Monday, September 30, 2013

September 2013 Update

Site Visits & Meetings
Barry, Karin & Dave
Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum
The only site visit this month was to the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum. If you've never visited this museum, it's a must-see! They think of the museum as comprising three buildings, but everything is connected so you can go from the entrance & gift shop into the gallery, and then into the hangar. If you're mechanically inclined, enjoy tinkering, and live near Enfield, you should seriously go talk to these guys. Their workshop is super cool, and they always have some sort of restoration project on the go.
I also had an end of season chat with my counterpart at the Council of Nova Scotia Archives. She's fairly new to her job and since we share so many member institutions thought it would be good to do a site visit review. We sit on the other's education committees, and are keen to coordinate more. Good times ahead!

ANSM Annual Conference
CMA Executive Director John McAvity
sharing insights on the national picture
A hearty crew met in Halifax at Dal's University Club for our annual conference. We had some great sessions and conversations. My buddy Ern came down from CHIN to talk about social media, NS Museum staff reviewed their Interpretive Master Plan work, we heard a lot of great best practices during two panel sessions, we had a serious discussion about developing a Museum Fund for the province, and also about the possibility of ANSM taking over the administration of CMAP. For me though, the highlight was Dr. Matelic's keynote address. As a few people put it, she gave us some tough love about being sustainable institutions. She told us that most North American museums are stuck in old models and struggling to find relevance and sustainability. Apparently most people don't really understand collaboration: shared creation & meaning, a strategic framework for problem-solving, a process of participation, and durable commitments created for mutual gain. I particularly loved her talk about leadership. The old authoritative model is done. Totally ineffectual. Candace went into detail here, but she had a few points that I think sum it up nicely, taken from Kouzes and Posner. I challenge you all to think about how you lead/operate your organization, and embrace these steps: Model the way. Inspire a shared vision. Challenge the process. Enable others to act. Encourage the heart.

Database Info
So we've gotten a serious amount of work done this month. With Caryn, Chris and I on the case, we've tackled a few things that have been sitting on the wish list for a long time. First up is the old cross reference field. With CollectiveAccess, our old cross reference field is null and void. That's what the relationships feature is for. So we're moving the data from cross reference to its proper home, and then that field is going to disappear. We're also looking at the Culture field. We want to make this field browsable on NovaMuse, but when we looked at it we found a bunch of really dirty data that needs fixing up.
Database reviews are still underway, and this month we completed another 4 systems, weeding through 6,700 records of which we were able to map 600. We're a little behind my goal, but I'm not afraid of playing catch up. With a lot of museums closing for the season we didn't have a ton of database work being done, but another 463 records and 893 images went into the system. That gives us grant totals of 194,922 records and 78,182 images. Regionally, this is what it looks like:
Southwest - 101,467 artifacts, 35,836 images
Central - 37,836 artifacts, 16,095 images
Northeast - 29,521 artifacts, 16,961 images
Cape Breton - 26,098 artifacts, 9,290 images

Congrats to the Central Region for adding the most records and images this month. They beat the southwest by one artifact record, and 9 images. I think that's our closest race to date!

New Resources
We've got a few new resources in the final editing stages. Is it just me or does this always take longer than expected? First up is a condition report form. This has been on my list for a long time, and thanks to our illustrious intern Caryn it's finally on its way. Second on the list is a loan reconciliation package, which the very brave Chris has tackled. We talked about loans at each site visit, and this can be a really difficult subject to address, so we're treading carefully with this one. As ever, please let me know if you have requests for new resources. Chances are, if you need a template, someone else needs it too. Feel free to check out what we already have online at under the resources tab. Everything is free to download.

Data Dictionary 2.0
I've finished the new data dictionary help text for our fun database system, but it hasn't been installed yet. Special thanks to Jamie at CNSA for helping with the archival view. The process was a lot more involved than I thought, and was the first time since our migration that I really sat down and looked at each field. This analysis uncovered a number of issues that will now drive me crazy until I resolve them. The final document ended up being 24 pages long, so you can be sure that the definitions and field guidelines will be much more comprehensive. The next step is to work on the live assistance and error reporting. I'm really excited to launch this new feature. Yes this is me geeking out, but I think it's going to really help with on-site training and data consistency.

