Tag: collections management

Every day of my internship was full of activity. The versatility of the internship had me working with all kinds of collection items, from insects to textiles! I’ve featured some of my work on my previous blog posts, but there is much more that I didn’t cover. You can see my favourite parts of the internship in my final highlight film!

It has been a few months since the last day of my internship. With the ending of the internship came a new beginning! I have the privilege of working at the Canadian Mental Health Association as a Database Curator for 211. 211 is a website and number that anyone can call or text to receive help in navigating the large range of community, government, and social services. The position requires meticulous attention to detail as I work on accurately updating and expanding a database of information about essential agencies and services across the province. 211 has already served over 70,000 people this year, and I feel honoured to have a role in serving our community by connecting them to supportive resources. 

The UAlberta Museums internship helped me gain the skill set I need to successfully fulfill my new role. I will always feel grateful towards the brilliant people that I worked with over the summer, and to UAlberta Museums as a whole for providing me with an opportunity unlike any other!

Summer Intern2019

Working with the UAlberta Museums Art Collection



Getting over my fear in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum



The Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection contains over 10,000 prehistoric and historic artifacts that contextualize past societies. The artifacts are frequently used by students in research and in learning anthropological concepts. Looking at some of the artifacts, it would be easy to think that they are just stones. In reality, these are stones that past societies had intentionally shaped into tools, like blades or scrapers, to use in their daily lives. Modern-day archaeologists find these tools across the world. Each artifact advances our understanding of how historic populations functioned and reveals their level of innovation and creativity. 

Artifacts from the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection with the original labeling of the archaeologist

Artifacts from the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection with the original labeling of the archaeologist

The Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection is digitizing its artifacts by producing high-quality photographs for upload onto Mimsy XG. Mimsy is a museum collections management software used by UAlberta Museums to database many of its collections. This system contains the specific data information for each museum object within a collection. By uploading photographs of each artifact into Mimsy, we ensure that we have adequate visualizations of what exists in the collection. In the future, this information can be transferred into a public search site, allowing the collection to be visible and accessible to all.

Comparing a physical artifact to its edited photograph

Comparing a physical artifact to its edited photograph

During my time in the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection, I worked with artifacts found in France by archaeologists conducting fieldwork. I learnt how to set the camera and manipulate lighting to take detailed photos of the artifacts. The artifact is photographed next to a scale to clearly depict its size. After photographing the artifacts, I edited the photos on Adobe Photoshop to get the closest representation of the physical object. Shirley Harpham (Archaeology Technologist of the collection) taught me how to analyze the artifacts to understand which side was the dorsal (front), ventral (back), and lateral (side). These are important details that are added to the photographs to help viewers better understand the artifact.

Photographing an artifact

Photographing an artifact

Photographing artifacts is just one of the many ongoing projects in the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection. If you’d like to get involved in the collection, there are volunteer openings for students! To learn more, you may contact Shirley directly. 

This opportunity helped me understand that managing a museum collection includes much more than overseeing the physical artifacts. Just as importantly, it also includes managing the artifact’s associated data information and organizing an online version of the collection. It was an honour to learn from Shirley’s expertise! Watch the film to get a detailed look at the work entailed in digitizing the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection. 

Beautiful B.C. Thermal Blanket – Gloria (1982.14) by Canadian artist, Gathie Falk, has adorned the walls of the Agriculture Forestry Centre for the past 25 years. This work of art appears to be a quilted textile, but it is a painting. It is one of the University of Alberta Art Collection’s approximately 7,000 pieces, which displays some of its collection across campus for public enjoyment. Public artwork serves society by generating meaning, wonder, and discovery in spaces. 

Art is exposed to many threats when on public display. Public places generally have harsh environments with uncontrolled temperatures, humidity, and pollutants in the air. Although the art displayed on campus is checked regularly by Museums and Collections staff, some pieces require a little extra attention to preserve them from deterioration. When possible, it is important to provide artwork with periods of rest from public display. Due to renovations in the Agriculture Forestry Centre, the Faculty of Agriculture, Life & Environmental Sciences requested that we remove the painting to keep it safe. Museums and Collections staff decided to take advantage of the deinstall by dry surface cleaning the painting and storing it in a room where the temperature, humidity, and light are controlled. 

Scaffolding was set up to facilitate the safe deinstallation of the piece.

