A Day in the Life: Objects Conservation

By Robin Croskery Howard, Objects Conservator

Hi, I’m Robin; I’m an objects conservator, and one of the many people at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum tasked with the care and protection of Seminole cultural heritage objects in our collection. Most people have never heard of my job, so it’s okay if you didn’t even know my field exists!  The easiest way for me to explain this job is like the medical profession: I am essentially a ‘doctor for objects.’ I make sure everything in our collection is happy, healthy, stable, and able to go on exhibition, loan, or undergo research. Even if none of these things can happen, I make sure that we store objects in a special way so that they last a very long time.

Treating objects is what most people immediately think of when they find out what my job is. It really is like being a doctor; I investigate the object: look at the type of material it’s made of, how that may have degraded over time, figure out what is causing an issue and if that potential issue can be solved, write up a proposal for how to solve that issue, and then execute the plan. This might mean sewing a patch onto a tear to provide a textile with more support, using special chemical mixtures to stop metals from oxidizing, vacuuming dust off a painting, using special paper to put a document back together, or even removing something like scotch tape or staples from an object. It’s all done in such a way that the object will continue to be happy.

A typical day for me runs the gambit, depending on what is happening at the Museum. I’m usually doing 3 to 4 projects in a single day: photographing objects; completing condition reports (checking on the physical condition of an object) for new objects, loans, or exhibits; treating objects; installing objects in exhibits; doing research on objects, typologies, treatments, or for other divisions; or simply helping other divisions complete their work if they need an extra hand. This isn’t everything I do, but it’s a pretty good list.

Here’s a great example of a typical day in my life from last week: I spent the morning doing research for a treatment on a leather sword belt.

This sword belt ATTK 1998.70.4 is destined for the museum’s redesign. I’ve inserted silk crepêline and added a special adhesive to help put these separated areas back together.

This object will be featured in the Museum’s redesign as a part of the Seminole war era story. The belt is fragile now, so my job is to make sure that it can be displayed once the redesign is completed. I already had a good plan for stabilizing the object, but wanted to triple check my research and make sure there wasn’t a better option that I could take. Later, I worked on condition reports and photographing new objects that came into our collection this month including really cool tiny dolls! I’ve also been assisting the THPO Collections division with photographing some of their new objects, and spent time on that particular project.

THPO Collections received a donation of herbarium coupons from the Environmental Resources Management Department, which need to be photographed. This is Mount 16, listed as Sabatia grandiflora or largeflower rosegentian.

And that afternoon, I was able to finally make some progress on a big project. I’m working on a large sculptural trunk for another department so that it can be installed inside of a new building. I was able to get some time on our sandblaster, so I worked with Facilities to move the sculpture over to the maintenance area and ended the day with a well-cleaned trunk—and me covered in sand! This perfectly describes an average day for me.

Our facilities division was able to assist in moving this large sculptural trunk from the laboratory to the maintenance yard by using a forklift. The piece is dedicated to Betty Mae Jumper and is destined for a new health building on the Hollywood reservation.

Whenever I speak to high school and college students, I close by saying, if you can’t pick a favorite subject in school but like to work with your hands, you might want to be a conservator! Knowledge of chemistry, art, history, and a desire to help preserve heritage makes for the perfect blend in a conservator. Every day is different, and I wouldn’t change my profession. If you’re ever interested in seeing more behind the scenes, stop on by the lab at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum!


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