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Thursday 10 April 2014

Museum secrets: the dreaded first time...

If you ever really want to get a conversation started with a museum person, just ask them about their first time. No not that sort of first time! We mean, the first time they ever (drum roll please) broke a museum object. The shock! THE HORROR! We hate to break it to you, but you already know that the Ministry likes to shake up your preconceptions of museum work. And yes, every museum professional will have their own story of the dreaded first time they dropped, broke or otherwise damaged an object. If they are lucky its the only time. But before you go trying to fire us all, let us tell you why the broken museum object is a cross we all must bear. 

Museum people are not infallible. I know I know, it is hard to hear. Surely all collections staff are saints with superhuman knowledge of their collections combined with the god-like ability to move objects by hovering them in clouds? No, afraid not. We are just normal folks who get objects down with ladders and move them on trolleys (albeit very carefully). But there’s no amount of object handling training that can change the fact that accidents do happen. 

Once, frantically looking for an object, I came across a note in the files that read a little something like this: December 1977- Today I dropped and broke this object in the store. I discarded the broken pieces as it was too shattered to repair. - the Curator. This guilt-wracked curator was so ashamed of what they had done they could only bring themselves to put a post-it on the file rather than tell anyone. The location on the museum database read: unknown. 

Let’s get one thing straight: museum people love their objects. Some people express this love through delicate and considered handling. That means gloves, object movement plans, and careful risk assessments. This isn’t to say that some overly enthusiastic people don’t just grab things off shelves and walk around with them. Curators have the reputation of carrying around objects in their pockets, or rediscovering accessioned objects in their desk drawers. This isn’t always fair...but it isn’t untrue either. In their own way, every museum professional is doing their best to look after their collections, however there are some things that can make this an unrealistic dream.

Probably a more common experience of adhesive failure. 
Adhesive failure is the one that immediately springs to mind. Oh the dreaded adhesive failure. It may sound like a very dramatic technical term but all we really mean when we say this is - this thing was once glued together, and now its not. Whatever was sticking this bit into place has dried up, and well, you can imagine the results. There is no way to know when adhesive failure will strike. You could be doing everything right- wearing gloves, handling an object from the base, working in teams for the movement, planning your route, limiting vibrations, and yet that one little fiddly bit is sure to fall off. 

This damage was done by time, not clumsy staff. 
Other causes of museum object breakages might be a bouncy old metal trolley (every store room has one), a weakness in the object you just didn’t notice, something shifting in transport, or maybe you are just having a bad day and weren’t paying quite enough attention. We’ve all done it. And if you ask a museum person, they will almost certainly recount their tale of woe with heaps of regret and self doubt. 

And then sometimes visitors just go breaking things anyway. Like famously at the Fitzwilliam in 2006.  

But we must join together to support each other through the trauma of adhesive failure and transport accidents. It’s ok that you broke that object that one time. We’ve all done it. Now someone quickly go fetch the conservator!!! 


  1. (Touch wood) I haven't broken an object.

    I may have chipped a display case with an out-of-control filing cabinet...


  2. It's a bit of a relief to read this, a scant two months after breaking my first object. A (precariously balanced on a cardboard box) replica of a roman bust that may have met it's end thanks to my clumsy-with-a-bad-cold self. About the only thing that saved me was the visiting lecturer who sighed, propped it back together, and then looked at me and said "They're going to blame me, you know."

  3. I was part of the double act that, despite carefully packing a trolley of wet specimens (and have two people transport it! Two!), managed to knock over a plastic case of pig valves, mounted in god-knows-what liquid. Not only did the decrepit plastic case split apart at its seams, but it did so just inside the door of a lift, pouring this anonymous liquid down 3 floors of lift shaft.

    MAN, that was a good day.