Monday, February 21, 2011

New Agent of Deterioration - Dissociation

For anyone unfamiliar with the basics of conservation, there are 9 agents of deterioration which cause damage to museum collections.  These are direct physical forces, thieves & vandals, fire, water, pests, pollutants, light (sometimes referred to as radiation), incorrect temperature, and incorrect humidity.  How many of you have heard about the "new" agent though?  CCI has recently revised their preservation framework to include a 10th agent - dissociation.  In my opinion it is great to see official recognition that the loss of artifact data can be just as harmful to the collection as physical deterioration.

"Dissociation results in loss of objects, object-related data, or the ability to retrieve or associate objects and data. The principal means of control against the risk of dissociation is establishing and complying with policies and procedures meant to document and control the acquisition and movements of objects. The ability to exercise professional discipline to abide with these policies and procedures through periods of great productivity pressures is often the risk-limiting factor for dissociation. Where appropriate and adequate policies and procedures are not instituted and respected, dissociation will likely be the greatest risk to a collection." ~from CCI's website

I think I speak for many museum professionals when I say that the announcement of the addition of this 10th agent resulted in cheering. Yes, some of us are just that geeky.  Over the past few years I have had many discussions involving the 9 agents of deterioration and how they are affecting museums in Nova Scotia.  Working with the Passage collections database, discussions around standards include the importance of capturing information - essentially the who, what, when, where, why and how questions relating to the artifact.  Without this information, the object loses much of its value.  It's like working on a jigsaw puzzle and realizing that one or more pieces are missing.  Do you end up with a clear picture at the end?  No.  And aren't those blank spots distracting? 

Dissociation covers:
  • rare and catastrophic single events resulting in extensive loss of data, objects, or object values;
  • sporadic and severe events occurring every few years or decades resulting in loss of data, objects, or object values; and
  • continual events or processes resulting in loss of data, objects, or object values.
Every museum has mystery objects; artifacts left on the doorstep, unknown donors, or the infamous "found in collection".  Sometimes this information was never captured, and other times it was lost when a staff person or volunteer left the organization.  Maybe an artifact label was misplaced during a move or the accession number wore off or was/became illegible. Maybe the computer crashed and the collections database was lost.  Maybe a fire or flood destroyed all of the paper collection records.  Perhaps an object with several pieces was stored in multiple locations without being documented, or one of said pieces disappeared.
As I regularly tell museum workers, we will encounter some dead ends when hunting down old information about artifacts.  There is nothing we can do to change that.  However, if our current practices are increasing the risk of dissociation in the collection, they need to change.

Here are my top 10 tips on minimizing the risk of dissociation for your museum:
  1. Practice due diligence to make sure you can legally acquire potential donations, purchases, etc.
  2. Make sure that you have fully documented the legal transfer of objects to the museum - including intellectual property rights.
  3. Review all policies and procedures on a regular basis to ensure that they are still meeting recognized standards and the individual needs of the museum.
  4. Always get the donor/source to complete a donor questionnaire.
  5. Make sure each artifact has an archival-quality, legible accession number label attached to it.
  6. Maintain dedicated artifact storage space - there's no excuse for accidentally throwing out an artifact.
  7. Maintain an accurate inventory.
  8. Double-check database entries to ensure that everything is accurate and spelled correctly.
  9. Regularly backup files and store copies off-site.
  10. Provide in-depth training to all new staff and volunteers.

To read more about dissociation, check out CCI's website.

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