Now that I’ve had a couple of weeks to get started on my Masters of Letters in Museum Studies in Scotland at the University of Aberdeen, I thought it was time to wrap up my contribution to this blog. I can’t believe it has been over a month since the last day of my internship with the University of Alberta Museums and I am still amazed at how much I fit into those four months! From making a graphic for the expansion of University of Alberta Palaeontology Museum to cleaning bird droppings off sculptures with Q-Tips, my experiences were certainly diverse. I’m happy to have been able to share some of the highlights on this blog, but there was so much I wasn’t able to write about.
It seems like my University classes have just began, but I’ve been busy getting to know the museums and collections at the University of Aberdeen and all over Scotland! In my classes I’ve been learning all about museum theory and practice and have had many opportunities to reflect back on my experiences at the University of Alberta Museums. I was able to put my care and handling training to use while working on assignments based on objects in the collection. I’m already looking forward to next semester when I’ll be able to apply what I learned while helping with the Dentistry exhibition at the University of Alberta, to working with my new classmates to plan our own exhibition at the King’s Museum at the University of Aberdeen.
I’d like to thank everyone at the University of Alberta Museums for an incredible summer!
The University of Alberta Art Collection (UAAC) contains thousands of works of art. Those that are most visible to the majority of people at the University of Alberta are the works of public art installed across campus. The collection of public art includes many sculptures such as InScope, next to the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health and Research Innovation, and The Visionaries, located in the President’s Circle at the south entrance to the Senior Administration Building. Because these sculptures are outdoors they require annual condition checks and cleaning to protect them from deterioration. Cleaning the public art on campus was an opportunity for me to work in one of my favourite areas, preventative conservation, to make sure the sculptures were free from anything that could be harmful to them. The first step was completing condition checks of all public art to determine cleaning requirements and assess if any further maintenance was needed, such as re-waxing bronze sculptures. Most sculptures had cobwebs and debris, including seeds, leaves, and dirt, which required dry cleaning with brushes and, at times, a vacuum. Others had bird droppings and other accretions, a fact that I’ve been reminded of often since I began my internship. These needed a wet clean using cotton swabs and a mixture of Orvus WA Paste (a conservation-grade detergent) and water. During these condition checks, we also made a note of what extra supplies were needed to complete the cleaning, such as a ladder for areas beyond our normal reach and a scalpel for removing rubber strips that we found adhered to two sculptures. Once we completed the checks, we reviewed the cleaning needs with the Assistant Curator of UAAC and also updated him on any further maintenance that we noted during the checks.
Condition checks were incredibly important for two reasons: to update the condition of the public art in our database and to ensure we had all of the necessary supplies for cleaning each sculpture. For the sculptures that had bird droppings, we dipped cotton swabs into the Orvus WA and water solution, and then used a U-shaped gesture to remove as much of the bird droppings as possible without ingraining it into the sculptures. It was also important to continually rotate the cotton swabs and to replace them often with new ones so as not to smear the bird droppings on the sculptures. Bird droppings are so often seen on outdoor art and it is easy to forget that they are actually acidic and react negatively with many materials such as unfinished metal, so cleaning the sculptures prevents further deterioration. We then had to rinse the localized areas we cleaned with water to remove any residue from the detergent and to ensure there were no tide lines. We then used soft-bristled brushes to remove debris, such as cobwebs, seeds, leaves, and gravel. If a sculpture was painted or sealed with an impermeable coating, we gently “washed” soiled areas with warm water and microfibre cloths.
The most exciting part of public art cleaning, and I’m sure every University of Alberta Museums’ Intern will agree, was wading into a pond to clean two marble fountains. The pond and fountains are located at Soaring, which was the home of philanthropists Sandy and Cécile Mactaggart, whose numerous donations to the University of Alberta include the Mactaggart Art Collection. Cleaning the fountains, which are in the shape of carp and are part of the Mactaggart Art Collection, was easily one of the most fun tasks I got to do this summer. I got to wade into the pond in hip waders, armed with a toothbrush and a spray bottle of cleaner. The cleaner, D2 Biological Solution, is a non-hazardous biodegradable solution that does not negatively impact the ponds ecosystem or the marble fountains. D2 Biological Solution is highly effective in cleaning the algae off the carp and also inhibits further growth.
After cleaning I updated the database records for each of the sculptures using the information collected during the condition checks. I also entered the details of how we cleaned each work to keep track of the conditions and conservation activities for each of the sculptures over time.
