Musings on Museum Work

While I am searching for my first full-time job, one of the freelance jobs I have is to inventory a private collector’s Civil War era collection.  I thought I’d share some tricks, tips, and trivia about what I learned.

  1. White cotton gloves are must!  You don’t want oils on a metal surface because it promotes rusting.  Additionally, sometimes unmaintained leather will have either red rot  or mildew on it.

    White Cotton Gloves

    White Cotton Gloves; Image from and linked to Brodart, a library supply company.

  2. Flashlights are very useful!  Most museum-type settings are dim as not to damage the material with UV rays.  This makes it hard to see engravings on metal, like serial numbers, manufacture markings, and names.  Without a flashlight I wouldn’t have been able to note these facts!
  3. Pre-1880s firearms have often been used enough that their serial numbers are worn off.  You’ll need the paperwork from the purchase to know that information.
  4. On swords, the manufactures’ name, company, and city (and sometimes a date) can be found on one side of the blade near the hilt.
  5. A sword actually weighs less than a revolver!  I would have thought  weight-wise, a revolver would have been lighter and a rifle heavier, not both heavier!
  6. Old ribbons are very brittle!  When lifting an old medal, lift it by both the medal and the clasp/pin at the top of the ribbon.  Otherwise it puts too much strain on the fabric.
  7. A large revolver actually weighs about the same as a shotgun or small rifle.  I think that’s because the cylinder is so thick.
  8. When taking notes about collections when you don’t have a collection management system, like PastPerfect, or a tablet computer, it is still easier to go old-school and use a notebook and pencil.  Why?  You’ll be moving around a lot and it’s hard to carry a laptop around that much or to always hold it and type.  Plus, every surface could be covered with artifacts!   After handwriting everything, you can then place the information in an Excel book or Access database.
  9. You’ll want to have a camera on-hand to document the items.  Be sure to add the photo number to your item description.
  10. For photographing smaller items and writing on larger items, having a camera with a macro lens or setting is very useful!  Macro lenses are designed for extreme close-up photography so they capture the most detail.
  11. Bullets and cannonballs are still live.  The exception is if a cannonball or shell has been drilled out to remove the powder.  You can usually tell because the drill hole is visible, the drill hole has been filled in with some sort of putty, and/or the fuse has been removed.
  12. As with archives, never use pens!  You risk the chance the ink could leak, the pen could explode, or something could be accidentally marked.
  13. Wear old clothes.  When working with an uninventoried collection, chances are it hasn’t been touched in a while and will be covered in dust and sometimes mold or mildew.  You will get dirty!
  14. For reasons listed in points 1 and 13, if you have allergies to dust mites or mold, wear a mask.  You can find these in a store’s medical supplies and/or hardware/tools departments.*
  15. If you want to ensure the dimensions are properly labeled, you can photograph an item with a ruler or yardstick.  Likewise, you can also include a card with information about an item in the photo (best for smaller items like medals, coins, bullets, or revolvers).

Do you have any other tips or tricks to share?  Did any of the trivia surprise you?

*  Masks found with medical supplies are usually located with the cold and allergy medication or the first aid supplies.  Those located in hardware/tool stores and departments are usually located near the painting supplies.


4 thoughts on “Musings on Museum Work

    • Glad you enjoyed the list! Thanks for commenting!

      And yes, those that work in museums (plus those in archives and libraries) are appreciated greatly for what they do to preserve and make assessable our history and heritage.

  1. Look for spider poop in corners and under furniture….it almost looks like specs of silver paint on hardwood floors.

    • Thanks for the tip sheafferhistorian!

      Adding to sheafferhistorian’s comment, if you see signs of spiders, keep in mind these may not be the only pests in the area. Most spiders eat insects, so the presence of spiders nearly ensures that others pests are there. The questions then become how many, what kind, and what damage have they or could they do. And you never want a pest infestation, especially in a library, archive, or museum as it can lead to material damage! Here’s a bit more information about pest infestations in collecting institutions from the Northeast Document Conservation Center:

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