// Did you ever wonder where museums keep the artifacts which aren’t on display? Or did you even realize that most museums can usually only exhibit a fraction of their collection? This is partly due to space constraints. Most museums simply don’t have the space to exhibit everything at once. However, it is also better for the artifacts not to be out on exhibit permanently. Even with good environmental controls and good housekeeping practices in the galleries, the artifacts on display are more likely to be exposed to dirt, dust, insects, and light, than those stored in the collection room.
A museum’s collection room is a place where the artifacts can be safely stored. Ideally, the room is secure, is temperature and humidity controlled, and is dark when no one is working in it. The light level is the biggest difference between the display cases and the collection room. Most people are aware that light degrades many materials over time. You can probably see the effects of light in your own home furnishings. Just take a look at any curtains, furniture, or photos which are often in direct sunlight. Unfortunately you can’t have much of an exhibit without light! However, you also don't want historic artifacts locked away so that no one can ever see or learn from them. Exhibiting artifacts is a sort of balancing act between preserving them and allowing access to them. Let’s take a quick peek inside the collection room of the NMCWM: Framed artwork, documents, and maps can be hung on the art rack. If you recall last week’s post, you may also notice an insect trap on the floor. Unframed or more fragile artwork, large documents, and photos can be stored flat in these shallow drawers. The bottom of each drawer is covered with a sheet of polyethylene foam (ethafoam) which serves both as cushioning and as a barrier between the item and the surface of the drawer. Medium-sized items can be stored on shelves in tall, upright cabinets. This is an ambulance water keg. Civil War ambulance wagons would have been outfitted with two of these when they were sent out onto the battlefields. Books are also stored on shelves in these cabinets. These books have each been fitted with acid-free cardboard covers for further protection against light, dust, and abrasion. Documents up to legal-size are kept in the same kind of cabinets. They are housed in archival folders inside these document boxes. Small and medium-sized items are kept in cabinet drawers. Here you see a collection of medicine bottles which were part of a Confederate drug kit. Notice that each bottle has its own padded compartment in the drawer, which prevents damage to them when the drawer is opened and closed. Large items can be stored on open shelves. This is a wooden medical chest which contained drugs and hospital supplies and was used by the U.S. Hospital Department during the Civil War. Very large items, like this Civil War dentist’s chair, must simply be stored on the floor of the collection room. This dentist’s chair has an adjustable headrest and seat, and it reclines. The octagonal wooden tray on the left arm held the dental instruments, and it can be swiveled to various positions. The metal ring attached to the right arm would have held a spittoon. Even then, dental patients had to rinse and spit! I hope you enjoyed your photo tour of the collection room. If you’re like me, you’ve spotted quite a few interesting artifacts along the way. That’s the best part of touring any collection room! We’ll have to come back another time for a closer look at some of them. Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. My entire blog can be viewed at www.guardianoftheartifacts.blogspot.com .