Curating with Goofus and Gallant: How to Mitigate Risk in Museum Collections Storage

NMSC museum specialist Jennifer McCann has been on the road quite a bit this year conducting Risk Assessments at various Northeast Region parks. In this blog post, Jennifer outlines the purpose and goals of a Risk Assessment and talks about some of the things we can do – and not do – to keep our museum collections safe. 

[The following blog post written by Jennifer McCann.] 

As part of our ongoing mission to protect cultural resources in the National Parks of the Northeast Region, NMSC has recently undertaken a series of Risk Assessments. We visit all of a park’s collection-holding facilities and pose a series of questions about things like fire suppression, security, environmental hazards, and more. We use the answers to those questions to determine a “Risk Assessment Code”, which tells us how much danger is posed to a particular collection. Some collections are inherently at a higher risk due to the location of the park, such as in a flood plain or on a fault line. Some collections are threatened by the close presence of facilities that generally don’t pose a risk, but could if something bad happened there, such as chemical and power plants or airports. There are a lot of things that can happen to museums that are out of our control.

jenn's picture

Incredibly realistic drawing of hazards posed to museums. (NMSC staff)

We do our best to mitigate these risks in lots of ways: actively engaging our communities, creating emergency response plans, installing fire suppression systems, and keeping an eye on the weather. But there are many small things we can do every day to minimize the risks to our collection from everyday existence.  To help illustrate some of the things all museum staff (and volunteers!) can do to protect our cultural heritage, I enlisted the help of NMSC’s own Nikki and Jessica. If you remember “Highlights” magazine from your childhood, you might remember “Goofus and Gallant”: a cartoon which showed bad behavior versus good behavior. For our purposes here, Nikki is “Goofus” to Jessica’s “Gallant”. (Please note that all photos were staged, that Nikki is actually a very conscientious museum technician who posed under duress, and that no museum objects were endangered.)

What can you do to keep museum collections safe?  Let Jessica and Nikki show you…

Keep alarm codes secure


Jessica has memorized her alarm code. She doesn’t tell it to anyone, so collections remain secure. Nikki can’t remember hers, so she put it in convenient location where anyone can use it, putting collections at risk.


Keep collection areas locked and keys secure


Jessica makes sure to securely close and lock the museum cabinet before walking away. Nikki leaves the museum cabinet open, with the keys in the lock, when she gets distracted, leaving the artifacts vulnerable.


Document and monitor visitors in museum collection spaces


Jessica welcomes visitors by having them sign in and staying with them at all times. Nikki wants everyone to feel welcome in collection storage! While that’s great, it is not very secure.


Keep fire extinguishers in working order and in plain view


Jessica checks regularly to make sure fire extinguishers are in their proper places and well-marked. Nikki stores supplies in the way of the extinguisher, endangering both collections and people.


Store and move boxes safely


Jessica moves a box down a shelf, out of the way of the sprinkler head. As a bonus, she doesn’t lift the box over her head! Nikki puts a box on the top shelf, even though it means the box will be within 18 inches of the sprinkler head. If the sprinklers are activated, the box will block water from reaching the whole room.


No explanation needed here…


Jessica is so disappointed in Nikki. No smoking near collections or the buildings that house them!


Hopefully we don’t have to tell you…


Speaking of smoking, you probably know that it’s a bad idea around flammable chemicals like acetone. Jessica safely stores the acetone in a locked flammables cabinet. Nikki is putting everyone in danger by storing the acetone on an open shelf.


Create an environment that suits the museum collection, not your personal comfort level


Jessica knows that the climate control is set for the safety of the artifacts, not for her comfort. She dresses warmly if she needs to be in storage for a while. Nikki thinks she should be comfortable everywhere and cranks the heat.


Do not eat in spaces housing museum collections


Jessica eats her snack in the break room, which is cleaned regularly. Nikki eats her snack in collections storage, dropping crumbs that will attract all kinds of pests, which might also decide to eat artifacts.


Review your Emergency Operations Plan


Jessica takes the time to familiarize herself with NMSC’s Emergency Operations Plan. Nikki thinks it’s boring, so she remains unprepared.


Heeding these dos and don’ts  are just a few ways to make sure your collections aren’t exposed to unnecessary risk. What else do you do keep your collections safe and secure?


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