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Beloit College

Ethnology Collections: Phase III (August 2006-December 2008)

Rehousing of the ethnology collections kicked off in September 2007 with a workshop on mount making presented by objects conservator Helen Alten. The workshop introduced students to the archival materials to be used during rehousing and basic mount making techniques. Each of the 14 participants created a box with an inner shelf to be used later for rehousing.

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Helen Alten (left) with workshop participants. (Right) Student participants making boxes during the mount making workshop.
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Anna Berg rehousing North American material, September 2007

The organization of ethnographic objects in the new storage cabinets was based first on provenience and secondly on cultural affiliation. Anna Berg, Ethnology Move Coordinator, began by transporting North American material from the temporary storage gallery to the collection lab for unpacking. The move database made it easy to identify which boxes contained North American material. Objects were carefully unpacked, checked against the box inventory, and set aside for mount making as needed. Once ready for placement in the new storage cabinets, objects were transported to ethnology storage by cart. New storage locations were recorded on the box inventory forms and input daily into the move database and collections database. Cabinet allocations for each continent were determined before the project began. We are adhering to this plan (see image) with minor adjustments. As of February 2008, ethnographic material from North America, Oceania, Central America, and South America has been rehoused.

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Ethnology storage rehousing floor plan

 It quickly became apparent that we needed to make better use of the two open shelves present in most of the cabinets if we were going to adhere to the floor plan. Additional shelves would have been ideal but were not in the budget. Anna Berg and Nicolette Meister designed an inexpensive archival shelving alternative which made use of 1” conduit pipe and ethafoam plank. Blocks of ethafoam plank were firmly wedged in the side channels of the cabinets and fitted with slots to accommodate the conduit, which was cut with a pipe cutter to the internal width of the cabinets. Sheets of double corrugated blue board were placed on the conduit pipe to serve as sliding shelves to accommodate textiles or three-dimensional artifacts.

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Cabinet fitted with conduit pipes and ethafoam
plank for additional shelving.
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Conduit with blue board shelving.

Mount Making

Standardized rehousing and mount making methods were established to expedite rehousing and ensure effective use of space on new shelves and drawers. There were occasions when an intricate, time-consuming mount was necessary, but in general, most items were well supported using one of the techniques listed below: 

Enclosures (box/tray): Boxes and trays were used to house small, fragile objects or objects that might roll when drawers were opened. A combination of commercially purchased metal edge archival specimen trays and boxes made in-house were used. Boxes were made of blueboard and coroplast and fastened with hot glue melt, twill tape, and bobby pins. A variety of specialty boxes, many with lids, were created in-house to accommodate oversized objects or standing figures with fragile appendages.

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Ecuadorian ethnographic material in archival trays purchased (left)
and constructed in-house (right).
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Customized boxes and mounts on open shelving.

Cavity mounts: This type of mount provides support for fragile items vulnerable to abrasion and overcrowding. A cavity is either cut from ethafoam plank or created using polyethylene backer or tri-rod. Cavity mounts for small objects were often fitted into boxes to make more efficient use of open shelving.

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Mexican religious figures in recessed mounts inside a custom box.

Internal mounts: Internal mounts consist of soft or rigid padded forms and hangers used to support pliable artifacts that may deform under their own weight. Soft internal supports were constructed of cotton stockinette stuffed with polyester batting. Rigid internal supports were carved from ethafoam plank, padded with polyester batting, and covered with Tyvek to prevent abrasions. Padded hangers were utilized when flat storage was not possible.

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Bandolier bags with cotton stockinette snakes padding folds.

Flat mounts and tie-down mounts: Simple flat mounts provide rigid support for small textiles or garments. The use of tie-downs or restraints on flat boards prevents objects from moving on flat mounts or in trays. Cotton twill ties stabilize flat, complex objects and small pieces of tri or backer rod were used to prevent movement.

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Examples of tie-down and flat mounts. Shot carriers from the Philippines (left), Peruvian headdress (right).

Rolled mounts: Textiles too large for storage in flat drawers were rolled on powdercoated steel enamel conduit pipe and stored in open textile cabinets. Rolled textiles were wrapped in 4 mil Melinex to facilitate visual accessibility and protect fringe. Rolls were tied with 1” twill tape.

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Rolled textiles in open textile cabinets.

Digitization

To prevent unnecessary handling, we planned to photo-document all ethnographic objects before they were rehoused. Unfortunately, this goal became unrealistic if the project was to remain on schedule. The digitization component was modified to digitization of key ethnographic collections--collections used most frequently for research purposes--and photo-documentation of all textiles rehoused in layers in drawers and boxes using a digital SLR camera. High-quality master images of key ethnographic collections were stored in RAW (digital negative) and uncompressed TIFF formats (300dpi). JPEG derivative image files (72dpi) were created as access images for general research, collections management, and web use. All image files were stored on dedicated 500GB external hard drives. As of December 2007, 346 images have been processed using Adobe Photoshop Elements.

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Huipils from Oaxaca, Mexico. Frances Bristol Collection.

Textiles stacked in drawers were photo-documented prior to rehousing to prevent unnecessary handling and facilitate visual accessibility. Images were captured in JPEG format and thumbnail print-outs reflecting the contents of each drawer or box were placed in polyethylene sleeves and housed in the corresponding drawer or box. The images enable users to see the contents of a drawer or box without "thumbing through" layers of textiles. As of February 2008, over 592 such images have been captured, processed using Adobe Photoshop Elements, and printed.

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Thumbnail images accompany textiles in drawers.