From the Director, Alex W. Barker
Museums are stewards for our past, for our collective memory, and our shared identity. Beyond their mission and mandate to interpret their collections for public benefit and the common weal lies the explicit need to preserve their collections for future generations. In the best of times that’s a constant challenge—time is inexorable, its ravages irredeemable, and holding its effects at bay to preserve that legacy requires extraordinary effort and care.
We’ve had stark reminders of the delicacy of the legacy, including the devastating fire at the Museu Nacional in Brazil. But many of the threats stalking the world’s heritage are less dramatic than fire—changing environments, physical decay, the effects of light, mold, and inattention all conspire to place heritage at risk.
Here at the Museum of Art and Archaeology, we take such risks very seriously. We use a network of wireless data loggers to record temperature and relative humidity throughout the galleries and storage areas, backed up by standalone recorders monitored by collections staff; guards can and do check ambient displays showing temperature and humidity in the galleries and report variations, and the system automatically notifies several of us by email if conditions vary outside nominal ranges. We monitor for particulates on an ongoing basis, and record both visible light and the more damaging light in the ultraviolet range of the spectrum; to minimize both UV and heat we’ve switched to LED lighting, and use motion sensors so storage areas remain dark unless staff are present. Some exhibits require the user to press a button to illuminate the object, so that accumulated light damage is limited. We monitor for pests of all kinds, setting and checking traps on a continuing basis through all Museum areas. Both smoke monitors and building sprinklers are tested on a regular schedule, and all staff complete live-fire fire extinguisher training on a periodic basis.
Five years ago we upgraded all of our collections cabinetry to meet or exceed all applicable standards—the cabinets have canopy tops to channel water away from the contents, minimizing the effects of leaks (or sprinkler activation), doors are sealed with neoprene gaskets, each cabinet has filter inserts to minimize the ingress of particulates or pollutants, and shelves are lined with closed-call archival foam to cushion objects. Even the color was chosen to simplify monitoring for pests and make it easier to assess objects for changes in condition. We have ongoing federal grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to add additional cabinetry to reduce crowding of collections objects.
Of course we keep copious records, both on-site and off-site. We just completed a grant-funded upgrade of our collections management system (CMS); the most obvious result is that all of our collections are now accessible online to anyone, anywhere (http://maacollections.missouri.edu), but we’ve also scanned our paper catalogue cards, both so any handwritten annotations are accessible in the digital database, and as a backup against potential loss. We keep multiple backups of both the electronic and paper records, as well as other key documents.
Chances are you don’t see many of these efforts—we do our best to keep them unobtrusive, as part of the behind-the-scenes operations central to museum work but largely hidden from view. But they’re crucial to our mission and to ensuring that our irreplaceable collections are here for the enjoyment and instruction of future generations. In the end, there’s no better yardstick for the professionalism and competence of a museum than how carefully they care for the collections in their care.
I hope you’ll come to enjoy our exhibitions and programs—but while you’re here, take note of the safeguards all around you, all designed to ensure we continue to serve as thoughtful stewards of our past and for our future.