Scaffolding was set up to facilitate the safe deinstallation of the piece.

The deinstallation team included Jennifer Bowser (Collections Management Advisor, Registration/Preventive Conservation), Tom Hunter (Collections Assistant, University of Alberta Art Collection), Emerald Johnstone-Bedell (Assistant Curator, University of Alberta Art Collection), and myself. Our day was packed with action: we deinstalled, transported, examined, treated, and stored the painting. 

Protecting the piece with polyethylene sheeting to prepare it for transportation.

Protecting the piece with polyethylene sheeting to prepare it for transportation.

The team had intricately planned the deinstallation and transportation of the piece, which helped us through every unexpected obstacle. Since we did not have firsthand knowledge of the methods used to install the artwork, we revised our plans as the day unfolded. Despite many unknown variables that could not be planned for, such as vehicle traffic, the deinstallation and transportation of the painting went smoothly. 

We then used dry surface cleaning techniques to carefully remove the 25-years worth of dust that had accumulated on the painting. Dry surface cleaning is the manual removal of any dirt from the surface of a piece that may damage it or obstruct its visibility. Using a soft brush, we carefully swept the dust away from the surface of the painting into a vacuum. This technique granted us greater control of what was removed from the surface, and at what pace. Dry surface cleaning ensured the preservation of Falk’s painting so we may continue to enjoy and learn from it for many years to come. 

Dry surface cleaning using a brush and a vacuum to remove dust.

Dry surface cleaning using a brush and a vacuum to remove dust.

This was an exciting opportunity for me to understand the versatile skills required in planning and implementing a museum project. Planning the deinstallation of the painting required months of research, coordination with a variety of people, and preparation of materials. Everyone from the team exhibited their strong attention to detail and ability to problem-solve on their feet. I also got a close look at the effects that an uncontrolled environment can have on public artwork and how we can intervene to preserve it. Watch the film to see the team in action as they expertly brave scaffolding and layers of dust! 

My first memory of bugs is one of utter horror. I still remember it distinctly, almost 20 years later: my twin brother and I were playing outside on an ordinary summer’s day. My brother picked up an ant, so I picked one up, too. I innocently observed the red ant as it crawled around my fingers. Totally unwarranted; the ant bit my tiny finger. The battle scar that remained served as a reminder of the foundational lesson I learnt that day: bugs are my enemies.

Even as an adult, I have a low tolerance for insects of any kind (excluding lady bugs and butterflies, of course). Whenever a bug trespasses into my room, I need to call my sister to remove it, even if it’s the middle of the night. I felt pretty nervous about working in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum, one of the 29 University of Alberta Museums registered museum collections,which contains about one-million specimens. The last thing that I expected was to feel awestruck by the wonders of insects. 

My new friends: the beetles.

My new friends: the beetles.

I spent two-weeks in the museum working with over 1,600 beetles from the West Indies. These specimens were collected during research trips that ranged from 1934 to 2006. Although these beetles are in the collection, their information hasn’t been uploaded to the Entomology Collection online search website. Using an Excel spreadsheet, I input data on each beetle’s characteristics (including its species, subspecies, habitat, sex, and life stage) and details on each beetle’s collection (including where it was collected and how). I then used Google Earth to find the latitude and longitude coordinates of where each beetle was collected. This allows the search website to visualize the distribution of specimens on a map. Digitizing the data for the beetles will increase their exposure to the world, and makes the collection more accessible to both local and international researchers. 

My favourite specimen in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum.

My favourite specimen in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum.

It was inevitable that I would feel astounded by the beetles after working so closely with them. Danny (Assistant Curator of the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum) taught me that there are over one-million insects identified in the world (with more being discovered), and 40% of them are beetles. I worked with beetles that are menacingly large and beetles that are smaller than a speck, and each of them play a pivotal role in sustaining our Earth.

My two-weeks in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum taught me that it’s easy to enjoy my work when I’m among incredible people, even if I’m working with insects. Danny and Felix Sperling (Curator of the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum) are experts of their fields, and it was a privilege to spend time with them. Everyday with them was full of adventure and new learning. Thanks to Danny and Felix, my fear has been replaced with fascination at the insects that live amid us. Watch the film to get an inside-look at my unforgettable time in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum! 

