Object Conservation and Handling Workshop

I attended the Object Conservation and Handling Workshop at the Millicent Rogers Museum (MRM) in Taos, New Mexico. The workshop was led by Dr. Caroline Jean Fernald, Executive Director of the museum and Carmela Quinto, Curator of Collections. Rather than sit in a conference room, we moved through the different galleries, as they were relevant to aspects of the lecture.

“Donut” and foam sheet under fragile pottery at the MRM

Pottery is breakable, so the museum uses “donuts” made from insulation foam or Styrofoam, lined with clear plastic. The foam donuts are cut to length, the ends are hot-glued together, and the donut is painted to match the pot that it will be holding. Some pots can sit on their sides in such donuts. Other pottery sits on heavy plastic or thin foam sheets that are cut to size. Pots can slide with the vibrations from foot traffic, but the plastic has enough friction with the base of the pot so that the pots remain in place. Staff regularly checks the pots to make sure they are secure. Pottery is dusted with canned air.

The museum has hardwood floors throughout. Any hard flooring material is much better than carpet, which can harbor pests. Textiles are vulnerable to moths. A pest control service sprays specifically for moths once per month. If evidence of moth activity is found, both sides of the textile are vacuumed and the textile is frozen to kill pests.

Curator’s cart at the MRM

The museum is gradually changing to all LED lights. Prints and photographic works are framed with UV-coated museum glass. The glass in the gallery windows is UV protected. Matted or framed prints and photographs are taken apart to determine if archival materials have been used. If not, they are re-matted with acid-free materials and re-framed. For jewelry, moisture can be a problem, so our dry climate helps. The glass cases are not completely airtight because some airflow is necessary. Unfortunately, even the small openings allow bugs and critters to enter the cases. Lizard excretions can damage metals. Retablos and Bultos are displayed in glass-fronted cases. They are dusted with a feather duster, or a soft cloth if needed.

Cultural sensitivity has become part of museum ethics in recent decades. The MRM is the first museum to make policy that protects culturally sensitive artifacts. Accordingly, the MRM no longer displays burial pots or sensitive items from communities such as the Penitentes. The museum collections of these types of items are housed in a vault.

Gloves to handle objects at the workshop

When handling objects, it is best to wear nitrile or cotton gloves to protect yourself and to protect the objects. This is especially important when handling textiles, since it is unknown what chemicals may be embedded. Textiles may have been sprayed for pests or cleaned with chemicals. It is helpful to wear a lab coat or apron to protect clothing and to use a full particulate mask when cleaning objects.