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Inside Tips from Museum Professionals

October 23rd, 2014

One of the most valuable courses that ECU offers is HIST5920 Techniques of Museum and Historic Site Development. The class includes readings and discussions in museum theory, as well as, several field trips to a variety of museums and organizations. The field trips are often the best environment to see how our theoretical discussions are applied…the “real world” of museums.

This year we have been touring the Department of Cultural Resources/ State Historic Preservation Office (Eastern Branch), Greenville Museum of Art, Tryon Palace, Bentonville Battlefield, Tobacco Farm Life Museum, NC Museum of Art, The Mariners’ Museum (VA), Colonial Williamsburg (VA), Jamestown (VA), and Yorktown (VA). Museum professionals have given us a variety of tips so we thought we would share them here!

What are the #1 skills/experiences that museum professionals should have?

  • Project management: The ability to manage multiple projects and budgets at the same time.
  • Ability to communicate with a variety of levels: Everything from school groups to board members to politicians.
  • Writing skills: Grant writing is increasingly more important.

 

Since grant writing has featured so prominently in our discussions with museum professionals, we asked for three tips for those who are starting from scratch. They are:

  1. Read the guidelines carefully and make sure that our project is compatible with the type of projects they fund!
  2. Contact the granting agency early and often!
  3. Keep your project descriptions and goals concise, but general. Don’t restrict your project so much that you can’t be flexible in getting what the project needs (within the limits of the grant).

We also asked an exhibit designer that we spoke to, what his top three tips were for museum professionals that have to design exhibits with no formal training. His top three tips are:

  1. Really know your content. Know the subject matter and truly understand what the exhibit is about and the overall message.
  2. Really know your visitors! Too much text causes fatigue and too many artworks or objects can be overwhelming. Provide areas to sit and reflect.
  3. Color and lighting are the two most important features to an exhibit. Consider these carefully!

 

Nothing beats first hand experience and as we are reminded by Dr. Tilley, Director of the ECU Public History program:

“Any experience is better than no experience!”

Museum Studies, Public Outreach , , , , , , , , , , ,

What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society

April 3rd, 2014

What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society

Melissa Price

old_shoeVase

Which is more valuable?

We see them everywhere behind glass in museums, in a dim room with a spotlight on them, a guard standing around telling you not to touch: historical objects and artifacts on display for our viewing pleasure. To a museum visitor, the objects may be nice to look at or learn about from the brief informational placards. To a conservator or archaeologist, the objects may be a key to unlocking information about our human past and need to be preserved for future study. Different people view historical objects in various ways, and sometimes this can cause problems, especially when objects are seen for their monetary value only.

To an archaeologist, the context of an object is just as important as the object itself. After all, one can only learn so much about a single ceramic pot. If that pot, however, is found within a burial an archaeologist can make interpretations about the culture that made the pot: ritualistic behaviors, societal hierarchies, and the function of the pot can all be gleaned from its context.

The general public is less likely to understand the importance of context. This is understandable since most of their interactions with historical objects occur when they are standing in front of a glass case in a museum. They see the object at the end of its journey: after it has been removed from the field and been cleaned, preserved, and placed on display. The public sees these objects as valuable: they know they are behind glass cases for a reason and that museums pay (sometimes large) amounts of money for certain objects. The very circumstances surrounding museums place value on the object alone, rather than historical context (especially since accompanying informational text is brief).

In line with this concept is the idea that mundane or common objects are less worthy of being studied, collected, or placed on display in museums, which creates a bias of what is seen behind glass cases, as Caple mentions in “Reasons for Preserving the Past” (2003, 21). Unique, famous, rare, or beautiful objects are prized over everyday objects and are sought after for their monetary value. They are also more likely to be displayed in a museum in the hopes of attracting more visitors.

One example of highly sought after objects are those classical artworks such as Greek or Roman marble statues and vases. The modern aesthetics of these types of objects is sometimes seen as more highly prized than the object’s original context. The objects, according to Sarah Scott in “Art and Archaeology,” are displayed “as art rather than archaeology” (2006, 629). This has caused, and is still causing, looting or damage to archaeological sites as people try to find and sell such objects (628). They know there is a market for them and market value is given more importance than contextual detail (629). Archaeologists should stress the importance of context lest looting occur. Placing a high value on objects can lead to the “continued prioritization of a select range of objects, most notably classical sculpture” (636). Our modern view of what is considered “art,” such as classical statues, causes them to be considered as commodities to be bought and sold, rather than ancient objects that can lend information about the past societies in which they existed.

