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Condition Reporting

About This Guide

This guide aims to provide images of condition issues for anyone working in a museum, but may also be of interest to the general public. The examples are based on nearly 20 years of experience with Alaskan collections. Future drafts may include further collections management recommendations for these materials. An upcoming companion project in 2020 will be the Ten Agents of Deterioration common in Alaskan collections.

Reasons to Make a Condition Report

There are many excellent reasons to create a condition report for an item. It could be a few sentences, or several pages. Some of the reasons:

  • Leave a love letter to colleagues in the future to help share what you see at the moment.
  • Assist with accession and deaccession decisions.
  • Create a baseline for future comparison.
  • Demonstrate an artifact is actively deteriorating.
  • Alert staff to look for a missing part.
  • Understand what is vulnerable but OK now in case it changes.
  • Record item-specific details that make the object unique from similar items.
  • Prove a stolen item is the one in the museum record.
  • Support an insurance claim.
  • Help plan improvements to the preservation environment.
  • Help plan conservation or restoration interventions.
  • Identify and respond to insect infestation in a timely manner.
  • Determine if an item is suitable for exhibition or loan.

Basic Steps of Condition Reporting

At the Alaska State Museum, steps to condition reporting include:

  1. Visual examination.
  2. Measuring. This should already be done, but often is not, so it is handy.
  3. JPEG images of specific condition details.
  4. Review files for old condition or treatment information.
  5. Writing the condition report and adding it to the database.
  6. Sometimes we include exhibit notes, recommended light levels, mount making advice, or packing and shipping suggestions.
  7. Occasionally there is a diagram or drawing.

Here are some fundamental things to look for when doing a condition report:

  • Is anything missing that ought to obviously be there? For example, holes on masks where appendages ought to be, or something on one side that is not on the other side, or a lid that is not present? Should it be symmetrical but is not?
  • Is there anything detached that is currently with the item but not physically connected to it anymore? Those fragments are notoriously at risk of loss or dissociation.
  • Is it broken? Think major cracks, breaks, losses, dents etc. If it came back from being on loan, you would say “uh-oh, I wonder if that damage was always there?”
  • Do you see evidence of insect infestation? Look for little holes, irregular chewed areas, dead bugs or bug parts such as legs and wings, webbing or cocoons, egg sacs, and especially powdery insect droppings called frass. To distinguish frass from other debris, isolate some on a piece of paper and see if the grit rolls around. Frass is usually round and uniform. Insect debris is often hidden in crevices, under flaps, and in corners of objects, as bugs are not usually in the open. Note if you suspect treatment with pesticide. ALSO note if there is NO evidence of insect infestation, as that sometimes indicates the presence of pesticides and the item might be toxic. Your comments about insects provides a baseline for monitoring future infestation.
  • Are the problems local or overall?
  • Would it be visually acceptable for exhibition? Physically robust enough for an exhibit mount?
  • Is it dirty overall? Examples: loose particulates, grime, sooty deposits, dust.
  • Stains are discolored areas that are in the material itself. Tidelines are rounded or ring shaped stains caused by water depositing impurities along the edges of a puddle as it evaporates.
  • Accretions are foreign substances stuck to the surface, like food debris or crusts.
  • Corrosion is a change in the surface of a metal from chemical reaction. Patina is the name for a stable corrosion product that we find pleasing.
  • Mold can be tricky to identify and can be mistaken for other phenomenon, but should be described.
  • What is often damaged on this kind of item but stable here?

Language and Orientation

Precision language is the key to good condition reporting. Phrases like “seems like, might be, appears to be, likely, probably, resembles” etc. help establish reliability of the information. It is often better to describe the appearance of a material than to state what it is and be incorrect. Knowing material identification techniques, expected material properties, and deterioration mechanisms is the basis of conservation-based condition reporting. But very useful condition reporting can be done without specialized knowledge if it is done carefully.

If you are new to condition reporting, a good starting place is the so-called MRM5. Chapter 5, written by Marie Demeroukas, is an excellent introduction to condition reporting. Every museum ought to have a copy of this fundamental text:

  • Buck, Rebecca A. and Jean Allman Gilmore, editors. 2010. Museum Registration Methods 5th Edition. The American Association of Museums Press.

Locating the conditions you see is important. Photographs and drawings can be very helpful. Drawing on a photograph can work too. Art historians and museum folk tend to use the terms “proper left” and “proper right” to indicate the object’s own left and right side. These are abbreviated PL and PR. The front and back of paper items are often referred to as recto and verso. It can also be helpful to use quadrants for dividing something into four regions. Round things can be oriented by choosing a 12 ‘o clock position and describing the location as to o’clock.

The general terms good, fair, and poor to describe condition are next to useless. If you must make categories, we use:

  • Critical Conservation Needs (getting worse)
  • Serious Conservation Needs (visually distracting or hard to exhibit/loan)
  • Slight Dirt or Damage (minor issues)
  • Stable Condition Currently

There are a great many examples of forms to fill out for condition reporting. Because of the tremendous diversity of materials, forms are most useful for specific sections of the collection or artifact types. For example, a condition survey of taxidermy birds could benefit from a custom form. We made a condition report form for Chilkat robes to aid in research and exhibit development. Any condition report is better than no condition report at all.