October 02, 2015
Canadian country singer Hank Snow‘s cowboy boots were just one of the many collection items mounted during the two-week workshop. Credit: Hayley Robb.
Artifact Conservators are often compared to doctors. Instead of treating people, however, our patients usually come in the form of inanimate objects. Sometimes a “patient” might come to the lab needing major surgery, such as a broken piece of furniture or a creased photograph. As with regular surgery, many conservation treatments can be pretty invasive, and always involve a fair amount of risk to the artifact. And much like surgery, although risky, these treatments are often necessary to repair damage that has occurred to the artifact throughout its life.
But what if we could stop this damage from occurring in the first place?
In the medical world, this concept is referred to as treating the cause, not the symptom.
You might recall that checklist of recommendations prescribed by the doctor after each annual appointment – things like eating healthier, exercising more, sleeping more, and smoking less. Conservators take the same approach with artifacts.
Much like how a doctor prescribes preventive actions to care for your future health, conservators prescribe climate-controlled environments, dark rooms, and proper storage mounts for artifacts, so that they don’t deteriorate over time as a result of poor collection care. In theory, these precautionary measures will prevent the object from having to undergo a risky “surgery” (a.k.a. conservation treatment) in the future.
Until recently, textile artifacts from the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame collection (CCMHF) at NMC were not following the doctor’s orders. Although the environmental levels were closely monitored, the artifacts themselves were not stored in the best manner. Cowboy boots and hats lay flat or unsupported in boxes, and performance outfits were stored vertically on hangers, which can often put strain on an outfit’s shoulders or waistband.
Electronics technician John Leimseider and collection assistant Meghan MacKrous construct new, custom-sized Coroplast boxes to store performance outfits and other textile artifacts. Credit: Hayley Robb.
To address this problem, NMC was awarded funding from the Museums Assistance Program (MAP) to safely rehouse this important Canadian collection. This funding covered care and handling training for the collections staff, a two-week mount-making workshop, and a mannequin-making workshop for items slated for display in our new facility. The activities were facilitated by Gail Niinimaa, a local Calgary conservator with over 20 years of experience in the field of textile conservation and storage.
With the help of Gail, Anette, and a team of collection staff and volunteers, we were able to create safe storage mounts for 17 cowboy hats, 24 cowboy boots, three pairs of women’s shoes, one pair of skates, 29 accessories (belts, buckles, guitar straps, bags and other miscellaneous items), and 124 outfits (including suits, jumpers, and even a wedding dress).
When constructing an artifact mount for long-term storage, there are a few factors that must be considered:
Mount materials should not cause further damage to artifact
Even the most intelligently constructed mount is utterly useless if its materials aren’t safe for storage. Materials that are acidic, abrasive, or emit harmful gases can cause more harm to an object than no mount at all, and should be avoided at all costs. During our workshop, materials used included un-sized, un-bleached cotton, and inert foams that wouldn’t embrittle over time.
Mount should be non-abrasive and work with gravity, rather than against it, to support the weight of an object.
In most museums, hats are stored upright on top of a foam support to fill out the hat’s shape. In the case of the 17 cowboy hats in NMC’s CCMHF collection, we drew inspiration from standard retail storage of cowboy hats and constructed the mounts so that the hats were stored upside down on the crown, with the weight of the hat gently resting on the brim. This method serves to maintain the shape of the brim, and prevent it from flattening over time.
Canadian country singer Wilf Carter‘s cowboy hat fits snugly in its completed storage mount. Credit: Hayley Robb.
Mount should be constructed in such a way that the artifact can still be handled and examined, without having to touch the artifact itself.
One of the main causes of damage to historical artifacts is improper handling. Even if handled carefully, there is always the risk of transferring oils and dirt from your hands to the object’s surface, or picking up an object at its weak point and causing tears and rips in the material. For the collection of cowboy boots, we constructed the mounts in such a way that the boots rested on a thick surface while being supported upright by foam strips. A design originally pioneered by Gail Niinimaa for the Glenbow Museum’s boot collection, this mount allowed staff both visual and physical access to a pair of boots, without having to touch the artifacts themselves.
Rows and rows of safely mounted cowboy boots. To support the upright shape of the shoe, each pair was also stuffed with a cotton-filled stockinet. This step ensures the boot’s shaft won’t fold in on itself and crease the leather. Credit: Hayley Robb.
Much like the human body can deteriorate quicker over time if not cared for correctly, artifacts can permanently relax into a deformed shape or risk serious damage from handling without the appropriate support and protection during long-term storage. Proper storage mounts—such as the ones seen above—are like the “exercise and healthy eating” prescriptions of the conservation world. Although they do require some effort and an initial investment of resources, the benefits of preventively caring for historical artifacts pay off years down the road, when “major surgery” is avoided.
– Hayley Robb
Questions or Comments? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to hear more about the collections at NMC? Be sure to check out past blog entries featured in Amplify.
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This project has been made possible by the Government of Canada