JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 7 (pp. to )
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 7 (pp. to )




Merging museum administration, municipal bureaucracy, insurance requirements, permanent staff, and task-oriented temporary personnel required administrative, management, or interpersonal skills from each individual involved in the project. The collection-wide mold outbreak was a stressful and traumatizing event. The mold response was a major project involving change and adaptation over a transition period for all personnel involved (Keene 1996). The mold response project evolved to include long-term stabilization of the collection and enhancement of its accessibility. Artifact housing and documentation were often changed. All personnel involved with the collection were impacted by the stress, change, and tension.

Management of an emergency response requires management skills, yet conservators are seldom trained in management or team-building skills. The conservation profession should address this requirement.


The importance of communication cannot be overemphasized. The museum administration, the City of Detroit, the Detroit Historical Society, the museum insurer, the museum staff, and the project staff had to share information. In such an urgent circumstance, focused or narrow interests have to be broadened to encompass the scope of an emergency response. Consistent effort is necessary to reduce confusion and uncertainty and to increase the understanding and the degree of support for the project (Marcil 1997). The challenge is to keep the end in mind, put first things first, seek to understand and to be understood, and renew mentally, spiritually, socially, emotionally, and physically (Marcil 1997). Such a project requires the will to go beyond an institutional or individual pathology.

Communication took the traditional form of phone calls, memorandums, notices, meetings, discussions, and individual conversations. These met with varying degrees of success. When vested interest could be put aside, a deeper, lasting communication did occur. It should be noted that communication was an ongoing issue with which the project struggled.

In a project such as this, it is helpful to have one person whose main focus is communication and publicity. These responsibilities include communication with the project crew, the museum staff and administration, the conservation profession, and the public. Communication involves photographic documentation of the project as well as written and verbal presentation. Communication and publicity would have been easier if the project had had one individual focused solely on these issues.


As in any urgent situation, the decision process was crucial. The hierarchy was established by the museum administration. Policy decisions were generated at the museum level, and an effort was made to eliminate confusion or conflicting positions. The project conservator worked with the museum administration, the curatorial staff, and the assistant project manager to understand the viewpoints of each and to facilitate decisions. The crew was sometimes resistant to rules and regulations. The administration sometimes questioned the crew's action or attitude. The management of decision making and the challenges of implementation were worked through by the museum administration and the project conservator and the assistant project manager.

Financial expenditure decisions were made at the project level, within the museum's and the insurer's mandate. The project was granted the autonomy to manage the quotidian decisions freely. Decisions relating to long-term preventive conservation, risk management concepts, and personnel issues were among the more complex issues to resolve to the satisfaction of the museum administration, the insurer, and the project personnel.

8.3 8.3 MORALE

The physical and psychological demands of the work were stressful. Each crew member responded as best he or she could. The work was solitary, as workstations were not close together, and each worker was wearing a respirator. Physical discomfort was created by respirator, coverall, gloves, and cap, the warm and highly illuminated workstation, and the vacuum cleaner noise. With this type of isolation, each worker existed in his or her own internal world.

The group had a type of intimacy created by shared work experience and shared stress, yet in many cases they did not know one another. Individually, each project crew member had great humor, talent, and sensitivity. There were, however, a number of incidents of anger, tension, discontent, and misunderstanding during the project. This type of circumstance should be expected and anticipated. An institution should consider appropriate human resources assistance for the conservator and/or the crew in an urgent response situation.


The museum administration established project crew hiring criteria and had access to each curriculum vitae submitted. The museum requested that the project reflect as closely as possible the hiring policies of the City of Detroit. Personnel interviewing and selection were carried out by the assistant project manager and the project conservator. The museum administration retained the right to veto a hire decision made at the project level. The pay scale for the project crew was established at three times the minimum wage. This pay scale contributed to limited crew turnover during the 19-month project.

Personnel policy and authority remained at the museum level. Assessment of work habits, attitude, and intraproject communication was the responsibility of the assistant project manager and the project conservator. A designated personnel resource would have been helpful. As it was, museum administrative staff and crew managers had to handle difficult personnel issues, in addition to their other duties.


On the average, an artifact could be handled in one-half hour. It was computed that a crew member worked five hours each day on cleaning artifacts. The remainder of an eight-hour day was spent in artifact housing, work site maintenance, documentation procedures, general clerical work, and break time. Each crew member could process about 200 artifacts a month.

Quality control was managed by the project assistant manager and the project conservator. It was accomplished through consultation among the assistant manager, the conservator, and the crew member, frequent visitation at each workstation, and examination of artifacts by the conservator after cleaning and rehousing. Some work had to be redone or additional work done. The basic standards of examination and cleaning were usually met, but individual judgments involving rehousing or documentation occasionally required reconsideration. If an artifact had been rehoused so as to cause stress on the artifact or render it inaccessible, the work had to be redone. If the documentation was unclear or incomplete, that work had to be corrected.


The social history curator and museum registrar continued to have museum exhibition responsibilities throughout the duration of the mold response project. The project was set up to accommodate special preparation of materials to leave the storage area for exhibition. It could not accommodate reentry of any materials into the storage area until the completion of the project.


It was some months into the project before the requisite insurer record procedures were clear. The insurer required detailed records of partial and total loss of artifacts and of storage collection care materials. A conservator should be in contact with the adjuster as soon as the institution is willing to arrange it. The conservator will need to track damaged collection materials as well as damaged artifacts. Each insurer has specific procedures and requirements that should be made known to the conservator.

The registrar and the project assistant manager researched records of collection care materials purchased prior to the mold outbreak. This task was essential to the accurate computation of storage materials loss. Artifacts were flagged if they evidenced potentially irreversible mechanical or chemical change due to the mold or the high relative humidity. These artifacts were examined by the project conservator to verify damage. Less than 0.4% of the collection was identified as partial loss. There was no total loss directly related to the mold outbreak incident, with the possible exception of the deteriorated cellulose nitrate materials, as the high relative humidity in the storage area likely accelerated an hydrolysis reaction in them.

Condition reports were made for all artifacts considered to have suffered partial loss. Treatment proposals will be completed for any artifacts the museum and the insurer agree to have treated. In the final settlement, capital equipment is usually discounted to the institution if it can be used, such as vacuum cleaners and dehumidifiers. The insurer reclaims what cannot be used by the institution.

Throughout this project, the insurer was helpful, cooperative, and supportive of the goals for stabilizing the collection and restoring accessibility.


Assuming responsibility for the project 60 days after the discovery of the mold and 30 days after the initial mold response, the project conservator was unable to participate in project crew selection until the final third of the project, when replacement hiring was necessary. A project crew personality and a project profile had developed during those early days. It took some time to build mutual trust and confidence and to build consensus among all participants in the mold response.

The project conservator was not involved in the first-response decision process developing initial project policies and procedures or in the selecting of equipment. It should be remembered that coming into an established project will require transition time and energy.