Stop Apologizing

I led a guest researcher into my collections storage building and found myself doing something that I hate seeing others do: I apologized to him for the condition of the building. It was a retrofitted ranch house, a mediocre place to store collections. He responded exactly as I do whenever I’m in the position I had just put him in. He told me he had been in many collections storage environments and understood that ideal storage facilities are rare. Frankly, nobody has them. Let’s address this reality.

Collections storage in the ranch house dining room at the Newton History Center

A fundamental truth of our profession is that nobody has the resources to give their artifacts the perfect care they deserve. Even those museums built like marble temples can lack the funds to survive, let alone care for their collections. They may have more resources and better facilities than a small colonial farm, but the complexity of their collections scales up as well. Nobody at an industrial village ever has to worry about breaking King Tut’s beard.

I’m not downplaying our problems; I’m adding perspective. We look at the ideal standards codified in best practices, we look at other museums (especially the rich ones), and we feel shame at our circumstances. Too many pests crawl in, the shelving is insufficient, and a predecessor tied the loan records into a Gordian knot. Every institution has a unique story behind the embarrassments in its collections. Yet as personalized as these backstories are, their final results are ubiquitous. If you can’t think of actual places with those flaws, then you can easily imagine realistic scenarios for them.

A few years ago a trend appeared in professional museum blogs that downplayed the concept of best practices in favor of some term coined by the author that translated to “the best you can do with the resources you have [starting with no money!].” This attitude puts too much emphasis on material and not enough on conduct.

True, the physical conditions in which we store our collections are essential to their preservation. Artifacts are physical objects that we protect against physical, chemical and biological forces. But if we set the bar to eternally-limited physical resources, then it will always be low. Am I the only one who forgets that the staff is a resource, too, including me? When I think about how I can improve my museum’s best practices, do I look at anything beyond the shelving or HVAC?

Where there was once a refrigerator there is now space for shelving and moving blankets.

Apologizing for how bad things are doesn’t improve them. It just saves face by letting the other person know that we’re competent enough to recognize our shortcomings; it makes us feel better. Likewise, rejecting the idea of best practices is an emotional boost because it’s liberating to reject these standards when they seem out of reach. Again, this reaction mitigates our insecurities but does nothing to improve the state of our collections.

Instead, let us be candid the way confident, determined people are. We can take a clear look at best practices, our collections and our resources to honestly see where our collections are and where they should be. Then we find a way to get them as close to perfection as possible.

The simplest way to do this is with professional conduct. We may not have the cash for high-density mobile shelving, but we can ensure that we always pick up a chair in a way that supports it against gravity. No lack of money or storage space can prevent us from ensuring that every artifact entering the building under our supervision has the paperwork to establish provenance.

The CPR PIG at their 2012 service project

Each year during the annual conference the Collections, Preservation and Registration (CPR) professional interest group holds a service project in the host community.  

We can also utilize hope. We remind ourselves that we don’t know what the public will care about in 60 years when we try to find a collecting focus, so we can look ahead in other ways, too. Your great-great-grand successor may appreciate the foresight you had to organize your space and policies in a way that facilitates any growth they experience in their time. The best path forward might be to do the best with what we have, then push on and keep looking for ways to make it better still. Persistence, however foolish it may feel, will get us further than doubts ever could.

Author Rick Kriebel is the Manager of Collections and Programs at the Newton History Center, Stephens City, Virginia and also serves as the Chair of the ALHFAM CPR PIG

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