not solely pharmaceutical.
Fortunately enough, we were able to get through the first round of evaluation rather quickly, and proper cleaning could begin on the shelves! Coated with decades of dirt and pharmaceutical mystery substance, they needed a good clean. Armed with wood-safe cleaner, water, and a significant amount of elbow grease, we started in on the grueling process of scrubbing each and every shelf until they were as clean as they could possibly be. This sometimes took multiple rounds of cleaning, waiting until the shelf dried before coming back to it and starting all over again. Cleaning was a delicate process of spraying a diluted cleaning fluid, waiting for it to take hold, scrubbing, and wiping up as much excess liquid as possible to ensure that the wood was exposed to as little moisture as possible. While the shelves are not part of our collection, per se, they are an original fixture in our heritage building and it is important we keep them in as good condition as we possibly can.
In the case of getting these shelves safe and clean, using so much moisture was unavoidable. By lining the shelves we have solved this problem for the future; now, if the shelves are dirtied, we can simply remove the lining and spot-clean as necessary. One of the biggest parts of working in a museum is conducting preventative conservation, and this certainly counts as such.
While we will have to scrub again on the next set of shelves, we are done with that task for now. Instead, we have moved on to actually lining the shelves with acid-free paper and archival-quality foam, to ensure that all of our artifacts are safely housed for the rest of their lives. This was admittedly a more complicated process than anticipated. Because these shelves are original to the building, and were built by hand in 1924, the dimensions are... unique. At typically - though not always - 8 1/2 inches deep, they are narrower than the standard modern shelf. In addition, the shelves range from 7 to 14 inches tall, and 17 to 40 inches wide. This means that every shelf must be measured individually in order to ensure a proper fit. While this isn't a problem, it's much more work than anticipated, and has slowed our progress by quite a bit.
In addition, there was some trial and error to be had in regards to adhering the paper and foam to the shelves. We did not want to do anything that could not be undone, so more permanent sticking solutions were immediately disqualified. In the end, we went with a mild acid-free tape, which is enough to neatly adhere to paper but comes easily away from the wood with no ill-effects.
Unfortunately, this trial and error process took quite a while.
We had issues with getting the foam to adhere to the back of the shelves, as our acid-free tape was strong enough for paper but not for the smooth, pitted texture of foam. Instead, we eventually came to the solution of hot gluing a paper backing to the foam, then attaching it to the shelves as one large piece. While there are certainly concerns about the glue's degradation over time, this is remedied by the modular nature of the shelf lining. As soon as we decide that there is a risk, we can remove the degraded backing and replace it with a new one.
Of course, this is not the only challenge we've had over the course of the project. Our aging building is prone to flooding and cold temperatures and, like most of the downtown St. John's community, we were hit with a rash of vandalism in late 2022-early 2023. While these are temporary problems, they do take quite a toll on our very small team of staff.
Finally we come to the end of our blog post, and we are all caught up with our project. Soon we will be able to start these steps all over again. The thing about this project is that it's not just one-and-done; these steps will need to be repeated another three or four times, in sequence, until we are truly finished. Even then, the process of evaluation is an ongoing one as our institution ages and grows. With only two full-time members of staff, any project we take on is a labour of love. We look forward to making more progress, slow though it may be, and we are excited about what we have already accomplished!
~ Drew Beard, Collections Assistant