Sunday, May 29, 2011

Shh... the artifacts are resting... and five other tips about museums

Apart from being a history blogger, I am currently a tour guide and museum educator in two history museums.  Today at Cambridge Considered, I want to share some of my museum knowledge that I thought readers of history might find interesting. As always, if you have any questions, please ask in the comments! I'd be happy to add to the list if there's something you are wondering about.

  1. Shh... the artifacts are resting. Materials become fragile over the years – for example, paints fade and fibers weaken with prolonged exposure to light. Museum galleries are designed to be gentle on the artifacts. They are not too hot or moist, and the lighting is not too harsh. Still, they are far from perfect, so from time to time, most museum artifacts are “rested”: they are placed in storage, where it is dark and the climate can be kept consistent. In many museums, this is done when an exhibit is changed, so the resting artifacts are replaced in the galleries by completely different items. In some, artifacts are replaced by replicas during the slow season of museum attendance, and the originals are brought out during the tourist season.

  2. Wondering if something you see in a museum is the real thing? Check out the fine print on the label. If somewhere in the description of the item, it says "replica," "reproduction," or "facsimile," it's just that -- a replica. If it doesn't have any of those words (or another synonym for copy), it's the real McCoy.

  3. In almost all museums, an item's label will state who it belongs to. If it is owned by the museum, the label might also say how it arrived there -- for example, "gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donor" (which often means the object itself was a gift). Museums lend each other items on a regular basis, and the label of anything that is not owned by the museum will say where the item is on loan from.

  4. Two other pieces of information on almost every museum label are:
    • a list of the materials used in making the item

    • the item's accession number. The accession number is the number that identifies the item in the museum's records. Systems for assigning numbers vary, but one common practice is to assign a number that includes the year the item was accessioned (added to the museum's collection), followed by a period, followed by a sequential number reflecting how many objects had been accessioned so far that year. For example, if you started a museum today with three artifacts, they would be called 2011.1, 2011.2, and 2011.3. Other sets of numbers in an accession number might indicate that the item is part of a collection within the museum or a specific set of items. If your third artifact was a set of nesting dolls, they might be called 2011.3.1, 2011.3.2, and so on.
  5. Some people wonder whether to tip the tour guide or docent. The answer varies. In some parts of the world, tipping your tour guide is expected; I know this includes many European countries. In the US, however, tipping the museum staff is not expected or required. It isn't common to tip, but also not unheard of, and the tour guide will certainly appreciate it if you choose to do so. Some museums ask their employees not to accept tips, and to direct willing givers to the donation box instead. 

  6. Museum field trips and group visits may not be what you remember from childhood. The field of museum education is ever advancing. There's a growing trend in museums of providing diverse programs for different ages, and many are tailored to specific points in the state school curriculum. If you're a teacher, camp counselor, or any other kind of group leader, it's worth checking out the websites of museums in your area. Group rates are often very good, and some visits can be subsidized by grant funding. Even if your group doesn't want a program, most museums prefer or require that you make a reservation for your group.


  1. Thank you for posting about your blog on the museumpeople community on LJ. What a nice post! I imagine a lot of people find gallery labels confusing and opaque - here's a nice start towards helping them understand them a little more; in any case, I personally am fascinated by the intricacies of the logistics of museum work - what accession numbers mean, the stories and anecdotes (if interesting) behind who the donors were or how certain objects came to belong to the museum, the basics of conservation...


    Your blog overall looks quite interesting too. Ever since I worked at the Museum of Science & MFA for a short while a few years ago, I've developed a great interest in learning more about many of the prominent figures in Boston's history, especially around the late 19th to early 20th century - figures such as John LaFarge, Isabella Gardner, Ernest Fenollosa and Okakura Kakuzo, John Singer Sargent, etc. ... And, of course, the prominent families of colonial Boston would be quite interesting too. Plus, I've always been curious about Tory Row (near Brattle St or Mt Auburn, just west of Harvard Sq) - why is it called that, and what interesting things might we learn about famous people who once lived there?

    I don't know how much any of this Bostonian stuff might figure into your Cambridge blog, since Mrs Gardner's house at Fenway Court, the MFA, LaFarge's Trinity Church paintings, are all located in Boston proper. But, I look forward to future posts!

    I don't know how much any of

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, chaari, and thanks for letting me know that you found it on the museumpeople community. I'm also fascinated by museums -- in fact, I plan to make a career of my fascination!

    I talk a little bit about Tory Row in this post:
    Essentially, it was called Tory Row because a number of wealthy Anglican immigrants from England settled there, and they were Loyalists, meaning they supported the English during the American Revolution. The nickname for Loyalists was "tories." In the Cambridge area, I've seen both a bar and a real estate agency using the name Tory Row... I wonder what the thinking was behind using the names?
    I do have plans to do a few biographical posts eventually. Harvard professor Louis Agassiz and poet e.e. cummings are two that come to mind.