In conclusion, keeping objects in their original context, rather than applying value and aesthetics to them, is ideal. Archaeologists and conservators alike have a responsibility to make the acquirement of objects without context unacceptable both academically and socially. For example, archaeologists can refuse to help treasure hunters or salvors with excavation. Similarly, conservators can refuse to work on objects that have been obtained through less desirable means. Museums must be very careful when buying objects and place an importance upon integrity of objects. Finally, placing significance upon the study of seemingly mundane or common objects also helps to decrease the mindset of historical objects as commodities. 

Photo credits

Vase: https://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/tools/pottery/painters/keypieces/redfigure/niobid.htm

Shoe: http://www.armenianow.com/features/25224/world_s_oldest_leather_shoe

 

References Cited

Caple, C. 2003. Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.

Scott, Sarah. 2006. Art and the Archaeologist. World Archaeology 38(4): 628-643.

Ethics and Theory, General Conservation, Museum Studies, Public Outreach , , , , , , , , , ,

Ethics of Artifact Hunting Reality TV Shows

April 3rd, 2014

Ethics of Artifact Hunting Reality TV Shows

 Allison Miller

With the rise of popular reality TV programs showcasing artifact hunting, such as Spike TV’s American Diggers, The Travel Channel’s Dig Wars, and National Geographic’s Diggers, a new venue for ethical concerns from the archaeological community has been created. Questions arise not only about the artifact damage the individuals on these shows are directly causing, but also about the damage these shows could be creating by failing to inform the public of proper excavation processes and the legalities surrounding such searches (Kloor 2012; Ewen et al. 2013). These shows, particularly American Diggers, highlight the monetary value of such “found” artifacts, as well. It would seem that this placement of a dollar value on artifacts could only further encourage amateur enthusiasts to begin their own searches for artifacts. “Diggers” searching only for items of value will discard items, such as nails, that could lead to larger finds for archaeologists. How much of our cultural heritage is being lost because of these shows and the individuals they are encouraging, inadvertently or not, to search for artifacts of their own?

Once these valued items have been unearthed, it also raises questions for conservators. Whether or not these artifacts have been obtained illegally, or at least unethically, the conservator must then make the choice on whether or not to conserve such an item. An artifact that has been illegally retrieved can create legal questions for the conservator. If he/she chooses to conserve an object that has been illegally obtained, the conservator can be considered an accessory to the crime. The conservator also has an ethical responsibility of reporting any artifacts they know to have been illegally excavated. Many of artifact hunters may know that their artifact has been unearthed illegally, and therefore do not take it to a conservator. Instead, they will attempt their own conservation methods, which may ultimately create more damage to the item.

Artifacts that have been unearthed within the terms of the law but not with best archaeological practice also create ethical questions for the conservator. It can cause conflicting interests between the desire to conserve the artifact for its own sake and not conserving the artifact in order to not be affiliated with questionable archaeological practices. Ethical codes and guidelines provided for conservators by organizations such as the American Institute for Conservation leave such ethical decisions to the determination of the individual conservator.

Works Cited

Ewen, Charlie, Dan Sivilich, and Paul Mullins 2013    National Geographic’s Diggers: Is It Better? Society for Historical Archaeology Blog, 1 February 2013. <http://www.sha.org/blog/index.php/2013/02/national-geographics-diggers-is-it-better/>. Accessed 18 March 2014.

 

Kloor, Keith 2012    Archaeologists Protest ‘Glamorization’ of Looting on TV. Science Insider, Washington, D.C. <http://news.sciencemag.org/2012/03/archaeologists-protest-glamorization-looting-tv>. Accessed 18 March 2014.

Ethics and Theory, Public Outreach , , , , , ,

Preservation at Pompeii

February 6th, 2014

Preservation at Pompeii

Sophia Carman

Image 1

Image 1: Map of the Bay of Naples, Italy. Image from: http://www.markville.ss.yrdsb.edu.on.ca/projects/classof2008/chong2/hrivnak/template.htm

The ancient city of Pompeii, located in the Bay of Naples, maintains a rich history as a vibrant city during the Roman times (Image 1). Nevertheless, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 led to the total destruction and preservation of the site. Pompeii laid untouched for almost 2000 years, until excavations began in 1748 and continued to the present day (Slayman 1997). During these excavations, the daily life of the citizens who had been frozen in time was revealed in the form of residential architecture, wall frescos, household objects, and casts of the people themselves (Image 2). Although the information collected from these excavations remains valuable to the history of the site, the integrity of the newly exposed architecture, art, and objects are continually being threatened by both natural forces and human activity. Therefore, one must ask themselves if it is appropriate to excavate a site, such as Pompeii, if the current preservation techniques may not be sufficient in caring for the materials uncovered? Such a question is constantly on the minds of conservators and addresses an ethical issue that is prevalent in the field of archaeology and conservation today.