Since my last blog post I have changed gears from archaeology to entomology. Over the past two weeks I have been working in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum. What this means is that I have been working with bugs, spiders in particular! The E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum  is one of the oldest museums at the University of Alberta, being founded in the mid-1920s in what was then the Department of Entomology. The Department of Entomology was merged with five other departments in the 1990s to create the Department of Biological Sciences.

Visit the E.H. Strickland Entomology hallway display on the ground floor of BioSci

Visit the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum hallway display on the ground floor of BioSci

While in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum, I had the chance to work with assistant curator, Danny Shpeley. What Danny has been getting me to work on is a very large donation of spiders that was donated to the Museum in 2017. This is a donation of about 26,000 spider specimens, from all over the world. Most of these spiders were collected in Canada, but there are also a great number from the United States, Mexico, Israel, and even more exotic places like Tanzania and Australia. I am taking a spider world tour from the comfort of my office chair! I have been slowly, but surely, making a dent in the donations, having completed work on around 400 specimens at the moment.

My job has been to refresh the alcohol, add an accession number into the vial, and database the information that is included on labels which are within the vials. These specimens are in vials that are filled with alcohol in order to preserve the spiders. Alcohol is used over pinning because spiders are soft-bodied, if they were pinned the spiders would shrivel up!  So even though most of these spiders were collected in the 1960s, they look the same as the day that they were collected! The databasing is perhaps the most important part of my job. This is done on an Excel spreadsheet which will be uploaded to Mimsy, the University of Alberta Museums database. What makes these specimens valuable to the Museum is not necessarily the specimen itself, but the data. The data is what gives each specimen scientific importance. Information  like where it was collected, the elevation, the habitat, and when it was collected can give researchers important knowledge of the species that they are looking at.

Spiders in vials with fresh alcohol ready for storage.

Spiders in vials with fresh alcohol ready for storage.

The reason for databasing is, much like my previous experiences in Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection, to upload this data into an online database. This allows the public and researchers alike to learn more about a species and all that is involved with it. The most interesting part of the Virtual Museum  for me was that you are able to see the distribution range of a species. Location is a crucial part of the databasing that I am doing, and the final product of thousands of data entries is a map where you can see the range of a species.

This data entry might not be the most glamourous work that I will be doing this summer, but it is perhaps some of the most important and valuable. Talking with the curator of the collection, Felix Sperling, he said something which has stuck with me, “On one hand this work is incredibly boring, but on the other it is incredibly important.” Databasing is a huge part of museum work, and this saying is probably the most accurate representation of it!

My time here at the E.H. Strickland is drawing to a close today, and I must say that I loved my time here! I have a newfound respect for bugs, and everything creepy crawly!

Since posting my last blog post I have had to opportunity to come work for two weeks in the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection. This is a teaching collection which has a large variety of archaeological material. For example, lithic material such as stone tools, pottery shards, and faunal remains. I have been helping to digitize some of the vast collection. This is the process of adding collections into digital databases so they are easily accessible. This allows researchers, museum staff, and the public to find certain items and browse collections. Digitization allows museums to make their collections accessible worldwide. At this point they have actually completed around 90% of the digitization project. I am helping to take photographs of some of the final items that are remaining. This involves taking pictures of items in a photo studio and then touching them up in Photoshop.

Photoshop, a popular computer program for editing photographs, has been the biggest learning curve for me these last few weeks. The difficult thing is that a camera lens does not see the world the same as a human eye. This means that for every image, I have to alter it to make sure that what you see on the screen looks like what you would find if you were looking for the artifact in the collection. What I have been able to do with Photoshop in just two weeks has astounded me! You are able to change anything and everything just by playing with the image. In the current digital climate, having a skill such as Photoshop will he very useful to me. Many museums worldwide are currently in the process of digitizing their collections. A working knowledge of Photoshop is a marketable skill for any future museum work I may be interest in!

Photographing a mammoth's tooth.

Photographing a mammoth’s tooth.

Primarily I have been working with Shirley Harpham, the archaeological technologist for the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection, which contains the Ami Collection. This is a large collection that was donated to the University of Alberta by Dr. Henri-Marc Ami. Dr. Ami did an excavation in France in 1925, mainly the site at Combe-Capelle, where he was able to excavate a total of around 300,000 artifacts, 100,000 of which he saved, from the Lower Paleolithic to Neolithic periods. This is a time frame of around 3.3 million years ago up to about 4000 years ago. I am primarily working with specimens from the Upper Paleolithic, which is about 50,000 to 10,000 years ago. The Ami Collection was scattered to different Canadian universities with the University of Alberta being one of the recipients. The U of A has 1,876 specimens from Dr. Ami’s collection.  