Manufacturers' Database
Say what?!?! That's right. We are resurrecting this 20+ year old research project...again. At this stage in the game "manufacturers" is a bit of a misnomer. We're really talking about a database of people and businesses that were creating material products in our beautiful province. For anyone unfamiliar with the history of the project, the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry did some research on the subject in the early 90s, and then 6 county museums complimented this by doing local research. The earliest entry is from the 1600s, a sawmill in Lequille. Since my 2006 arrival on the scene we've done bits and pieces of work on the project, first getting all the existing paper records into a database, conducting some additional research, and then migrating to CollectiveAccess. Now, thanks to a little support from the province we're going full tilt; cleaning up the data, adding new info, and linking items from the collections to the various entities. When we're done, the system will be integrated with NovaMuse, adding another layer to the site, and allowing people to read more about the makers of our museum collections. So excited to finally be moving forward on this, even though Seth says we're crazy for attempting it :)

Don't forget to check out September's other blog posts:
Collections and Original Contents, a little discussion about old medicines and other substances that are often found inside bottles and other containers.
Introducing Ms. MacGregor, getting to know our intern Caryn.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Collections & Original Contents

When I was studying at Fleming College, our amazing program coordinator Gayle would often remind us that people are far more important than artifacts or the museum. Health and safety always comes first. So with that in mind, I think it's time we had a little chat about all those old medicine bottles, apothecary kits, cleaning supplies etc etc.

These days, when an object is offered to the museum, staff & volunteers sit down and carefully discuss the item using a pre-acquisition review form, addressing any issues or concerns from the get go. But that doesn't exactly help with those age-old acquisitions that were collected long before anyone worried about the adverse health effects of museum collections. And since most of our institutions don't come with staff scientists, state of the art labs and serious dollars backing them, we need to come up with a manageable solution to the issue. Community museums exist to serve their communities, and if you have a bunch of old bottles full of their original contents that no one can go near, that's not really serving anyone.

I love authenticity as much as the next person, but we have to make sure that the museum is safe for our visitors, volunteers, and staff members. So let's start by talking about all those funny medicine bottles that are still partially filled with pills, liquids, powders, and goopy substances that probably weren't so goopy in their earlier days. I know I know, a lot of that stuff is so harmless that the odds of someone getting sick or hurt are very slim. But there's still a chance that someone could be allergic to the unlisted ingredients in the breast tea. There's a chance that pests will be attracted by the alluring smell and wreak havoc on the collection. And there's always that one kid who thinks it would be funny to eat or lick the grossest thing possible, and ends up getting sick as a result. Yay liability issues!

There's something really pretty about billowing clouds, except when they are clouds of lye billowing from a broken bottle. By keeping the original contents in the bottle, changing environmental conditions and chemical changes built up until they quite literally burst. The lye wanted its freedom and wasn't going to take no for an answer. And now we're left with a ruined bottle that can't be put out on display. If the museum had properly disposed of the contents during the accession process, or had a rule that they wouldn't accept anything with dangerous original contents, they'd have a lovely empty bottle to include in their exhibits and programming.

I can think of a number of museums that have such objects in their collection, and I know that sometimes they adopt an "out of sight out of mind" attitude. For items in storage, they've been in storage for years. No one intends to put the apothecary bag on display, so why mess with it? Or the objects have been in a locked display cabinet for ages and it's seen as a hassle to open and check on things. In a way, we seem to have aligned with the mindset of the general public in that museum collections are perpetual. Sure new items come in, but old items never leave; the collection is never reassessed. The only problem with this mindset is that it's wrong. Very wrong. If museums are vibrant and active organizations, that means the collection is constantly being reassessed, just like we are always mindful of our mission and mandate and everything else related to its operation. Relevance is key.

So the next time you come across a medical container with original contents, check out the label, and get on the phone wtth your local pharmacy. Tell them what you have and that you'd like to dispose of the contents but keep the container (assuming it's in decent shape and you'd like to keep it in the collection). If it's just a matter of dumping out some old pills or powders, the process will be very easy. Pharmacists are used to dealing with that stuff and will be happy to help. Make sure you take some pictures of the object for your records, documenting what was in the container before disposal. Add the pictures to your database (don't make them accessible to the public), add some descriptive info in your cataloguer remarks field, and you're off to the races. For any non-medicinal contents, call your municipal office and talk to the waste disposal people. It's the same process here - this is what we've got, we'd like to keep the container, and can you help us dispose of the contents in a safe manner.

So now it's time for your test. If you look at this image and think to yourself, "COOL!" rather than "YIKES!", it might be time to rethink your mindset. This room of apothecary bottles is totally accessible to the public. Yes there's a low wooden barrier, but that can be easily hopped over and then it's just a matter of picking out which bottle you want to play with first. Not good. So let's make a pact. People's safety comes first.

For the record, none of the images used in this post were taken in Nova Scotian museums. And no, I will not tell you in which museum they were taken.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Introducing Ms. MacGregor

Hello, my name is Caryn and I am excited to be here at the Association of Nova Scotia Museums for the next four months. This internship serves as my final semester of the Collections Conservation and Management (CCM) Program at Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario.

I grew up in Alberta, for the most part in a little city just outside of Edmonton, with the first few years down in southern Alberta. I have an arts degree with a major in Anthropology (minor in Canadian history) from the University of Alberta. During the four summers while I was at university I worked at my local museum which fed my love of museums and led me to Fleming College and the CCM program.

The program has given me a lot of practical knowledge and experience and I am looking forward to applying it here (and learning much more) during my internship.