Image 2

Image 2: Archaeological plan of Pompeii. Image from: http://www.dogsofpompeii.com/tour.php

Once structures and objects are exposed by excavations, the deterioration process begins. Factors that affect the integrity of the archaeological materials can be natural and/or anthropogenic (Slayman 1997). Natural deterioration factors include exposure to sun, wind, rain, erosion, or even fluctuation in temperature. Botanicals also play an active role in the deterioration of structural elements of the city by growing within the matrix of the walls, causing them to collapse, or behind the plaster frescos, forcing them from the wall. On the other hand, humans have a hand in the destruction of the site. International wars have destroyed parts of the site in addition to priceless objects, both of which were unable to be recovered. Tourists visiting the site cause daily wear and tear, especially when theft or vandalism is involved. Archaeological excavation itself is a destructive technique that does not necessarily allow for re-excavations in the future. It is these deterioration processes that are a prevalent issue in the preservation of the site today.

Image 3

Image 3: House of Amarantus. Left: Photo from the 1950s excavations showing the amphorae. Right: Photo from the 1994 excavations showing the same amphorae. Image from: Picking Up the Pieces

Early excavators of Pompeii gave little notice to the care and maintenance of the site (Slayman 1997). Once unearthed, various features were directly exposed to environmental conditions and have not survived to the present day. For example, a group of amphorae in the House of Amarantus, which was initially documented in the 1950s, remains today only as shattered vessels (Image 3). In other parts of the site, frescos have lost their pigment color and some walls have collapsed altogether. Essentially, these early excavators were not able or did not have the means to handle the maintenance needs of the site after it was exposed.

Although conservation techniques are far more advanced than what they were in the 1700s, there are still some conservation issues that they are difficult to address today. The restoration and maintenance of Pompeii is a top priority, but is hindered not only by the sheer size of the city, but also by the availability of manpower and the amount of funds that are able to be accessed. When a new section of Pompeii is exposed, both support and protective structures have to be constructed in order to care for that portion of the site. Further restoration needs to be enacted to maintain the structural integrity of the walls and floors. All objects uncovered in the excavations need to be properly cared for and stored, which requires space in a storage facility or museum. Therefore, undertaking an excavation does not stop when the field season has finished, but continues for many years to come. If the resources, manpower, and funding are not available to care for and maintain the site once the excavations are completed, it would seem to be unethical to excavate the site in the first place. However, since the time of the first excavations of Pompeii, the techniques of conservation, preservation, and restoration have improved dramatically and are able compensate for the earlier shortcomings.

Digital archaeology has allowed conservators to effectively care for, maintain, and document the remains of Pompeii today (Bruschini 1991). Digital databases preserve various features and objects from the site by documenting the more technical information associated with their state of preservation. Such information can include general descriptions, a history of restorations, damage analyses, graphic documentation, etc. Databases also allows archaeologists and conservators to gain information on the distribution patterns of features and objects in order to learn more about city planning and daily life at Pompeii. Additionally, photographic documentation allows for the condition of various features to be monitored over time by noting any changes that may be caused by deterioration processes. Such images also permit conservators to simulate restoration techniques digitally, prior to implementing the modifications on the feature itself. Furthermore, three-dimensional modeling enables conservators to reconstruct objects and architectural features which can assist them in the restoration process. It is clear that these recent technological advances in digital archaeological has dramatically improved the way in which a site, such as Pompeii, is documented and maintained.

Pompeii has a rich history that is preserved in a layer of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Since the first excavations in 1748, the techniques to preserve, conserve, and restore the site have significantly improved. Digital archaeology has opened up additional avenues in maintaining the site by enabling the conservator to observe changes in features and objects over time through databases and photographs. However, there is still much to be uncovered and learned from the two-thirds of the exposed Pompeii, as well as further advances in conservation techniques before the last third of the site is exposed and excavated.

 

Bibliography

Bruschini, Stefano

1991 Imaging Pompeii. In Archaeology. 44(2):32-35.

Slayman, Andrew L.

