January 2010: Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) Celebrates 20 Years of Preserving History
The L.C. Bates Museum is typical of many small museums and historical societies when it comes to collections care. Located in Hinckley, Maine, a town of 7,400 people, the museum collects and preserves items of local natural history, art, Americana, archaeology, and ethnology. The Bates Museum thrived from 1923 until the 1950s, but by 1980, the museum had fallen into disrepair. The museum needed a lot of work to turn it around, including window and roof replacement and eradication of a serious pest infestation.
Director Deborah Staber’s first step was to obtain a general collections assessment through the Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) administered by Heritage Preservation through a cooperative agreement with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The assessment, the quickest and most cost-effective way to identify a museum’s preventive conservation priorities, involved a conservator’s two-day examination of the museum’s collections policies, procedures, storage and exhibition environments, emergency plans, staff, and building. Because the museum’s building was more than fifty years old, an historic structures assessor was also assigned to determine which historic preservation efforts were needed to ensure the building’s long-term care. After the site visit, the assessor wrote a report outlining immediate, mid-term, and long-term recommendations to improve collections care, taking into account the time it would take for the museum to acquire sufficient resources to implement changes.
For the Bates Museum, the assessment was indispensible. Within six years, the roof and windows were completely repaired, a handicapped-accessible entrance was installed, and an integrated pest management system was in place. Staber also referenced the CAP report in raising more than $200,000 for museum building and collections improvements.
"During their visits to the museum, the assessors provided much individual information about specific projects and suggested much-needed treatments. The assessors’ meetings with staff, board members, and volunteers gave everyone an opportunity to feel that they were part of the CAP process," said Staber.
The Bates Museum story has a happy ending but many small museums aren’t as fortunate. Few people realize that the majority (75 percent) of all museums in the United States are small museums, mostly staffed by professionals with little training in collections care. While small museums sometimes hire conservators on a contract basis, few have experience in finding a cost-conscious and professional conservator. In fact, more than half of small history museums and historical societies rely on volunteers to perform collections care tasks and 71 percent have a collections care budget of less than $3,000 per year, according to the Heritage Health Index (HHI), a collections survey published in 2005 by Heritage Preservation and IMLS. Only 12 percent of small museums have a current, long-range plan for the care of their collections.
Through CAP, many small and mid-sized museums have taken the first steps towards improving conditions for the preservation of collections. More than 2,700 institutions have received assessments from CAP assessors over the past twenty years. CAP assessors, an army of more than 400 collections conservators and historic structures assessors, have provided general collections and museum building assessments across the United States. They objectively review CAP participants’ entire collections and buildings, and provide organized, prioritized recommendations on such topics as the control of temperature and relative humidity in storage and exhibitions; control of light levels; and safety, security, and emergency preparedness plans and procedures at the institution.
Many conservators, such as M.J. Davis, a Vermont-based conservator who has served as a CAP assessor for a decade, are eager to work with small museums. She acknowledges that, for many museums, obtaining a conservator’s general collections assessment may be intimidating. It may be their first time working with conservators or it may be the first time anyone from outside the institution has inspected their collections and building. Museum staff may also fear that they cannot afford to retain a professional conservator to assess their collections.
"It’s important for small institutions to understand that conservators can work within a budget. We don’t have to do full treatments on artifacts all the time. For example, we can simply stabilize damage, make recommendations for future use or storage, set up protocols for re-housing a collection, or help with housekeeping methods," said Davis. In general, Davis and many other conservators encourage small museums to conserve artifacts preventively, meaning that collections policies and procedures must be put in place to minimize the amount of harm that can come to collections through improper environmental controls, storage environments, and exhibition practices.
"The CAP process is an opportunity for the conservator to work one-on-one with the staff and volunteers in these small museums. Providing them with realistic recommendations in their CAP reports, based on their available resources, helps them move forward with small doable projects. And having specific problems and challenges highlighted in the CAP report gives the museum the needed documentation to legitimize their situation and add weight to their grant requests," said Davis.
Accounts of collections care improvements gathered from former CAP participants by Heritage Preservation illustrate the far-reaching benefits of the program. Within two years of completing their assessments, 40 percent of CAP participants created a line-item in their budgets for conservation supplies and treatments, 54 percent of museums created or updated their long-range preservation plans, and 68 percent of museums created or significantly updated their emergency plans, according to data gathered by Heritage Preservation.
CAP assessments also helped the participants’ governing bodies to understand the importance of professional training in conservation, as evidenced by the fact that 57 percent of museums increased the amount of collections management training that their staff received. More than 75 percent of participants increased the amount of their collections that were inventoried, and 66 percent increased the number of items cataloged. More than 500 federal grants for collections activities have been awarded to former CAP participants in the past twenty years, including IMLS Conservation Project Support and Museums for America grants, National Endowment for Humanities Preservation Assistance and Save America's Treasures grants.
As part of CAP’s 20th anniversary, Heritage Preservation has posted CAP success stories on its Web site, demonstrating the benefits that both U.S. museums and the public at large can reap from the collaboration of museum and conservation professionals. Important collections are protected from deterioration, museum professionals are hired and volunteers are recruited, and irreplaceable artifacts and history are preserved for future generations. Museum conservation best practices are learned, honed, and disseminated.
Applications for the 2011 Conservation Assessment Program will be made available on Heritage Preservation’s website www.heritagepreservation.org/CAP/index.html in September, 2010 and are due December 1, 2010. For additional information, please contact the CAP office at 202-233-0800 or at email@example.com.
Guest profile by Sara Gonzales, Heritage Preservation CAP Coordinator.