Exhibition work is one of my main areas of interest and something I was eager to learn more about this summer. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to get a feel for the process of exhibition planning by helping with an upcoming temporary exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the University of Alberta’s School of Dentistry. For the exhibit we’ve been working with the Dentistry Collection, which documents the history of teaching dentistry at the University of Alberta from 1917-1942. Working on the exhibit has shown me how much planning and preparation goes into an exhibition and how it combines other area of museum work including research, conservation and communications.
I was introduced to this project when I attended a meeting to discuss the exhibition space. I learned what to consider when planning how to use a space, there were also additional considerations because the exhibit will be in a newly developed exhibition space in a public building that was not initially intended for museum exhibits. It was an opportunity to see how preventive conservation guidelines are applied outside of storage areas where there is ideally more control over the environment. As well as discussing the dimensions, design elements and how objects would be displayed there were considerations for making the space safe for museum objects. For instance, an entire wall is windows which puts objects at risk of U.V. exposure so we’ve been working on a solution that involves a U.V. film would have to be put on the windows to block out harmful rays. The humidity and temperature would have to be monitored as fluctuations can damage objects. Once there was an idea of what the space would look like and security and conservation requirements had been addressed, it was possible to get a better sense of what could be done with the space.
The next steps were writing the exhibition text and preparing artifacts. The School of Dentistry provided the story and idea for what the exhibit would be, so my next task was to help find the objects that fit with this story. This meant looking both in the collection database and the collection itself to find objects that would have been found in a dentist’s office in 1915 around the time dental education began at the University of Alberta. Once we had determined which objects would fit, I began researching the history of dentistry and more specifically, dentistry at the University of Alberta to help write captions for the objects in the exhibit.
With the exhibit set to open after I’ve finished my internship, I won’t be able to work on the entire process, however, in the coming weeks I look forward to preparing some of the objects for display!
One of the goals for my internship was to experience as many aspects of museum practice as possible. The diversity of the University of Alberta’s Museums and Collections has provided opportunities to experience not only a variety of museum collections, but different sorts of collections including archives. Recently, I spent a couple of days working in the Bohdan Medwidsky Ukrainian Folklore Archives, which preserves the experiences of Ukrainian Canadians by collecting a variety of materials including books, photos, documents and objects such as clothing. The Ukrainian Folklore Archives are unique archive in their mission to preserve Ukrainian culture making it a very exciting archive for an introduction to archival skills!
I spent much of my time helping to get documents ready for storage. The documents were examples of the field work by students in Ukrainian Folklore classes at the University of Alberta which make up a large part of the archival collection. Examples of field work projects are interviewing Ukrainian Canadians about their involvement in traditions such as Ukrainian dance. Helping to prepare these documents for storage, I learned about the preservation of paper archival materials. I removed any staples or metal paperclips, because over time the metal can damage archival materials both mechanically and chemically. Mechanical damage includes wrinkling or distortion of the paper, while chemical damage includes chemical reactions such as rusting. If any papers did need to be kept together I replaced the old staple with a plastic paperclip that would not rust. All of the papers are stored, with any related materials, in individual acid-free folders in a document case, that is also chemically inert, and is kept in a dark room to prevent damage from exposure to light.
I also had a chance to learn about the Bohdan Medwidsky Folklore Archives’ collection of books, which can be used by students and researchers. This collection of books features everything from Ukrainian periodicals to children’s books about pysanky (decorated eggs) and books for learning the Ukrainian language. I applied labels to, and shelved new books in the collection. I became more familiar with archival classification systems for organizing and shelving books. Not only did I learn some practical archival skills, I was able to see first hand, how archives preserve culture by seeing what materials are collected.
One of the activities any museum intern wants to do is to have the chance to go into a collection and see everything up close. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been able to see a lot of the University of Alberta Art Collection that is in storage while helping with an inventory project. The purpose of this inventory was to see what works of art are suitable to potentially be used as public art, but it has also provided a chance to do condition reports and continue the University of Alberta Museums barcoding project, which can be read about here.
During the inventory we wanted to see which works of art were appropriate candidates for being displayed on public placement, or as coined by the Art Team – “public art-able”. To determine this, the condition of each work of art had to be reviewed. I’d been introduced to condition reporting previously, helping in the Mactaggart Art Collection but the inventory allowed me to learn much more about the process because it provided an opportunity learn a lot about different conditions. For example, I learned how to recognize different types of damage or deterioration and the possibilities for conservation, including how to tell the difference between a stain and an accretion. An accretion is the deposit of an external material that is not part of a work itself such as residue from food, whereas a stain is a color change on a work as a result of soiling, adhesives, pest residues, food, oils, etc. I also learned how to spot an abrasion, to look for paint loss on paintings and loose threads on textiles, and how to tell if a work is mounted on acidic matting. I’ve also learned the some reasoning for accurately classifying a work of art in poor, fair, good, or excellent condition.