What I am mostly engaged with is a lot of lithic material, or stone tools, such as hand axes, scrapers, projectile points and hammer stones. It blew me away that after 50,000 years all of these flakes and tools as still sharp! You need to be careful, I have nearly cut myself a few times!

Acheulean Handaxes with hand for scale.

Acheulean Handaxes with hand for scale.

The highlight of these last two weeks for me has been being able to see more of the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection. As an anthropology student I have had some time in the collection through class work, but to actually be able to see it and look around with Shirley and on my own has been fascinating! Looking at artifacts from a woolly mammoth’s tooth, to Acheulean handaxes originating from some of the original dig sites around Saint-Acheul, France has been this anthropology student’s dream come true!

The University of Alberta Art Collection (UAAC) contains over 10,000 objects, more than 50 different categories of objects, and 300 different types of materials—as such, the task of barcoding 10% of its holdings presented many challenges and learning opportunities for the University of Alberta Museums team.

By the end of the project term, 4043 objects were given a unique barcode label. Of these 4043 items, 1141 had a barcode label directly attached to the object using a tag. The remaining 2902 objects have associated barcodes printed on inventory reports, which are stored with the objects in question. These barcodes were created and associated with their objects over a period of several weeks. For a recap of our first object barcoding attempt, see the previous post on object barcodes in the Print Study Centre.

For many objects, the easiest method of attaching a barcode label was with a tag. An adhesive label with basic information about the object and an associated barcode was adhered to a conservation-approved acid-free paper tag, which was in turn attached to a robust part of the object where it could be seen without being intrusive.


Examples of tags created for textiles.



A tag is attached to a robust buttonhole on a Chinese robe.



Tags are looped carefully around some bone hide scrapers.


There were some occasions where it made more sense to attach a tag adjacent to an object instead of directly to it, such as when a framed work was hanging on a rack, or where a textile had no buttonholes or ties to attach a tag to.


Tags are attached to the left of framed works hung on large metal racks.


A tag is attached to the twill tape wrapped around a framed textile.


Particularly small or delicate objects had the tag stored with them in their individual boxes and trays wherever possible.


This stone charm is too small to have a tag attached, so it has been tucked into the object’s tray.


The tag for this delicate child’s moccasin is stored adjacent to the object in its tray so as to avoid compromising the object’s stability.

Of course, it is not always possible to attach a barcode label or tag directly or adjacent to an object—such is the case, for example, with large albums where individual pages are given their own accession numbers, or for large pieces of public art. For these scenarios, a barcode inventory sheet can be generated through Crystal Reports, which can be printed as needed by collection staff, kept centrally for use, or stored with the object.

Collection staff must use their training and judgement to determine the best method of barcoding for each object; however, with these approaches it is possible to barcode all of the categories of objects and materials represented in the University of Alberta Art Collection.

After the University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services staff members applied barcode labels to the locations in the Print Study Centre, the rest of the Art Collection’s storage spaces had to be addressed.  There are two major levels of storage spaces that require barcodes:

  1. Shelf/drawer-level barcodes, for smaller objects that reside on a shelf, in a drawer, or on a surface that is part of a larger storage unit. For example, a large rack unit may have 10 smaller racks on which framed artworks may be hung.
  2. Wall and room-level barcodes for objects too large to fit on a shelf or in a drawer, or that are hung on a wall. This might include a large sculpture or an object with its own case. These objects would be assigned a location at the wall or room level.

The same label template used for location barcodes in the Print Study Centre was used for the remaining Art Collection storage locations. Shelves and drawers in the storage spaces were primarily metal, so labels were attached to magnets and placed on the corresponding drawer or shelf as they had been in the Print Study Centre. Wooden shelves and drawers, of which there were very few, had the adhesive barcodes attached directly to the front surface.


For room and wall-level barcodes, a sheet with barcodes for each wall and for the room overall was created. In each storage room, the corresponding sheet is now kept in a central location for use by staff members.

