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What Is A Conservation Assessment?
Copyright 1994 by Marc A. Williams


A conservation assessment, also called a general conservation survey or collections assessment, is a brief, relatively shallow examination of virtually all areas affecting collections preservation. The assessment report is generally narrative and concludes with prioritized overall collections care needs. The general goals of an assessment are:

*Prioritize overall collections care goals

*Assist in the development of a long-range preservation plan

*Identification of simple, immediate steps to reduce collections deterioration

*Integration of the needs of the collection with the needs of the historic structure

*Identification of objects that need immediate stabilization treatment

*Education of staff in storage needs, routine maintenance, environmental monitoring and control, etc.

*To allow funding of preservation, including grant applications from sources such as the Institute for Museum and Library Services

The actual aspects of the institution that will be examined are wide and varied. Different assessors will have their own personal organizational approach. However, common report contents include:

*General introduction - who, when, what staff was involved
*Mission of institution
*Staffing issues - additional needs, abilities, cooperative spirit, organization of responsibilities, board support
*Policies and procedures
*Routine collections maintenance - dusting, cleaning, vacuuming
*Cyclical collections maintenance - thorough cleaning, coatings program, rotating objects
*Environmental control - settings, maintenance
*Collections management - loan procedures, accessioning procedures, pest inspection
*History of architectural changes
*Inventorying/accessioning/deaccessioning
*Previous assessments or surveys
*Use of objects
*Environmental conditions monitoring - possibly most important tool for collections preservation
*T and RH control - low-tech solutions often best for historic buildings
*Light measurement and control - eliminate UV, reduce intensity, shorten length of exposure
*Routine care and maintenance
*Security and fire detection and suppression systems
*HVAC systems - temperature, RH, dust
*Integrated pest management
*Exhibition conditions
*Storage - environment, shelving, boxes, organization, supplies
*Disaster planning
*Fund raising, particularly IMLS grants
*Objects requiring immediate stabilization
*Specific room observations for each room of the building
*Bibliography on collections care
*Prioritized list of collections care actions

Many of the prioritized needs identified in an assessment are actually quite simple and inexpensive. A significant amount of deterioration can be eliminated by these rudimentary procedures. The following prioritized actions are from an actual collections assessment of an historic house.

Seek immediate treatment of all objects identified as in urgent need.
1) Close shades, shutters and curtains when not open to the public to reduce light levels.  This includes mornings and evenings.
2) Hire an administrative assistant for the executive director
3) Begin a program of monitoring the T and RH.
4) Write down dusting and routine maintenance procedures.
5) Write down cyclical maintenance procedures.
6) Write down heating system settings, operation and maintenance procedures.
7) Investigate avenues of fund raising.
8) Lower winter temperatures in storage and exhibition areas.
9) Continue the accessioning/deaccessioning process.
10) Perform item-by-item surveys of collections items.
11) Remove sensitive items from wooden storage cabinets.
12) Continue the conversion of the second floor rooms to storage areas.
13) Further study solutions to stabilization of RH and T using monitoring data from 3).
14) Continue to follow recommendations in the previous paper and textile surveys.
15) Implement a removable coatings program for metal objects.
16) Formulate an integrated pest management program.
17) Develop a disaster plan
18) Begin treatment of collections to place them in a stable baseline condition.

Assessments generally are conducted by conservators. Several approaches can be taken. A single collections assessor can look at all collections needs. This is practical only for smaller collections, such as historic houses. More commonly a collections assessor works in tandem with an architectural assessor, who does a similar examination for the needs of the historic structure. These two consultants must work synergistically, as often buildings and collections have conflicting needs.

The final option is to assemble a team of several collections and architectural assessors. It can include several collections-specific assessors, an environmental engineer, architectural assessor, and a pest specialist.  Most commonly, this approach is taken by larger museums. If a team of assessors is assembled, one must have oversight responsibility for coordinating all of the reports.

