Museum of the Albemarle’s doors may be currently closed to the public, but MOA staff continue our work!
Given we can’t meet in the lobby or galleries, I wish to take this opportunity to describe the behind-the-scenes nature of the work I perform. As a collections specialist, it is my duty to prepare artifacts to be placed on exhibit. Each museum object must undergo a specific process before it may be displayed.
After our curator decides which items best serve the goals of a particular exhibition, she removes those objects from their storage location, so my work may begin. I carefully examine each artifact. I scrupulously inspect the front, back, and whatever surfaces lie between, for inconsistencies in texture or form. I compare my notes to any paperwork that accompany the object.
It is important to determine which physical quirks are inherent to the piece’s life before it became a museum item. All of this information is summarized in a condition report. Photographs are also taken in an attempt to visually capture each scratch, dent or other defect that may sully an object’s appearance. Once the written and pictorial record is complete, I can assess how to treat the object.
Object treatment varies from the simple to the highly complex. Examples of each treatment are included in the images here. Some objects may only have a surface layer of dust to be addressed, such as seen in the “before” picture of the telegraph key and relay. A clean, 100 percent cotton rag, slightly dampened with distilled water, is finessed across the object to remove loose dirt, dust and grime. The “after” image reveals metal hardware gleaming against a warm-toned veneer.
A more challenging treatment was required by the glass flask. Originally recovered from the River Bridge archaeological site on the Pasquotank River, this item was broken in several places.
Mindful of sharp edges, the pieces are carefully cleaned with distilled water and soft-bristled brushes. Any remaining moisture is whisked away with another clean cotton rag or swab. Dry and free from debris, the glass may be mended with a special, museum-grade adhesive that I mix myself.
Repairing the flask requires patience, as the adhesive for each join must set at least 24 hours before moving to an adjacent break. It is a meticulous task, but one that I find very gratifying. I relish the opportunity to make whole what once was broken. When each glass shard is returned to its proper place, the flask proudly stands in its display case!
A bookend to the condition report, a treatment report describing each step discussed above, in even more exacting detail, must be completed as well. Another set of photographs are taken to record the results of the treatment. Physical and corresponding digital files must also be updated to finalize the process. Proper documentation is a paramount responsibility to current coworkers and future museum professionals.
Jessica Cosmas is a collections specialist at Museum of the Albemarle.