Sorting at the Shelton House: What’s Accessioned, What’s Not, and Why?

Earlier this year, NMSC staff members Laurel Racine, Teri DeYoung, and Nicole Walsh traveled to Richmond National Battlefield Park to assist curator Ethan Bullard sort through residual items that were left in the Shelton House (in the park’s Rural Plains Unit) when the park acquired the house in 2006.  In this post, NMSC senior curator Laurel Racine explains why not every item can be accessioned into a park’s museum collection, how to determine what to include, and how to go about this daunting – but essential! – sorting process.  

[The following post written by Laurel Racine.]

National Park Service (NPS) museum collections grow every day.  The last official count put the number of items close to a whopping 45 million!  The vast majority of these items are site-associated meaning they were found at or used at the parks where they are still located today.  However, NPS staff need to make decisions about even which site-associated items to collect so the NPS’s museum collection is sustainable.  As much as we might like to, we do not have the staff or facilities to care for everything in perpetuity.

Some of the strategies NPS staff use to manage collections are collecting only within a carefully defined scope of collection statement, representative sampling, and documenting items without adding them to the museum collection.  When parks face a big job like sorting through the contents of an entire historic structure, it is helpful to call on knowledgeable outsiders to offer additional perspective and hands to help.

Three members of the NMSC staff assisted Richmond National Battlefield Park to sort through items at the Shelton House located at the park’s Rural Plains Unit.  When the park acquired the house in 2006 they and Shelton family members identified objects in the house during the Civil War for the park to acquire for its museum collection.  When the family vacated the house residual objects were left in the basement and attic, some of which the park moved to a storage pod nearby.

Shelton House, Rural Plains Unit, Richmond National Battlefield Park. (NMSC photo)

Shelton House, Rural Plains Unit, Richmond National Battlefield Park. (NMSC photo)

In advance of the project Curator Ethan Bullard drafted categories for considering the objects including retain for accession, retain for future examination during historic furnishings report research, and document but do not retain for the museum collection.  The historic furnishings report is planned for 2017-2018.

Another important aspect of pre-planning was addressing health concerns related to weather and an evident rodent infestation in the attic.  The weather challenges for this project involved the unconditioned attic space and the storage pod’s outdoor location.  The team chose to work in March to avoid winter and summer extremes.  Only certified staff with personally-fitted respirators and Tyvek suits moved items from the attic.  All other team members wore dust masks and gloves when working with the objects in the open air.

Many of the items were broken (chairs, ceramics) or disassembled (wardrobes) with stray pieces in different physical locations making the project a giant 3D puzzle.  As often as possible the team reunited component parts or grouped like objects for photo-documentation and inventory.  The inventory fields included item-count, known provenience, description, and new location.

Group of like objects at Shelton House. (NMSC photo)

Group of like objects (left) and fragments of broken ceramic object (right). (NMSC photo)

Reunited component parts of a historic object at Shelton House. (NMSC photo)

Reunited component parts of a historic object. (NMSC photo)

Another challenge was the many architectural fragments.  Prior to the project the team consulted with NPS Preservation Architect David Bitterman on strategies for retaining this type of material.  He emphasized the importance of provenience and collecting a manageable sampling of any type of fragment (more than 1, less than 5).  The team marked for accession representative samples of architectural fragments removed and tagged by the NPS’s Heritage Preservation Technical Center in 2012 and a handful of brick and mortar samples.  The rest of the material will not enter the museum collection.

Representative sample of architectural fragments and brick and mortar. (NMSC photo)

Representative sample of architectural fragments (left) and brick and mortar (right). (NMSC photo)

Due to their rugged storage conditions, the items were generally dirty and assumed to contain pests so needed treatment before they could be moved to collection storage.  The team vacuumed the dirt and bagged as much as possible.  Metal, glass, stone, and ceramic objects as well as wooden objects small enough to be treated in a chest freezer were sent to rough collection storage.  The team reorganized larger items in the storage pod to ease future access.  If any of these items are later deemed candidates for accession or exhibit they will need to be treated for pests in a rented freezer truck or CO2 chamber.

Storage pod at the start and completion of the project.  (NMSC photo)

Storage pod at the start and completion of the project. (NMSC photo)

The team identified about a dozen mid-to-late 20th century furnishings that fall outside the park’s scope of collection.  The team documented these items but they will not be accessioned into the museum collection.  Instead, the park has given these items to its friends group, the Rural Plains Foundation, to sell at a yard sale or donate to a local charitable organization.  The sales and tax benefits will support their efforts as the main volunteer interpreters at Shelton House.

20th-century object that was documented but not accessioned into the museum collection at the Shelton House. (NMSC photo)

20th-century object that was documented but not accessioned into the museum collection at the Shelton House. (NMSC photo)

If you are facing a similar motley assemblage of items (oh no, not the barn!!) and don’t know where to start, gather a collection advisory group to help you plan and execute a similar project.  Ours which addressed about 450 items took four days to execute plus pre-planning.  Pre-planning is the key to success.  Think about what expertise you need to address your scope of collection and the types of items you have to consider; what equipment (including personal protective equipment) and supplies you will need to clean, encapsulate, and move items; how much time you need; what time of year is appropriate for working in hot or cold spaces; and where future collection items will go and what treatment they might need beforehand.  That’s a lot of needs but gaining intellectual and physical control over ALL THAT STUFF is so worth it.

References:

Museum Management Program, “National Park Service Museum Program by the Numbers (FY2014),” December 2014.

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One Response to Sorting at the Shelton House: What’s Accessioned, What’s Not, and Why?

  1. Jessica says:

    What a great post! This kind of assessment is so important as we move forward with collections work.

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