Friday, March 14, 2008

Behind the Museum

This year, 32 million people will come and gawk at the neoclassical grandeur of Union Station on Washington, D.C.'s Massachusetts Avenue, en route, perhaps, to one of the city's no-charge museums. Virtually none of them will spot, across the street, an aluminum door emblazoned with the many-pointed star of the Smithsonian Institution.

This morning I hesitated in front of the door, half certain I was lost. But the door did say, "Employee Entrance," like Becca Johnson, a museum technician at the National Postal Museum, had promised. I tried the handle. It was locked. I pushed the black button on an intercom, and after a delay, a deep voice said something unintelligible and vaguely menacing. The door sprang open, and I slipped inside.

I gave Becca's name to the guard in the reception area. I was there to learn about her unique job behind the scenes of one of America's premier museums. The guard, however, had never heard of Becca Johnson. She wasn't on his list. I gave him her business card, and he placed a call to the Preservation Department. She emerged momentarily from a corridor in jeans, sneakers, and a headband aimed at taming her unruly hair.

"Things just aren't going well this morning," she said by way of greeting, then turned to the guard to persuade him not to take away my driver's license.

"We're going off-site in a few minutes, anyway," she cajoled.
The guard was a determined but flexible bureaucrat. If we were going off-site, he persisted, then Becca should have a property pass. Becca explained that she didn't need one for the particular operations we would be undertaking, and we hurried past the counter while he was still in some perplexity.

She led the way down a long, twisting passage.

"We definitely don't need a property pass," she threw over her shoulder.

"What's a property pass?" I asked.
Becca did not answer. Instead, she introduced me to Jerome, a clean-shaven man about thirty. All day long, I learned no last names. He was just Jerome.

Becca pulled me and Jerome back into her office. She sat me down at her desk, and then she pointed to a big, boxy, gleaming black thing with innumerable knobs and wires protruding from it.

"Can you help me move this welder?" she asked Jerome.

He lifted a corner of it off the counter.
"Oh, that's got some weight to it," he admitted.

"Don't hurt yourself."

"No, I ain't going to hurt myself."

Becca had plans for me, too.

"Can I put you to work?" she said, and as soon as I could be on my feet, she was halfway to the door. On our way out, she introduced me to Helen, the Postal Museum's paper conservator. She led me down several more hallways. While we walked, she explained the difference between preservation (what she did) and conservation (what Helen did), a point she was keen to press home.

Preservationists prevent damage and deterioration to the objects in a museum's collection, while conservationists try to undo the effects of time and accident. Since I was going to see Becca in action later in the day, I asked what sort of things Helen would work on. She gave Rembrandts as an example. Rembrandt's works are all on paper, she said, and prone to tear. A conservationist would fix that. Or, if Helen had to clean one, she'd put it on a grid, and suck the dirt out with a HEPA filtered vacuum so she wouldn't even have to touch it. Becca smiled at this brilliant blow to entropy.

By now we had arrived at a small storage room loaded with cardboard boxes . They held the pieces of a disassembled photo table, the welder, and a portable, high-pressure hose. We took it all to the loading dock, where we were met by Dan.
Dan was one of two exhibit designers at the National Postal Museum. Becca explained that he determined things like the mounting of objects in an exhibit, the design of signs, and then paused as if she were forgetting something. Them she remembered.

"He changes light bulbs, too" she amended.
This morning, though, Dan was going to haul the equipment and us to the off-site facility in his truck. All of the museums under the Smithsonian umbrella have access to the organization's vehicles, but the Postal Museum, the smallest of them all, has to go across town and borrow one from the National Zoo. They prefer to use Dan's truck.

Dan and Becca loaded up and headed northeast along city streets until we wound up near the D.C. – Maryland border. On the way, the museum employees got into a discussion of museum ethics that had me interrupting frequently for the definition of some jargon. Any item purchased by or donated to a museum, I learned, is called an acquisition, but anything that a museum puts on display has to be "accessioned," or made an official part of the museum's collection. Once accession has taken place, the museum is obligated to take care of an object in the same way regardless of its relative historical value. A plastic office chair from 1975 has the same priority, in theory, as the granite sculpture carved millennia ago.

An object can also be de-accessed, removing the museum's obligation of stewardship, but it's a difficult and touchy process. Accession is like adopting an object, but de-accession is like disowning it. Too-frequent de-accession can undermine the public's trust in a museum. Policies toward accession and de-accession vary between institutions, both Becca was clear as day on one point: "If you can't safely take care of an object, you shouldn't take it in the first place."

Becca has always had a great respect for old things. As a child, she relished organizing her parents' photograph collection. In college, she double-majored in history and classical studies. When she didn't get into the grad school of her choice, a friend recommended that she volunteer for a museum to keep up her historical interests. Becca volunteered at a facility near her home in Central Florida. She soon took on the catastrophe that was the museum's basement – a mass of objects thrown together in no particular order and with little regard to their preservation. After that experience, Becca went on to get her master's in Museum Studies from George Washington University. Since that time, she's worked in the coin department of the British Museum in London, as well as for the museum of the National Law Enforcement Agency. Becca is only twenty-five years old. All of these stints were short, but preservationists are rarely kept on staff. Instead, they sign on with a museum for a particular project. Wherever she's working, though, Becca finds the same pleasure in tedium that she found in the museum basement in Florida. "I like making order from chaos," she said.

Dan parked the truck. We had arrived at a massive distribution facility run by the U.S. Post Office. Becca found a flatbed cart and loaded her equipment on top. Pushing it up a ramp into the warehouse, she told me to expect her supervisor, Linda, later in the day.