1997 Picking Up the Pieces. In Archaeology. 50(6):34-36.

 

General Conservation, Public Outreach , , ,

Tips on Exhibition Design

December 28th, 2013

On a recent tour to the North Carolina Museum of Art, we were able to meet with some of the “behind-the-scenes” staff including conservators and the exhibition designers. In North Carolina, we have  a large amount of small museums with small staffs that have to fulfill numerous roles including exhibit design, but many times staff don’t have prior training in this area. We asked what the top four tips are when designing a new exhibit! They are:

1) create connections w/ vendors

2) everything you purchase should be an investment that you can reuse

3) everything is a learning experience

4) you always need a scope, schedule, and budget for a successful project

 

Excellent words of advice! What are some of your tips? Other good advice we received was that teamwork in project management is a major part of museum work. So taking courses on project management and teamwork will help you in any workplace. Also consider the type of museum you are working with. Art museums are all about the visual, history museums are about the experience and science museums are about the process.

Additional Resources:

http://www.collectioncare.org/pubs/Dec152013.html#LETTER.BLOCK11

 

Museum Studies, Public Outreach , , ,

Out of the Ivory Towers and Into the Field: A Glowing Example of Public Conservation at Montezuma Well

February 14th, 2013

Out of the Ivory Towers and Into the Field: A Glowing Example of Public Conservation at Montezuma Well

 Sara Kerfoot

            Conservation is a science. There are specific consequences if conservation is done poorly; a lack of knowledge can be devastating to artifacts and sites. Not everyone has the opportunity to go through training that would adequately prepare an individual to properly handle and preserve artifacts from future deterioration, but not all conservation work needs to be done in a lab. There are certain aspects of conservation that the public has an opportunity to take part in given the right direction. Montezuma Well is an exemplary case of when public outreach and conservation can work together to create an ongoing example of cultural heritage. Montezuma Well National Monument has an active thousand-year-old irrigation system and uses the public to help maintain it.

            One of the National Park Service’s main goals is to preserve cultural heritage for future generations. Conservation is the act of preserving nomenclatural resources; conservators are not always conserving pieces of waterlogged wood and broken ceramics, they are stewards to heritage and in some cases that heritage is still active. Montezuma Well National Monument in Camp Verde, Arizona is a huge sinkhole; human modification can be seen in cliff dwellings and an active thousand-year-old irrigation ditch (National Park Service 2013). The ingenious Sinagua people of the Verde Valley created this canal; it pumps 1.5 million gallons of water from the sinkhole (Montezuma Well) every day at a constant 74 degrees Fahrenheit (National Park Service 2013). The site, as a whole, is protected and preserved by the park service. The maintenance crew, the park archaeologists, and park rangers work together to survey this ancient ditch on a daily basis; the maintenance crew preserves the site by ensuring the water flow is not obstructed by flora and fauna, they also patch leaky areas. Professionals preserve the integrity of the irrigation canal, but it is not limited to them.

montezumas well Irrigation System at Montezuma Well (Credit: Author)

              Since the irrigation system is still active and brings water to residents in the Verde Valley, each year this ancient water supply is re-directed to the river during winter. During winter, plants and debris encroach upon the area where flowing water runs during the spring and summer months. It takes hundreds of hours to clear out the rooted plants and debris before re-directing the canal back to its original path. One of the ways the park manages this huge feat is by enlisting volunteers to help with the project. Since 2004, the Volunteers of Outdoor Arizona (VOAz) hold an event where they clear weeds and remove calcium and travertine deposits from the ditch. Each year around mid-April, for one weekend, these volunteers help anywhere between 300 to 500 working hours (VOAz 2012). Their dedication and effort, with the park’s assistance, is a valuable component to the park’s goal of preserving cultural heritage. In order for the public to understand conservation, they need to have opportunities to get involved with conservation. Programs that allow for an interested public to participate in conservation work are integral for creating a learning environment. Public outreach is necessary for the discipline of conservation to thrive.

            Archaeologists and conservators are uncovering a story. But if the story is still going, professionals have a duty to not put a “no touch” sign on it and bar it from public access. There are multiple cases when conservators must protect an artifact so it survives, however, that is not the case for everything re-discovered. As tempting as it is to allow conservators to preserve all aspects of cultural heritage, that is not a feasible task. And in some cases, it may not be a desired role for a conservator. Where the public can play a role in conservation, they should. It allows for the public’s knowledge to grow and for them to create a connection enough to have care and concern for a site. The only way to safely do this is to create a link between the public and conservators.  As long as there is a strong enough connection to cultural heritage, it will continue to be preserved.

 References

 National Park Service, 2013. Exploring Montezuma Well. In: Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona. National Park Service. <http://www.nps.gov/moca/planyourvisit/exploring-montezuma-well.htm>. Accessed February 2, 2013.

 Volunteers of Outdoor Arizona, 2012. Montezuma Castle Conservation Work. In Volunteers of Outdoor Arizona. < http://www.voaz.org/projectreport.aspx?projectid=12>. Accessed February 2, 2013.

Public Outreach