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!