Wednesday, July 01, 2009

At the Museum: Connecting to Collections

In mid-June, approximately three hundred library and museum professionals converged on Buffalo, New York, for a conference sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency. I was one of the curators who met with and learned from conservators, collections managers, archivists, librarians, administrators, volunteers, and board members from across the nation. The goal of the conference was to raise awareness and develop strategies for conserving America’s material heritage, from great paintings and sculpture to Revolutionary War flags to the archives of community organizations.

The IMLS conferences on collections were inspired by the 2005 report, “A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections (HHI),” a project of Heritage Preservation and IMLS, which revealed that our collections of objects, documents, digital material, and living collections are not only essential to America’s cultural health, but are also imperiled and in need of swift protective action. The study’s findings, announced in 2005, are sobering. HHI concluded that almost two hundred million objects held by archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, and scientific organizations in the United States are in need of conservation treatment; sixty-five percent of collecting institutions have experienced damage to collections due to improper storage; eighty percent of collecting institutions do not have an emergency plan that includes collections, with staff trained to carry it out; and forty percent of institutions have no funds allocated in their annual budgets for preservation or conservation.

Fortunately, although LRMA has some objects needing conservation, we do have safe storage, an emergency plan, and a modest budget for conservation and preservation. Here at the Museum, we hold artworks and local history archives in trust for the public, and we take very seriously our responsibility to ensure that they exist in good condition for future generations. To do that, we give priority to providing safe conditions for the collections we hold in trust; we have staff assigned specifically to the care of collections; and we take responsibility for providing the support that will allow these collections to survive. These general policies are in keeping with the recommendations of the Heritage Health Index.

The term “conservation” often brings to mind images of a laboratory with a conservator painstakingly testing paint chips, restoring lost paint, or re-weaving textiles. I learned at the conference that many young conservators credit the movie “Ghostbusters II” and Sigourney Weaver’s character’s job as a painting restorer for their first awareness of the profession. However, the term also more generally refers to the safe storage of artworks in museum-quality materials in a building with a controlled climate, good security, and art-safe lighting. Many of these elements are invisible to the general public, but they are a central concern for those of us responsible for the well-being of collections. They can also be rather expensive, which is why so many collections across the nation are at risk. Preserving our nation’s heritage is expensive and time-consuming, but all around you are library and museum professionals dedicated to doing just that.

For more information about the Heritage Health Index, visit the website Information about the Institute of Museum and Library Services can be found at

The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art is open from 10:00 a.m. until 4:45 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. Sunday. For more information about exhibitions, tours, and programming, call 601-649-6374 or visit

Jill R. Chancey, PhD, is curator of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.

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