By utilizing a conservation assessment, a museum can identify their most pressing needs and design a reasonable plan of meeting them. The methods and pace of meeting these needs can be carefully tailored to each museum's specific circumstances.  This first step in planned collections care is a necessity for guaranteeing that our descendents will be able to enjoy their cultural heritage.


Funding Conservation Assessments

Conservation assessments can be funded by a variety of means, including payment of associated fees directly from the museum's budget. However, the Institute of Museum Library Services offers two programs that provide funding, the Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) and the Conservation Project Support Grant (IMLS-CP). CAP is specifically designed for smaller museums, while funding an assessment with the IMLS-CP is appropriate for larger institutions and will not be discussed in this article.

The IMLS is a government agency designed to supply financial assistance to museums, historic houses, historical societies and other similar institutions. The money is from your tax dollars, and you have a right to get some of it back. IMLS wants to give away money and, currently, is begging for applications. If they can not give away all of their allocation, Congress will take it away. IMLS staff does not have technical knowledge or experience about conservation, collections care, historic structures or related fields. Their only job is to facilitate the distribution of money.

The CAP program will provide a maximum of $6510 to pay for the costs of an assessment, provided you have an historic building. It is designed to include both a collections assessor and an architectural assessor who each spend two days on-site and three days writing their reports. If your building is not historic, a maximum of $3660 will pay for a collections assessor only. Relevant travel costs are covered as well.

The news about the CAP program gets even better. The funding does not require a match and is non-competitive, first-come, first-served. Where else can you get free money from the government? However, your institution must meet several requirements. It must:

*Be a permanent nonprofit institution
*Care for, own or use tangible objects
*Have at least one professional staff member (paid or volunteer) or the
equivalent in part-time staff
*Be open to the public 120 days a year
*Be located in the fifty states of the union

Most institutions easily meet these requirements. However, at first glance, several may seem difficult for smaller museums. Fortunately, solutions can be found in the way the requirements are interpreted. Most museums are nonprofits and have collections, so the first two requirements should not pose a problem.  Note that you do not have to own the collections, but simply use or care for them. 

Having one paid professional staff person can be a stumbling block for smaller institutions. However, IMLS allows you to add up all of the time of the volunteers or part-time staff. If this equals the equivalent of one full-time person, you qualify.

The other requirement that can cause some difficulty is that the museum be open at least 120 days a year. Many smaller sites are only open from May through September for one or two days a week. However, if you are open the other days by appointment, this requirement can be met. Placing a small note on the museum door with the phone number to call for an appointment is an easy solution. On the application for CAP, you certify that you meet these qualifications. IMLS does not visit your site to verify compliance. Believe it or not, they really do want to give you the money!

CAP applications generally are mailed out in October or November. You must call Heritage Preservation, who administers the CAP program for IMLS, prior to mailing to be placed on their list. This is critical, as the available funds are expended rather fast on a first-come, first-served basis. It is recommended to guarantee success that you fill out the application and return it the same day you receive it. If you wait, your money may go to someone else.

To prepare yourself, request last year's application. Fill this out in advance as an exercise to prepare you for the new application. Generally, applications do not vary much from one year to another, and you can use most of the responses from the previous year's application.

Nearly all of the information on the application is check-box or fill-in-the-blank.  However, it must be signed by the museum's Director or an Officer of the Board, if there is no Director. Be sure these persons will be available when the application arrives.

Once you receive a CAP grant, you may choose you own consultant conservators.  They may be local or from the other side of the country. Generally, it is recommended that you choose someone who has had adequate experience with CAP and with conservation assessments. Also, if your collection has a strong bias in one type of collection material, such as furniture, an assessor with this type of specialization is suggested, although not required.

Securing a CAP grant is really quite simple if you are prepared in advance. Both IMLS and Heritage Preservation are located in Washington, DC. Their phone numbers are: IMLS - 202-606-8539; Heritage Preservation - 202-625-1495.  

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