To Protect and (Pre)serve

Our guest blogger this week is Kate Nummer, a Graduate Student in Eastern Michigan University’s Historic Preservation Program. She will receive her Master of Science in Historic Preservation in December 2019.

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Late in the spring, I was a part of the Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation Field School hosted at Cranbrook (read about the amazing week here). That week I discovered what a magical place Cranbrook is, and was inspired to ask Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research Associate Registrar, Leslie Mio, about doing my graduate final project here. The Center agreed to have me, so after three years of working hard on my Masters, I’m finishing up here at Cranbrook. I have worked closely with Leslie two days a week since August, mainly focusing on the Smith House and “other duties as assigned.”

 

The Smith House is a beautiful Usonian Frank Lloyd Wright house (1950) that was owned by Melvyn Smith and his wife Sara. Cranbrook acquired the house by donation in 2017. The main project I have been working on is numbering objects and updating The Museum System (TMS, Cranbrook’s digital database of objects) as we go along. This has been a monumental job: not only did Cranbrook acquire the house in 2017, but also everything that was in it – over 1,800 objects!

 

Numbering a jar in Smith House. Photo by author.

Numbering a jar in Smith House. Photo by author.

Numbering objects isn’t for everyone, it is a slow and repetitive task. But, it gives me a chance to look over the object, confirm that the location is recorded correctly in TMS, make any additional notes about its appearance, and even appreciate the object itself.

Here I am working in the kitchen of Smith House. Photo by author.

My final report for my degree won’t just be about numbering, but about collection management. This is considered the development, storage, preservation, and organization of collections and cultural heritage. I am consulting resources like MRM5: Museum Registration Methods by Rebecca Buck, and Things Great and Small by John E. Simmons, and applying information gleaned to what Leslie and I are doing in Smith House.

 

Other duties I have had since August: helping prepare a disaster kit for Smith House, so objects and people remain safe in the event of a disaster (especially since it’s off the main campus); meeting with conservators who are helping to restore furniture in the house;  helping prepare for the Center’s fundraiser “A House Party at Cranbrook”; rolling textiles for better storage; and helping move and process new donations.

 

I say, “other duties as assigned” because one thing I’ve learned in my semester at Cranbrook: the work of a registrar is never boring. We may have our main plan mapped out, but sometimes you must go with the flow.

 

Kate Nummer, Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation Program 2019

What’s My Number?

We typically write blogs about what projects we are working on – a research question, an exciting piece of furniture – but I wanted to let you in on something a little more pedestrian:

One of the regular projects I work on is numbering and labeling the Cultural Properties. Each object gets a unique number to identify and differentiate it from other cultural properties.

Me at work, numbering silverware.

Me at work, numbering silverware. Photo by Desai Wang, CKU ’19

The numbering system is done in two different ways here at Cranbrook. All collections have a prefix set of letters that lets us know what collection it is in. For example, there is a Brookside School Collection with the prefix “BS,” as well as collections for each of the three historic houses we oversee. Next, there is either a number to match an inventory of the collection or the year the object was created or acquired.

The Brookside Lobby Fixture designed by Henry Scripps Booth and created by Leonard Electric is numbered BS 1929.1. It was created in 1929 for use in the school.

The Brookside Lobby Fixture designed by Henry Scripps Booth and created by Leonard Electric is numbered BS 1929.1. It was created in 1929 for use in the school. I haven’t been able to put the number on it yet! Photo by Daniel Smith, CAA ’21

The Frog and Lily Pad Vase by Adelaide Alsop Robineau in the Founders Collection is number CEC 16. It was the 16th item cataloged in a 1975 inventory of the house.

The Frog and Lily Pad Vase by Adelaide Alsop Robineau in the Founders Collection is numbered “CEC 16.” It was the 16th item cataloged in a 1975 inventory of the house. Photo by R. H. Hensleigh

Once we have numbers assigned to the object, we need to physically apply them to the object. Putting a number directly on an object is the most secure way. There are a number of techniques used to apply labels to the objects.

We currently use a method of spreading on a thin layer of special clear adhesive (B-72) to the object, putting down a number written or printed on acid-free paper, and then covering that paper with another coat of the clear adhesive. Printing the numbers on a printer allows you to control the size of the numbers (typically 7-point font) and also ensures they are legible.

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A number applied to an object. This is from the Smith House collection, which the CEC acquired in 2017.

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B-72, one of the tools of the trade.

There are all sorts of exceptions to the above rule: You can’t number plastics this way – the solvent in the B-72 would melt the plastic. To number them, we tie on a tag made of Tyvek using Teflon tape (also known as plumber’s tape).

Cotton twill "tape" used ti number textiles.

Cotton twill “tape” used to number textiles.

And what about textiles? For that, we write the number on cotton twill “tape” with archival ink and sew the tags onto the objects.

Chapter 5E of Museum Registration Methods – what is referred to as the “Registrar’s Bible” — is all about marking objects, best practices, and recommended materials. When in doubt, I start there.

Leslie Mio, Associate Registrar

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