Caring for a precious collection

Caring for a precious collection

We were in the vaults; that converted carpark wherein lies most of the museum’s property. Much of it is already old, and we expect it to get much older. With the latest run of natural disasters and threats to man-made structures, heritage or otherwise, how long can we preserve our history?  “We’re looking for perpetuity,” says museum curator, Libby Sharpe. “Most people would never imagine that the museum has about 80 per cent of its collection in storage … That 15 per cent on display is more or less a formula for most museums.”

Libby began her museum career at the Canterbury museum, a place that underwent major earthquake proofing a couple of decades ago. It paid off. Their website reports minimal structural damage to the old buildings and 99 per cent of the collection is unharmed.

She says Wanganui is particularly prone to flooding and during the 2004 deluge the museum, itself safely above the rising water table, helped people clean and restore family papers, photographs and paintings and assist with advice and direction. She says family treasures and memories can often matter more than a house or other property and their loss can be devastating. So we talked about disasters and the plans that are in place for such institutions as museums, art galleries and libraries.

“They have specific priorities in rescue,” says Libby, “Obviously, people first, but we hold these collections that are immensely valuable, and I don’t necessarily mean in terms of money, although that is a consideration. They are a huge asset, but when they’re gone, they’re gone.” She talked about measures that are in place to preserve damaged material until experts can take over and complete the restoration. For example, she says she has seen sodden, ancient books being wrapped in plastic and put in the freezer until such time as serious salvage can be performed.

The archives in our museum is a huge collection by most standards and it is uniquely Wanganui. As Libby says, there is no other collection like it in the world. “So you see, we do take a lot of trouble with our storage. We use waxed boxes which have a degree of fire retardancy and also protect from light and atmospheric dirt,” she says. The boxes (called transit boxes) also allow air to circulate, preventing mildew and dankness. She also mentioned a ‘number 8 wire fix’ used since the 1970s to store rolled plans; realising they would be crushed if stored in a flat drawer or shelf, someone came up with the idea of a calico sling.

Keeping in mind changing technology and standards of preservation, Libby says, “Anything we do should be reversible. Conservation is incredibly expensive because it’s time-consuming and vastly expert. Conservators train for seven or eight years.” She says the local museum staff are trained in basic conservation to enable them to provide optimum conditions for the collection and to prevent any further deterioration. Temperature and relative humidity is monitored, keeping conditions right to keep the collection stable.

Libby showed me a red line that runs along the concrete in the ‘vaults’. To one side of that line, the concrete flooring has been reinforced to allow storage of great weights. Up to 500kg per square metre can be stored on that part of the museum, contrasting with up to 300kg outside the line. She also showed me one of several orange cupboards in which emergency supplies are stored. Most of the equipment within is for dealing with water damage. There are also personal lidded buckets for each staff member, filled with essential items should disaster strike.

As we walked through the vaults, Libby showed how shelving was made secure and how stored items like crockery were protected with acid-free foam. Ancient stone tools rest in their drawers, fitting snugly into thick-cut double-layered foam. She says the museum is one of the most protected buildings in Wanganui, certainly as far as fire safety and security against human invaders is concerned, as well as safeguards against time.

“We have to lessen the impact of disaster by how we manage our building and collections,” says Libby. “We need to address possibility, not wait for inevitability. All the same, all the money and all the care in the world will not guarantee either is safe.”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.

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