The most exciting part of this project is that I’ve been able to see a lot of the works of art in the University of Alberta Art Collection. Condition reporting requires close examination, so I had the opportunity to get up close to many of the works of art, including Inuit textiles, portraits of important figures from the University of Alberta’s history, a variety of works by students, and paintings by Canadian artists, including members of the Group of Seven. I was also able to use care and handling practices that I’ve learned while removing works of art from storage to put a attach new barcode label to them, and when taking reference images before putting the works back. This allowed me to see how different works of art are stored. For instance, framed works of art are stored back-to-back or front-to-front, ensuring that the frames are the points that are touching and there are no pressure points on the work of art itself. Also, works of art are separated by a material that will not affect a work of art, so it should be acid free and chemically inert. We also inventoried some textiles which were stored rolled. I learned how to roll them, to make sure there is nothing that could cause creasing, and if there are details that could be distorted to roll them facing outwards.
While working on this inventory I was able to use a lot of the skills I’ve learned over the past couple months, but the best part was getting to see so much of the Art Collection!
Since I plan to pursue a career in the museum field, exhibition work was an area I was hoping to gain experience in. I was excited to learn that I would be able to help work on the upcoming expansion of the existing University of Alberta Paleontology Museum. My introduction to proved that what I thought exhibition planning involved is only a small part of the process!
The Paleontology Museum expansion will help show evolution over time using trilobites, the fossils of an extinct class of marine invertebrates called Trilobita. My project was to create a graphic that would be blown up and displayed with 3D models of trilobites to help show what was present in different time periods. I’d never given much thought to graphics such as the one I was working on and their role in preparing for an exhibition. Nor had I associated computer programs with museum exhibits, but to create the graphic I was introduced to Adobe Illustrator. Learning to use Adobe Illustrator took some trial and error as I was not working with geometric shapes and they had to be lined up with a timescale. It was often challenging to find balance between making sure something was in the right place and the right shape. I often had to play around with different tools in illustrator to make sure each shape looked right.
Since this project would be part of an addition to the Paleontology Museum, it provided me an opportunity to spend a bit more time in the museum itself and look more closely at parts of displays that in previous visits I had passed over. I spent more time looking closely at some of the other graphics in the museum to make sure the one I was working on would fit in and started to see how the design of such graphics can help provide information. For example in the Paleontology Museum, the colour scheme depicts whether a specimen was from a marine or terrestrial environment. I was able to see how important design elements can be for providing information as well as showcasing museum objects.
Working on this project has given me a taste of some of the work that goes into creating a museum exhibit and proven that there’s so much more than just preparing museum objects themselves! It has also been very exciting to work on something that will actually be part of an exhibit.
On my first day I was quickly introduced to the scope and diversity of the University’s museum collections. I was given a tour of some of the collections on campus and saw everything from the University of Alberta Art Collection (UAAC) including how the textiles, scrolls and other rare East Asian artifacts in the Mactaggart Collection are stored. Between collections I learned many of the public artworks that University of Alberta students see everyday are also part of the UAAC including, the mural West and North on the facade of the Education building, or a more recent addition to campus InScope next to the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health and Research Innovation.The tour also included some of the museums on campus that are open to the public such as the Paleontology Museum and the Mineralogy and Petrology Museum, both located in the Earth Sciences Building. As well as the current exhibition Misfits: Bodies, Dress and Sustainability at the Human Ecology Gallery.
I’ve also had the opportunity to learn some of the basics for the care and handling of objects and preventative conservation to prepare for the rest of summer. Care and handling knowledge is important for everyone who might be working up-close with the collections. I learned about the 10 agents of deterioration which are the main threats to museum objects and include fire, water, pollutants and physical forces. Physical forces include when people working with the objects are handling them, thus care and handling training teaches safe methods for handling objects in museum collections that are intuitive, but not always natural. Wearing the right gloves (cotton or nitrile or in very specific situations no gloves), using both hands and supporting an object’s centre of gravity and not passing an object to other people are just some of the ways to ensure the safety of objects in the collections. And it’s always important to remember only to handle objects when necessary.
Of course you can’t spend all your time in museum collections (unfortunately) and my first couple of weeks have been filled with meetings with the whole University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services (MACS) team, learning how to use Mimsy (the database used by most collections on campus), catching up on museum practices handbooks and helping out with a tour of the Mactaggart Art Collection. I look forward to a variety of projects this summer and sharing them on this blog!