Behind the Exhibition Scenes: Condition Reporting
I haven’t sat at my desk must in the last two weeks, which means I haven’t returned phone calls or answered e-mails. If you’ve felt ignored by your favorite registrar-intern wrangler-supervisor- conference presenter-emergency management coordinator-photo order filler-type person, please be assured that I haven’t been ignoring you intentionally! I’ve been performing the essential registrar’s task of condition reporting.
Honestly, writing condition reports is one of my favorite parts of being the registrar. (This is only superseded by marking accessing numbers on artifacts.) What’s so exiting about doing condition reports, you ask? The answer is in the minutiae. The condition report is the document that describes the detailed condition of every facet of each artifact. A completed condition report will document how the objects looked when we received it from the lender—and note any changes that occurred while it was on display. This is a form of insurance protection. In addition to vandalism and theft, light, water, temperature and humidity, pests and honest accidents can easily affect the condition of artifacts on display. If a lender says, “I gave you that painting in perfect condition. Now look at it! It’s got holes in it. I want your insurance company to cover the damages.” We can show them the signed and dated condition report that clearly describes the size and location of each hole, scratch, dent, or mar when the piece arrived at the Museum.
So how do you begin making this report? I like to start with a basic template that includes the exhibition name, whether its an incoming report or an outgoing report, and spaces for basic information like object ID or loan number, exhibition ID, exhibition section, and object name. It could have a checklist of frequent condition afflictions—rust, discoloration, accretion, loss, folds, cracks—or it can be free-form (essay style!) there may be space to draw the object and its damage, though its more common now to just use a printed digital photograph. Some museums skip the paper reports altogether and use the condition report module in their collections database!
In the case of Passages Through the Fire, most of the artifacts came directly from the originating institution, and there were pre-existing condition reports. And, since this is a traveling exhibition, Bonni-Dara Michaels from Yeshiva University Museum came down to help condition report the objects. I was grateful because Bonni-Dara has already seen each object and she knew the object IDs, which helped facilitate the process of checking items on the list because one thing is for certain: I couldn’t tell one civil war soldier from the next!
I think Bonni-Dara and I made a great team for the condition reporting process. I would find the object in the box and call off its exhibition number, and Bonni-Dara would find the condition report. After unwrapping each object we would examine each piece. We’d compare what was written on the original report with the artifact in (gloved) hand. If there were additional problems that I found, Bonni -Dara could verify if these were pre-existing conditions. Fortunately, when dealing with Civil War era objects, its usually obvious when its newly damaged. Fortunately, there were few changes from the outgoing condition reports that Bonnie wrote after de-installation at YUM and the incoming reports that we worked on last week.
While the fall interns gathered around us for a lecture on traveling exhibitions and condition reporting, Bonni-Dara and I emphasized the importance of taking photographs during condition reporting. Our written condition reports were also accompanied by a photograph of the object, making the verification tremendously easy. By looking at the photograph, you can see if a crack in the painting was 2 inches before it shipped or if it had grown during transit or unpacking. The photographs could be used later, for insurance claims or conservation work if necessary, or just added to the database. The interns also got the opportunity to examine the artifacts and write condition reports themselves.
Condition reporting is time-consuming business. You need to be detail-oriented and focused, with an extensive vocabulary related to damage (Fortunately, MRM5 – The Museum Registration Methods “bible” has an excellent glossary and sample templates). You need to know the object’s upper left from the upper right –and know if the person writing the original report was talking about the proper left—which is sometimes surprisingly difficult. It requires you to wear gloves while handling artifacts—and removing them to write the reports and to sharpen pencils regularly. While there is pressure to get the condition reports done quickly because the curator and the art handlers are anxiously waiting so that they can lay out the exhibition upstairs, (You’ll hear about this in an upcoming blog post about staging the Civil War.) Condition reporting cant be don’t in haste. You can’t flip through notebook and say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah it all looks fine. “ Because they don’t look fine; there is almost always something to write about.
So why do I love condition reporting so much? Unwrapping artifacts for the first time is a bit like opening birthday presents! After discussing the artifacts with the curator and lender for hours, I’ve become attached to the stories that we will tell in the exhibition. There is so much excitement to see the artifact, to “meet” the people in the photographs, and “experience” the artifacts in person.
A blog post by Senior Collections Manager Jobi Zink. To read more posts by Jobi, click here.