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WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

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Friday, May 1, 2020

When Museum Professionals Work from Home

In the museum world, registrars and collections professionals have a certain reputation: We obsess over temperature and relative humidity, we cringe at suggestions of food in the galleries, and we follow the rules. We are organized, efficient, and, yes, we can be a little strict.

But there is a method to our madness: We are like this because it is our job to care for the Museum’s collection. This includes helping to keep WAM’s art objects physically safe, and tracking their locations around the building and around the world. It involves a lot of spreadsheets.

Ali Rosenberg, WAM's Assistant Registrar,
works at her #MuseumFromHome office.

Like collections professionals around the globe, WAM’s registrars now find ourselves doing the bulk of this work from home. We have left the comfort of our offices—where our desk supplies are neatly arranged at 90-degree angles and large-scale printouts of our beautiful spreadsheets are only a click away—and transitioned to the relative chaos of the outside world.

But all this type-A energy must go somewhere, and in my case, it’s gone to the obsessive museum-izing of my apartment.

It started out simple enough: It turns out, when you work from home, you become much more aware of just how much natural sunlight falls on your favorite family photographs in the midafternoon. For those of you who don’t work with obscure units of illumination, a “foot-candle” is a standard unit we use to measure the amount of light on an object. For reference, a frequent conservation-approved light level for the display of photographs is five foot-candles. Natural sunlight can range from hundreds to thousands of foot-candles.

You can see the severity of the situation. However, after a quick rearrangement of the threatened objects and a strategic placement of the curtains, all seemed well. But that was only the beginning.

The longer I work from home, the more I see my home for what it is: a collections management catastrophe.

Next came the climate. I have been spoiled at work by museum-quality climate control, and, to be frank, my apartment’s HVAC system just doesn’t measure up. My one portable humidifier is no match for the hot, dry air that has been emanating from the baseboards all winter, and spending nearly 24 hours a day at home with chapped lips is enough to make anyone take action. Only by implementing a careful regimen of thermostat-tweaking and letting the laundry air-dry in the living room have I begun to get this climate under control.

And that is not even the worst of it. My husband, a fellow museum professional trapped at home, has been working on a physics demonstration involving stacks of books. That’s all well and good, except that our once pristinely organized bookshelves have been pilfered and plundered, and stacks of random books now litter the apartment. As someone whose job it is to keep track of objects, I don’t think it’s overdramatic to say that this is an absolute nightmare. How could anyone calmly do database work at the kitchen table when your home has descended into anarchy?

A physics demonstration of a stack of books.

Thankfully, he’s not a total monster. When two museum professionals share a small apartment, you’re going to get a few odd quirks. Ours is an elaborate personal database cataloguing our extensive library, complete with titles, cover images, publishing information, read counts, and Library of Congress numbers (how else are you supposed to know what order they go in on your shelves?). As he brazenly pulls books off shelves without so much as an Object Movement Card, I can trust Bookpedia, a software program that lets users catalog their personal libraries, to tell us how to put them back.

Bookpedia, a software program that lets users catalog their personal
libraries, helps Ali keep track of books "lent out" to create the stacks.

And so, along with my colleagues at WAM and around the world, I am adjusting to life outside the Museum’s walls, and I am thankful for all those who are working on-site in essential positions so that I can stay in the safety of my home—and here’s to bringing a little piece of my Museum life home with me.

— Ali Rosenberg
     Assistant Registrar
    May 1, 2020

P.S. If you and your family miss visiting your favorite museums in person, check out these ideas for museum-izing your own home.

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