Some locations associated with the Art Collection did not receive a physical barcode. These locations are for public art on campus, as well as both on-campus and off-campus loans. As these locations are not under the authority of University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services, a number of dynamic reports were created with Crystal Reports and linked to the database. This way, staff members who require barcodes for these locations can print them on demand and use them without leaving a barcode label in a public location where it is at risk of being accidentally removed. A central binder will also contain these reports, which will be updated regularly, for staff use.

When the first batch of prints from the University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services’ A Little Bit of Infinity exhibition arrived at the Print Study Centre to be returned to their permanent storage locations, collections staff incorporated the application of barcodes to the matted and framed prints into their usual procedure for putting away objects.

The same 2”x1” polypropylene labels used for locations were also used to create object labels. Each label has the accession number, title, artist, and date of each artwork on it alongside a barcode.

The labels were carefully applied to the mat or permanent frame of each print in a place that would be readable but not directly contact the artwork.



For artworks with space on the mat, a barcode label was applied in the bottom right corner, away from the artwork itself.


For larger artwork without space on the mat, the label was applied to the mounting/framing corner at the bottom right. Again, care was taken to ensure it was not in contact with the work.


Here the label is applied to the frame of the artwork (in this case, a fan) where it can be easily found by staff but does not contact the piece itself.

For unmatted prints, a report with each artwork in the exhibition and a corresponding barcode was generated using Crystal Reports so that they could be scanned with Axiell Move. The “Home Location” (permanent storage location) was also added to this report so that staff would know where the object was to be returned to without having to search for each individual piece on the database. Pre-existing inventory sheets (also created with Crystal Reports) that are stored with the prints in each box at the Print Study Centre have had a barcode added to them. This way, any unmatted prints will still have a barcode physically associated with them.

With these location and object barcodes in place, the team was able to begin scanning with the Axiell Move application to update the locations of the exhibited artworks. They agreed that it significantly reduced the amount of time they spent updating the locations for each piece, streamlining the return process.

The University of Alberta Print Study Centre is an interactive facility for teaching, research and community outreach as well as an open access storage facility for the University of Alberta Art Collection’s prints and drawings.

The University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services recently put on a two-part exhibition titled A Little Bit of Infinity which included approximately 400 prints, many of which were from this storage location, which needed to be returned at the end of each part of the show. For this reason, it was decided that this location would be a good place to start the physical barcoding of locations and objects. This would help facilitate the return of exhibited prints and reduce the time spent by staff in the Art Collection on updating locations.

First, the team had to decide the best way to attach the barcodes to each location. As this is a space that often sees visitors, it was decided that any barcoding should be subtle, clean, and uniform.

There were six storage scenarios that would need to be addressed:

  • Metal drawers containing matted and unmatted prints
  • Wooden drawers containing matted and unmatted prints
  • A rack unit with hanging framed works
  • A glass-topped table with recessed spaces to display works
  • Framed works hanging on walls around the centre
  • Boxes shelved in wooden cabinets containing matted and unmatted prints


The first three scenarios were addressed similarly—2”x1” polypropylene labels were generated with a location name (e.g. Print Study Centre: Cabinet X, Drawer Y) and a corresponding scannable barcode. The labels for the metal drawers were attached to magnetic strips, which then could be placed alongside the original label without leaving a mark and remaining adjustable. To avoid leaving a sticky residue on the front of the drawers, barcode labels for the wooden drawers were adhered inside the drawers in an easily accessible and visible spot. The rack units, with their similarly wooden fronts, had the barcode labels attached on the inside of the unit where they are visible and accessible for staff, but not visitors.

For the glass-topped table and the room’s walls, a standard sheet of paper was printed with barcodes for each corresponding location and put in a plastic sheet protector. This way, the barcodes can be stored in a discreet location for staff.

The final storage scenario, the boxes stored in custom wooden cabinets, posed a problem. The lips of the shelves were not wide enough to accommodate a barcode, and attaching location barcodes to the boxes housing the prints would not be a good solution as a box being moved would take the shelf’s barcode with it.

We decided that the boxes would be converted to containers in the database (a process we previously addressed in Post #7), which would allow us to virtually ‘move’ the groups of prints more easily. A report (generated, like our labels, through Crystal Reports) was created which would allow locations and associated barcodes to be printed out, then stored centrally for staff to access when objects were being moved in and out of the cabinets.

These barcodes were put in place in time for the Art Collection’s staff members to begin returning the prints from the first portion of the A Little Bit of Infinity to storage, when the first art objects had their barcodes applied. We will discuss this process in the next blog post.