The Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture houses, preserves, and protects thousands of objects. Keeping track of all of the information for such a vast collection requires a specialized database. The database that the museum uses describes and tracks each object in the museum’s collection. Keeping up with cataloging and updating locations for this large collection is a constant task for the museum’s collection department staff.
Each object has a record in the database with many different types of information about it, describing both its physical as well as its intellectual attributes. It’s crucial to capture all of the information around what we have collected, such as who it was used by, and where, when and why it was made. As we are a regional museum, we collect and organize this information hoping that we will be able to tell great stories about the Inland Northwest using our collection.
To track the improvement of the collection database, staff have defined stages of record quality as “inventory levels” 1-6, with Level 6 being the most complete. A Level 6 record has a high quality photograph of the object and represents a thoroughly cataloged object. While our goal is to get the entire collection to a Level 6 status, with thousands of items and a continually growing collection this is a slow and ongoing process.
Some types of information are required. A near term goal is to accomplish a Level 3 record for all objects, which includes the item’s location and a detailed description. If each collection object has a Level 3 record, we can be confident that it is well situated in storage and that we can easily find it. Over the past year and a half the Collection Department has been tasked with bringing as many object records as possible up to a Level 3 status. This work included integrating a new Object Name Thesaurus (using the American Association for State and Local History’s Nomenclature) into the database to standardize the terms by which we name an object. Using standardized terms creates consistency that makes digital searching and organizing easier and more efficient.
A standardized nomenclature requires the cataloger to choose specific terms from a predetermined list. For example something previously described only as a needle must now be described as a sewing needle, medical needle, or a phonograph needle. Consistent terms increase our rate of success at finding all of the phonograph needles in the collection with one search term rather than having to guess at all of the possible cataloging terms that may have been used.
This project involved going through thousands of records and renaming collection objects; for efficiency we updated the “inventory status” field of each record we handled. At the start of the project in June 2015, 7% of object records were listed as Level 3 or greater; by the completion of the nomenclature project in June 2016 that percentage increased to 52%.
In addition, in 2016 collection staff committed time to an item level inventory of the history collection, including textiles and clothing. This work requires handling each item to find its unique museum number and recording the location of that item in the database, as well completing the object’s record to Level 3 status – or creating a record if necessary. So far this year 4,366 object locations were updated and 695 object records were added to the database.
Shown below are some of the interesting or unusual things we encountered:
725.26, Spanish American War hard tack (survival cracker), 1898
2921.2, Contact lenses c 1945
2962.160, Woven coverlet, (detail), 1841
The start of every season brings about a new beginning. Over the last 118 years our Historic Campbell House has seen hundreds of beginnings. From the beginning of Helen Campbell’s marriage to William Powell in front of the Gothic sandstone fireplace in 1917 to the beginning of Campbell House cook Hulda Johnson’s romance with the milkman Lewis Olsen at the back kitchen door. It has seen the Eastern Washington State Historical Society grow and blossom into the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture which is now 100 years old itself and displaying it’s newest exhibition Lost Egypt. Therefore it has been a pleasure over the last four months to be witness to the Campbell House getting her own beginning again, for the first time in 25 years.
Her windows are shining with new UV protective screens that will preserver her interior for decades to come so that, like the 116 eyes of second and third graders from Hamblen Elementary that drank in every inch of her Victorian design during yesterday’s field trip, thousands more will be able to explore her 13,000 square feet of 19th century time warp. She is adorned with a new cedar roof still orange with the glow of a new home. We can see Campbell house now through the eyes of Grace and Amasa Campbell as they rode up her front drive that first day in 1898 and took in their
new life in Spokane for the first time.
Campbell was from small beginnings himself. The 10th child born to a newly widowed mother struggling to make ends meet in Salem Ohio , 1845. His fortune didn’t find him until his forties. Campbell had changed his stars, investing in lumber, railroads, and the northern Idaho mines. Here they were the nouveau riche and the owners of a 32 room mansion in a neighborhood of elites. What a sight it must have been for him.
Now as we look forward to a new season as a Museum we find ourselves refreshed. While our road to cultural significance is not without bumps and bruises, we as a museum family cherish our time honoring the memories of the past and preserving the remnants left to us. Campbell House is open and thriving more than a century after its conception. As we approach the beginning of the holiday season its rooms will be alive with event after event celebrating its past and future.
Many people associate taxidermy with deer heads mounted on walls, or the hunter Gaston using antlers in all of his decorating. Maybe you yourself grew up under the glassy gaze of a mule deer or a mountain goat. But taxidermy is an art form, and a science, that held a place of honor in both disciplines. Today, this discipline is far less popular than it was.
Imagine the world before color photography, and certainly before documentaries. Imagine growing up in Spokane in the 1920’s, and going to the Campbell House to see the natural history exhibit, and coming face to face with a snarling tiger. You would see each of its whiskers, its muscles tensed, the beautiful pattern of its carefully preserved coat. Very few people in the museum would ever travel to a continent with a tiger in it, let alone see a live wild one, and certainly not up close.
Creating a taxidermy specimen requires extensive knowledge of animal anatomy. A good specimen has weight, grace, and accuracy to capture the spirit of the animal in its natural habitat.
Again, before photography, preserved specimens were the only way for artists and scientists to get accurate references. Without them, Audubon’s carefully studied and beautifully executed paintings would not have been possible.
Today, as species go extinct and focus shifts to zoos, many museums are discarding their taxidermy collections. As older specimens were generally made from a single animal, with all its imperfections, newer specimens focus on re-creating a “perfect” specimen for study.
This show is very possibly a last chance to see specimens like this, some of which are over 100 years old.
Catherine Tully recently completed graduate degree in conservation of antiquities at University College London; after working in the Middle East for a year, she found herself in Spokane for a few weeks this summer and offered her expertise to the museum. In the photos, Catherine repairs a vase from the Campbell House in the Secret Life of an Artifact gallery while students visiting from Madison Elementary look on. Cathy spent her time at the Northwest Museum working with 20th century plastics, Mexican masks and other items from the collection in need of her attention. Preservation is ongoing in every Museum and we at the Northwest Museum are constantly working to prolong the lives of our historic treasures.