Preserving everything from crucibles to crazy quilts

City museum shares secrets of preserved items to visitors

Posted: Sunday, November 05, 2000

Documenting and preserving the past were the main topics Saturday afternoon during free tours at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.

Participants were able to enter the museum's inner sanctum, the Collection Room, where objects from three-foot-tall clay crucibles used to melt gold to coal-fired parlor stoves and duck decoys are safely stored.

Curator Mary Pat Wyatt led the way downstairs to the 700-square-foot room. But first she showed visitors the area in which each newly acquired item receives a number and description. This is called the "accession" process.

With the help of collections volunteers like Toni Brock, each new item is stabilized, cleaned if practical, and entered into a database. Wyatt turned back tissue on a crazy quilt Brock was stabilizing by stitching loose patches into place.

The museum accessions from 100 to 250 new pieces each year. Some potential donations are turned down because they do not fit the museum's mission.

"The museum collects and displays only objects made or used in the greater Juneau-Douglas area," Wyatt explained, "so we had to turn down a beautiful painting of Mount McKinley the other day. But the state museum was delighted to have it."

The city museum already has two pipe organs, one from a church and one from a private home. So Wyatt also turns down organs. Because the entire three-level building is only 6,000 square feet "we have to be really picky on quantities and duplicates," she said.

A compacting storage system which rides on rails makes the best use of the collections room. Sectioned storage shelves can be maneuvered left or right to open an aisle, meaning all can be accessed without leaving spaces for multiple aisles.

Here the museum keeps furniture, potato mashers, a length of wooden water pipe, a map of Juneau's city limits in 1940, boxes of City and Borough correspondence, portrait studies of pioneers, and objects such as pilot Shel Simmons' folding rifle and plane survival kit.

Wyatt opened a box to display a collection of valentines, Christmas cards and Douglas Fire Department memorabilia as well as a World War II travel permit. To help make sense of donations containing dozens of items, Wyatt said she is "promoting that people write down about each thing, and put the paper in a box with it."

This year, a $10,100 grant will allow the museum to buy a scanner and digital camera to assist cataloging. The ethnographic and fine arts collections will be among the first photographed. Eventually, when all 6,000 items have been recorded, "we will be able to photograph as each object comes in," Wyatt said.

Following the tour, the museum's new conservator, Scott Carroll, answered questions about taking care of personal collections.

Unfurling an embroidered dresser scarf handed down from her grandmother, Jeanie Henry asked Carroll what to do about "these brown spots that just appear on fabric."

Because the mysterious spots were only on the outside folds of the scarf, Carroll thought they might have come from varnish in a drawer. They also could be iron deposits from laundering in hard water, he said.

"Your best hope is to wash it in distilled water," Carroll said. "Heat the water on the stove and then soak the fabric. Water in itself is a very hungry molecule and those spots may disappear."

Once the textile was clean and dry, it could be stored safely in a zipper-top plastic bag, he said. "I have seen materials stored in plastic for 30 years and it's fine, as long as the bag is sealed and no moisture gets in."

Collectibles made of glass or ceramic are naturally quite stable unless dropped. But paper, photographs, textiles, paint and wood can be destroyed by strong light, high temperatures, dampness, acids and mold.

Carroll said a Henry Ford Museum Web site,,has more information.

about caring for artifacts and heirlooms.

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