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Collecting Ourselves: Caring for your Collection

Learning from the Pros

What can we learn from museums, libraries, and archives -- the "professional packrats" -- about caring for our own collections?

bullet Be selective, have a "collections policy"

Museums, conservatories, libraries, and zoos all focus or limit their collections to what they can safely store, care for, and learn about.

Don't try to collect everything. Instead of collecting "old toys," narrow your collection to puppets, cast iron figures, or a particular kind of doll and accessories. Instead of collecting postcards, narrow your collection to holidays, humor, or a particular place.

Many collectors and museums take a combination approach: They acquire an example of each type of thing they collect, but then focus more on a specialty.

For example, The "Bug Room" at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History would like to have an example of every species of insect known, but they also collect as many individuals of certain species as they can to become more expert about that particular insect. (See photos at right.)

bullet Store your collection safely

Time is hard on things. Metal corrodes, cloth fades, leather dries out. Store your collection in a place protected from light, temperatures that are too hot or cold, where it is not too humid or dry. Don't leave things in the open where they can get dirty or handled by other people. In fact, don't handle items in your collection yourself unless necessary: your hands have oils that can attract dirt and acids that can slowly damage metals, papers, and cloth. Wear cotton gloves when handling these materials to be extra sure.

If you are storing paper, cloth, or metal in paper or cardboard, watch out! You can't see it now, but acids from paper and cardboard yellows paper and cloth. Always check that your collection is stored in acid-free boxes with acid-free papers. Light can also damage and fade materials, just like ultraviolet in sunlight can give you a sunburn and, over many years, skin cancer.

Never "clean" or refinish old things in your collection unless you really know that you are doing it properly! Watch the Antiques Road Show on WQED/TV if you don't know why!

bullet Document: research, record, verify

Museums and archives try to find as much as possible about the things in their collections. They write down everything they know about how each object came to them, what its previous owners knew about it-- the usual who, what, when, where, why, and how. Then they keep researching to learn more. The museum's registration records and catalog keeps this information on file, along with drawings, photos and descriptions of each object.

Every type of object carries different kinds of information with it. Information about one-of-a-kind works of art is different than information about manufactured items or published art works. Things from the natural world require different kinds of record-keeping than things made by humans (Go to Botanical Bounty (coming) to learn special ways plants are documented).

You probably already know some of the important kinds of information about the things you collect. You can start your own catalog by listing some of that information. The idea behind a good catalog is to dig up and record the same consistent information for each item in your collection. You can add to it as you research and learn more about the things in your collection. Here is a list of the kind of information you might want to collect about human-made things:

Object Name
Storage Location
Brief Description
Production Method
Date Made
Date Used
Country Made
Region-State Made
Town/Other Made
Country Used
Region-State Used
Town/Other Used
Maker Details
History of Object (Who owned and used it, what they used it for, how they acquired it, etc.)
Key Associations
Date Catalogued
Purchase Price
Purchase Date
Valuation Date
Other Information

bullet Organize it

Sorting your collection in different ways -- either in a database or in real life -- helps you pick out patterns leading to new discoveries. A library catalog is an example of a computerized catalog that allows you to search and organize your search by subject, author, and title. Museums also have catalogs, though they aren't usually used by the public.

Use the list above to create a computer database with records that list information for every object in your collection. Or just keep a tried-and-true record system with an index card for each item in your collection.

bullet Share it, interpret it

Museums, archives, libraries, conservatories, and zoos share their collections to help people learn and scholars research more about their fields. Museums create exhibits to tell stories with their collections. They use exhibits to "interpret" their collections, that is, explain what story the objects have to tell. What story does your collection tell? Your collection may be able to tell many stories, depending on how you arrange things.

Many museums, libraries, and archives are digitizing their collections to share online. What are the pros and cons of online exhibits? Though screen images of great treasures will never take the place of standing in front of the real thing, they allow people from all over the world to enjoy these collections and learn about them.

If you have a scanner, computer, and web server access, create your own online gallery of your collection, too!

Tell us about your collection at the Collecting Ourselves Gallery. If you have an online exhibit of your collection, post the URL so we can help people find you! And upload a picture of one of your favorite things in your collection.

Being selective

Carnegie Museum of Natural History Bug RoomCarnegie Museum of Natural History Bug Room

The Entymology Department at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History collects both one of many species and many of fewer species.

Store it safely

Carnegie Museum of Natural History Bug Room

Insect specimens are mounted, then kept stored in special glass-covered drawers under controlled temperature and humidity.

Learn more about it

The work isn't over when a species is added to the collection. In fact, it has just begun! Curators continually research the collection, learning more and publishing the results of their research.

Catalog it

Museum catalogs are much like library catalogs, like these at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Computer databases allow records like those in the old card catalogs to be arranged and searched much more quickly.

Share it

Museums use their collections to teach about art, history, and the natural world. The Carnegie Museum of Art hosts travelling exhibitions like the aluminum show above, but Phipps Conservatory's outdoor exhibits tend to stay where they are planted!

Photos: Tom Altany

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