When I walked into my little museum several years ago, the executive director begged me to “do something” about the mess that was the curatorial office. It hadn’t been really organized for over a decade, and the room was like something out of Hoarders. So, as mentioned earlier, I developed a system based on the remnants of a previous system and started trying to clean things up. I’m still trying after over 3 years. Why is it taking so long? Because of the following list:
1.) New Collections We Really Didn’t Have Room For. At first it was just small things. The executive director bought a special piece of stone from a rock dealer. A woman wanted to donate her mother’s heirlooms. A slight annoyance when I was trying to cram what we already had into a room smaller than your husband’s den, but I bit my tongue. And then came the big one: A huge doll collection, over 100 of them, and the donors wanted them on exhibit, not later, but right away. The executive director and I sparred over this one for weeks. I argued (rightly) that we really didn’t have room for it nor the time to do the exhibit research, and she argued (ignorantly) that they were so beautiful that, well, we’d make the room, and how much research did we really need to do anyway? Oh, did I mention that she has a policy of never even going near the curatorial office and has never done real research for an exhibit in her life? And yet, guess who won? So my clean-up effort was set back almost six months while I dealt with this mess. And the cherry on the sundae? The donors called and sassed us three months later because we didn’t have the exhibit up yet. There’s nothing like being appreciated.
2.) Stuff That Just, Flat-Out, Doesn’t Match Anything In The Accessions Book. We’re talking doesn’t even come close to matching anything in the book. One small example: In a small box on one of the shelves, we had a beautiful handmade tapestry probably worth many hundreds of dollars. Surprise, surprise, no accession number to be found. So I dug through the old accessions book and a “log book” from years ago looking for something that matched its description. Sometimes I’d catch a lucky break: “Black clay pot with chip on right handle” would be a dead giveaway for something I’d found stashed in a box somewhere. This time, nada. I asked everyone, and no one seemed to know where it had come from. I’m still not sure where the darn thing is from. Psst…if anyone can deduce by my posts where my small museum is, come on by and claim you loaned us a nice pink tapestry–I promise, we have no paperwork on it! We’ll probably give it to you if you threaten a lawsuit! Why, oh why, can’t people keep paperwork? I now have it accessioned under my “Unknown–No Records” file. I hate that damn file.
3.) Things That Kind Of Match Stuff In The Accessions Book, With Oral History To Back It Up, And Then You Find Out Later The Oral History Is Wrong. Oh, this was bad. Very bad. The collection in question was a large pottery sherd collection, and we’re talking very small sherds. Kind of crappy, actually. They were in brown paper bags marked with cryptic writing: “Left of Hill Base 2,” “Up Top Slope,” etc. I had no clue what it was at first, but then thought I’d solved the mystery: A large archaeological collection was missing some pottery, and this looked like it. I asked the executive director, and she told me she remembered hearing on the grapevine that the unmarked pottery went with the archaeological collection. That was more than I had to go on with other collections, so I accessioned it all with the archaeological collection. Well, guess what? Here I find out that the archaeological collection didn’t actually include the pottery (we got that later from another collector) and the stuff I’d painstakingly marked (with the wrong collection) came in with another junky collection that was mostly trash anyway. Super.
4.) Interns Who Do Stuff Wrong. And that’s both past and present. The big intern screw-up of the present was mostly my fault. Due to a huge exhibit suddenly thrust upon my shoulders (see #1), I didn’t have time to really instruct B.G., the college intern, about how to properly mark a huge stone collection. Cursory, stress-filled glances seemed to confirm that he was doing all right, but after he was long-gone and I finally got around to finishing it, I realized half the numbers were illegible and had to do them all over again. I’ll take the blame for that one, but not for the massive screw-ups of interns-past, the ghosts of whom continue to haunt the accessions book. Bad research, illegible curatorial sheets, confusing record-keeping systems…it’s all par for the course with the last administration. I hate them. I’ll say this about my screw-up: At least I fixed it when I found it!
5.) I Want To Keep This List Short, So Here’s Several More Things In Succession. First, packing material. Buying it. Very expensive. Ridiculously expensive. Second, boxes. Finding them. Finding ones that fit your collection. Finding ones that fit on your shelves. Finding both these things in one box. Third, technology. Keeping it. I got two old computers donated to us from a nearby college a year and a half ago, including one for the curatorial office. I didn’t have it more than two months before the other computer crashed and the curatorial office computer was hijacked to replace it. Hello, putting museum work on my personal laptop! Fourth, bench space. Finding it. We have a huge–we’re talking 2,000 sherds–pottery collection that we want to try to re-fit. And where exactly do we have room to do that? Fifth, junk. Keeping it out. I’ve worked long and hard to keep the curatorial office from becoming “the junk room” (its basic function between the time the last custodian of the office died and my arrival) and am always jettisoning stuff that doesn’t belong. People, throw your garbage in the trash can, please, not in the office.
This isn’t a complete list, of course, but if you work in a small museum I’m sure you’ve encountered some of these problems. Venting over!