"I'm always supposed to have someone with me, in case I drop a crate on myself. Though I guess they would find me eventually," she mused.

"How much does a crate weigh?" I asked.

She laughed. "Quite a bit."

At the end of a corridor, she pushed the button for the elevator. Once the elevator doors slid shut behind us, she explained why her work was going on in a postal facility. The warehouse where we were then standing used to be called the Brentwood Facility. In 2004, two postal employees were killed by anthrax being dispersed in the mail they had sorted. Now, it was called the Cursee-Morris facility, after those who had died. The anthrax episode also motivated the Post Office to make its sorting process almost entirely electronic. As a result, it laid off over half its Brentwood work force. Some of the locker rooms that used to serve postal employees were renovated and turned over to the Postal Museum for its own purposes.

The elevator opened. Pushing the flatbed ahead of her, Becca led the way through a set of doors. The first thing I saw was a white, glossy mat on the floor in front of the door. Following her example, I stepped onto it. I stuck. It was like a giant piece of flypaper, if a little less sticky.

"It's my sticky pad," she beamed, "It takes all the dirt right off your shoes. Keeps the environment clean for the objects." This was Thursday. On Monday, she had a fewer older men from the museum come over to help her move things. They had stopped dead on the pad, thoroughly intimidated by it.

Next, Becca took me next door to the crate room. There were enough pine-slat crates inside for the set of an Indiana Jones film.

"Don't touch," she warned, pointing to a long row of crates. "These ones haven't been lead-tested yet." But Becca looked at them with an obvious affection. These were the crates of which she did not know the contents. They might contain more books, donated by a defunct postal museum in Kansas City, Missouri, like the ones she'd already opened, but she could never know for sure what she'd find. Next to the crates, there was a perforator – a machine that makes the perforations in sheets of stamps -, a printing press, and a coiling machine.

"I have absolutely no idea what the coiling machine does," she confessed with perturbation.

Next to that were portraits of past Post Master Generals, all leaning against each other in their sheaths of bubble wrap.
Becca took me back into the processing room. Along one wall were the objects she had already finished. On three shelves, she showed me an odd dozen antique mailboxes given over to rust in varying degrees. Beside them, there were packages meticulously wrapped in cream-colored paper and tied with cotton twill.

"Tyvak," she said, cryptically. Tyvak is a special buffered paper preferred by preservationists like Becca. It's virtually impermeable to stains and changes in humidity. It retails at $117 for a 50-yard roll.

On another shelf, she showed me the first thing she had opened on this project, a printing press. She had the air of an aunt showing off a favored niece or nephew.

"It's a cancelling machine, but it was made in France. So we call it the French cancelling machine. It's the apple of our eye. We love it."

Leaning over, she plucked a large ball of brown tape from the floor.

"I leave this place perfect. Must be courtesy of the guys on Monday," she said.

In the middle of the room was her work station, bare, pristine, and presided over by a work lamp screwed on to the edge of the counter. She sighed. The guys had put her lamp on the wrong side of the counter. On the far side of the room was a blue cart, loaded with old-looking books and surrounded by grating. Becca called it a cage.

She got to work, snapping on a pair of royal blue gloves (powder-free, to keep residue from getting on the objects) in order to handle several books that she pulled out of the cage. Among them were several Kansas city telephone directories at least a half –century old. Lovingly, she catalogued each obsolete volume, wrapped it in low-acid paper, numbered it, and tied it securely with a length of twill. Then it would go on the shelf. The stack of books, twenty-five in all, would take her the rest of the day. The entire cage, each cage representing a crate, might take a month. A piece of errant twill refused to tie properly. She lifted her shoulders high and exhaled her frustration.

Non-archival material – that is, anything besides books – can take considerably longer to process. Becca routinely spends between three and six hours cleaning, weighing, measuring, researching and cataloguing each item. When it's done, she puts it in front of a black velvet drape to photograph it. These are called glamour shots. She hates this term, because it reminds her of bad hair in the '80s.

The objects in Becca's care are in limbo. They are acquisitions, and she faithfully catalogues and preserves them, but whether they get accessed is up to the curators. Each month, Becca faithfully updates the museum's five curators with photographs of recently preserved acquisitions. It's like she's running an orphanage for foundling objects that the museum might adopt.

Though she works alone each day, the silence and isolation agree with Becca. She likes that she doesn't always have to scurry off to meetings, and she's only too glad never have to deal with office politics.

"I have an invisible job," she admits, "People in the office think I go to movies all day because they can't see my progress. But I like being off the radar. There's no one to piss me off," she added with a laugh.

In the absence of human company, it's easy to immerse herself in the minutiae of complex processes, and to grow fond of things like the French cancelling machine. It's a tendency of hers. In college, she had a flash drive named Craig. Admittedly, she has too many objects now to name them, but she continues to feel concern for their welfare. It helps keep her on the project.

"I'm afraid that if I walk away, it will all be crated up again," she said, frowning.

Rebecca's stomach started to rumble. We looked at the clock, and it was almost noon. It was time for me to go. Becca escorted me out, and I asked her what I should see at the Postal Museum. She shrugged.

"I don't really enjoy museums," she confessed, "I'm always looking at the hygrothermograph, the thing that gives you temperature readings and humidity. I'm worried that it's too humid, and it'll cause mold, or it's too dry, and it's bad for the objects. Museums are ruined for me."


Anonymous said...

This blog has been brought to you by the letters A and D. As in: Accession & De-accession.

A Rose said...

Point taken, dear anonymous reader!

Anonymous said...

An awesome job for an awesome chic! I always wondered how she spent her days!