U.S. Museum Collections in Dire Condition

A new survey shows that museum collections are deteriorating. More than 3,000 institutions participated in the study by ranking their own preservation practices, and the results were alarming.

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Close to five billion irreplaceable rare books, photographs and paintings are entrusted to our nation's museums, libraries and other institutions. According to a new study, many of these institutions are ill-equipped to take care of them. Harriet Baskas has details.

HARRIET BASKAS reporting:

Seattle's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is Washington state's oldest museum. There are more than a million items in the archeology department alone. Curator Peter Lape is proud to say most of them are stored according to modern-day museum practices.

Mr. PETER LAPE (Curator, Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture): This is our dirty laundry. Probably less than 5 percent of our collections are still stored in this kind of what we would think of as embarrassingly bad storage conditions.

(Soundbite of drawer opening)

BASKAS: Lape pulls out a shelf strewn with bits and pieces of Native American basketry and netting, objects excavated in a cave along the Columbia River in the 1950s. They're stored in a shallow, yellow cardboard box, the kind that once held photographic paper.

Mr. LAPE: They're so cheap they're recycling boxes. They couldn't even go buy a new box. Some of these boxes are actually contaminated with chemicals from the photographic paper.

BASKAS: Other objects on this shelf are stored in glass jars that once held pickles, ranch dressing and Skippy peanut butter. Over the years, the Burke Museum has successfully raised money to correct most of these problems. Other museums, however, even some major institutions, haven't been able to do that, according to the survey conducted by Heritage Preservation, a Washington-based conservation advocacy group, and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Heritage Preservation sent out 14,000 surveys. To encourage honesty, confidentiality and, if requested, anonymity was guaranteed. Thirty-three hundred surveys were returned. From those, Heritage Preservation projected a national picture that the project's director, Kristen Overbeck Laise, calls alarming. For example, she says, many institutions simply don't have enough storage space, so irreplaceable objects have been damaged simply because they're jammed together.

Ms. KRISTEN OVERBECK LAISE (Heritage Preservation): To know that it's actively harming collections was an area for concern. Over 60 percent had some damage to collections because of poor storage.

BASKAS: This survey also determined that more than half the collections in this country have seen items damaged due to environmental hazards such as excessive moisture, fluctuating temperatures and too much light. These are touchy issues for many institutions.

On top of the 3,300 survey respondents, more than 500 institutions returned the surveys but did not allow their names to be listed in the report's appendix. But others are hoping exposure will help them attract potential donors. In fact, the survey determined that 77 percent of the nation's collecting institutions do not specifically budget funds for preservation. But survey director Kristen Overbeck Laise says conservation should be part of the daily routine.

Ms. LAISE: Some of these are not glamorous activities but they are basic and fundamental like brushing our teeth, like flossing. When those activities take place, collections last longer.

BASKAS: The health-care image rings true for the staff at MOHI, the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, one of the museums that completed the survey. Felix Banel is MOHI's deputy director.

Mr. FELIX BANEL (Deputy Director, Museum of History and Industry): I think our curatorial staff look at themselves as dentists, in a way, performing this kind of historical hygiene, filling cavities or doing bridgework or that sort of thing.

BASKAS: But that sort of care has a high cost. Seattle's Burke Museum, for example, recently spent $40,000 on conservation for an Egyptian mummy and its coffin. And MOHI's Felix Banel points out that it's always easier to raise funds for blockbuster traveling shows than for less sexy conservation projects.

Mr. BANEL: You know, those shows are here for two or three months at a time. Every day the museum's open, every day we're not open, our collection is here--a hundred thousand three-dimensional objects, more than two million photographs--and they need constant care and feeding. I mean, they need the heat and the light and the humidity control and they need storage space. So, no, it's not the easiest thing to raise money for, but it's a great thing to be able to explain to someone that when an artifact comes into our collection, we're going to take care of it forever.

BASKAS: Forever is a long time, and the survey by Heritage Preservation found that 80 percent of the country's collecting institutions do not have a plan to deal with an emergency like a fire or a flood. The advocacy group has put more than 800 million historical objects, natural science specimens, photographs and other artifacts on the injured list and scheduled a complete check-up for four years from now. For NPR News, I'm Harriet Baskas.

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