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.
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.
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!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
The Meteorite Collection staff members were initially interested in the location tracking project we are implementing because of how often their specimens are moved—through accessions, loans, and for research. Combined with the relatively small size of the collection (less than 1500 specimens), this made for an excellent pilot collection for our purposes. Not only will this project reduce the time spent manually entering new location data into the database, but it assists the staff in analyzing how often things are moved and for what purpose.
The data work necessary to begin barcoding this collection was minimal. The only work that had to be done within the Mimsy XG database was to bring the locations up to the standard necessary to generate location barcodes.
The majority of the Meteorite Collection is permanently stored in a set of metal cabinets. The specimens are double-bagged and nested in small boxes within the drawers inside each cabinet. Associated with each specimen is a label, generated through Crystal Reports, with some basic information about each one.
After the staff received basic training for the Axiell Move app, the collection was equipped with everything the team would need to sustain and grow the barcoding initiative in their collection: two barcode scanning devices with chargers, barcoded cabinet labels, and a report that can be generated on demand through Crystal Reports to create object barcodes.
In conjunction with the staff, we decided that the most practical way of adding barcodes to objects was to incorporate a barcode into the existing Crystal Reports object label report, which is printed on cardstock for each specimen, and reprint the label for existing specimens requiring barcodes. This way, the labels will be uniform and older labels currently housed with specimens will benefit from being updated. For location barcodes, we designed paper labels in Microsoft Word to be slipped into the label holders on each drawer that contained a human-readable location name and associated barcode. The cabinet drawers were not previously labelled, so we were able to improve this second, physical aspect of their location tracking system as well.
The Meteorite Collection should now be able to continue growing its fully-functional barcoding system with minimal intervention from the University of Alberta Museums and Collections Services team.