Thursday, April 11, 2013

Keeping Track of an Artifact’s Condition


     This week saw the return of some artifacts which had been out on loan to the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore.  They were on display there as part of their exhibit, The War Came by Train.  The items on display in this exhibit are changed each year, so it is still open.  You can see some more information about it here.
     You might think that getting an artifact back would simply involve putting it back in its designated storage area, but it is a little more involved than that!  There are loan papers which have to be signed by both institutions of course, and the artifact needs to be inspected to ensure that it has not been damaged.  To aid with this, a document called a condition report is completed for each artifact that goes out on loan.  The condition report includes a written description as well as photographs of the artifact to document the artifact’s condition.  The artifact’s overall condition is assessed, and any damaged areas are noted.  When the artifact is returned, a new condition report is completed to assure that it is in the same condition as when it was loaned.



This surgical kit is one artifact which was just returned to my museum.  The overall condition of this kit was assessed as Very Good. 



      In the physical description on the condition report it is noted that the manufacturer is Young & Co. and that the kit was made around 1850.  The case is made of varnished rosewood and has an inset brass cartouche on the lid, and a lock on the front of the case.  The kit includes ten surgical instruments and a metal, clover-topped key.  The kit interior is lined with dark purple velvet, and is custom fitted for the medical instruments, with a small lidded compartment for needles.  It was also important for me to note that though the amputation saw is of the same era as the rest of the instruments, it is not original to the kit.  The kit’s exterior measurements of 17" long, 5 1/2" wide, and 3" deep are included, as well as the types of materials which make up the kit (wood, metal, and cloth).  This helps the borrower plan for the correct exhibit conditions and mounts for the artifact.
 
 
 
A photograph of the kit’s interior is added to the report as well. 
 

 
     Another important section of the condition report documents any damage, markings, or fragile areas on the artifact.  For this kit, there were some scratches and cracks in the wood which I needed to measure and report.  I also noted that the velvet lining the interior was faded and starting to fray just a bit at the edges.
 
 
This crack on the bottom of the case was pretty obvious.  I added the scale to document the size of the crack.  I need to know if the crack starts expanding!
 
 
 
It’s also important to document things like this gap between the lid and base of the case.  
 
 
 
     If you are thinking like a collection manager or curator, you may be wondering why I only mentioned the number of surgical instruments in this kit, but didn’t mention anything about their condition.  This is because each instrument gets its own condition report.  That makes a total of eleven condition reports I have to do just for this one surgical kit!  Though it's a little tedious and time-consuming, this is the best way to ensure that each instrument is properly documented.
 
 
You can be sure that I will mention the chip in the wood on this amputation saw handle in its condition report!
 

 
   Once the condition reports have been completed, the artifacts must remain in the quarantine area for 30 days before they can be returned to their storage places in the collection room.  During this time, I have to monitor them for any insect infestations, mold or mildew growth.  Artifacts are quarantined any time they have been out on display – even when they are displayed here at the NMCWM.  Even if the likelihood of them being infested is very low, it is still worth it to ensure that nothing is brought into the collection room to infest the rest of the collection.

     Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some condition reports to finish! 

 
Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

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