We need to talk about your curator’s office.

This bad? Or worse?

I thought I would talk about something near and dear to my heart…the curatorial office, where I spend most of my time. In our little museum, it’s the first bedroom on the right at the top of the stairs, with a Civil-War era door and a badly-installed 20th-century lock that forces you to hold the door closed with one hand while cranking the key with the other. I came to the museum hoping I would be allowed in, and for the first few weeks I peeked through the crack in the locked door, salivating at the glimpses of a large animal skull and stone tools I got.

The executive director asked me if I could clean out the filing cabinet, which was a legitimate nightmare. Nobody had touched the filing system in the room for a number of years. An older woman who used to keep the chaos in the room to a dull roar had died about a year and half before I got there. She didn’t do very much. The files were organized by the year of the donation, and most files were either 1.) unlabeled, with scribbled, illegible notes inside, 2.) scrawled by hand at the top of a folder, along with contradictory accession numbers, or rarely 3.) labeled in neat typeface, almost certainly with the electronic Brother typewriter I found gathering dust on top of the filing cabinet. Gift agreements were few and far between.

And as for finding things…well, that actually got interesting. I wasn’t the first one to ransack this room–if only I were so lucky. Two clean outs preceded me. The first happened when the previous administration left the museum in scandal. Many objects “walked” out of the museum at this time, let’s just say, and it wasn’t the cheap stuff. The second clean out happened about a year or so before I got there, when the executive director and the other tour guide began to feel physically threatened by the mounds of stuff that lined the “goat paths” through the hoard. The room could fit only two people at a time when the current administration came. Books, stone tools, boxes, baskets, paperwork, magazines, tacky glue, posters, typewriters, filing materials, desks, and God-knows were piled on top of each other and on rickety wooden shelves. It was dangerous. The executive director and the tour guide cleaned out, put in a new rug, and replaced the shelving.

Then I came in! And I still thought it was a mess. So I came in every day for a week, from 7 AM to 4 PM, and took everything out of the room. Now, this room is, guaranteed, smaller than a middle-class child’s bedroom. It produced SIX garbage bags full of trash. We’re talking Sierra Club newsletters from the 1980s (hint: this museum has nothing whatsoever to do with environmental protection), pages ripped out of coloring books, entire notebooks full of scribble with their covers torn off, broken binders, yellowing newspaper clippings with no relevance to the organization, and etc. I now watch those hoarding shows with a new sense of sympathy. Sorting through, though, I did find some “diamonds in the rough” (although not nearly as many as the executive director found during the last clean out). It turns out we have a whole collection of prints from a famous early-20th-century photographer and some original lithographs from the late 19th-century that collectors have been hunting down for years (shhhhhhh…). And all at the bottom of piles of miscellaneous correspondence!

Who knows what you'd find at the bottom of this mess!

Almost none of the artifacts were marked with accession numbers, which didn’t matter all that much at the time, because the accession book was difficult to work with. It was handwritten and incomplete, with hardly any description of objects and almost no measurements. If there was a file on the object(s) and I could find it (fat chance), it often contained the same unhelpful information listed in the book. And pictures? Yeah, right.

I smashed my head against a wall trying to match up paperwork with accession numbers with actual artifacts, then realized that the skeleton staff remaining at the museum probably remembered some of the stories. I started asking around, and they did. For example, the executive director told me that a former staff member had told HER that the former curator had told HER that some unlabeled pottery pieces went with a large archaeological assemblage collection. Who knew? I had to take these stories at face value for lack of any documentation, but sometimes, once I had that crucial oral history lead, I could scrounge up some documentation.

With all this in mind, I started weeding through the files, digitizing the accession book on my own laptop, labeling artifacts, and properly boxing things. It’s been two years, and I’m not nearly done. Cataloging is a pain in the you-know-what. It takes a long-term commitment, sometimes money, patience, and it isn’t related to a museum’s immediate profitability. All of these things mean that a small, understaffed non-profit volunteer-run museum’s curatorial office may be a bit neglected. It’s forgivable, but it is a problem. That curator’s office, after all, is what makes a museum a museum, separate from a school or a church or a summer camp. Its job is to PRESERVE cultural heritage, history, or whatever, and that means keeping track of your artifacts and making them available to researchers.

There’s another more immediate problem. You really need to have gift agreements for all of your objects. I want to address the politics of gift agreements in a later post, but without that gift agreement, you really don’t legally own the object(s). If you’re a non-profit, this could potentially create problems.

So please, do yourself a favor and keep your curatorial files up to date. This won’t be my last post about curatorial issues by far, because it’s something I’m always dealing with. It’s stressful and tedious, but it’s still quite important.

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