I'm nearing the end of my summer class, which is Museum Studies and boy howdy have I learned a lot about the inner workings of museums! I'm a museum junkie and will go in ANY building with "museum" on the outside, yet I had no idea how much work went into merely making things accessible.
We're not even talking about preservation, digitization, and all that other stuff--just the act of making items accessible for public viewing is time-consuming for multiple staff members and expensive for the institution.
It really makes you appreciate free museums, right? I used to think that if a museum was free they were probably raking in government money and donation dollars from wealthy private donors, so my $5 wouldn't make a difference. WRONG.
The fact is now we've reached a critical mass--there are more museums than ever, which is awesome, but federal funding for museums isn't being raised. In fact, along with education, it's the first thing on the chopping block. So more museums are competing for fewer dollars. It's not sustainable, so free museums might soon be a thing of the past.
But you already knew about the money side of it. All nonprofits are hungry for your dollars, right? So I'm going to show you a different side of things--the work that goes into making museum objects accessible to the public--and show you the real reason you're a jerk if you don't give a donation at a free museum.
Imagine this scenario: a private collector donates a painting by a famous artist to a museum. Free acquisition, hooray! Except that it's not really free...
First things first...
The painting must be catalogued, or given an ID name and number that orients it within the museum's collection. Museums often have more items in storage than they have on display (think about that for a minute--that's a lot of stuff!), so items can easily be lost simply be mislaying or miscataloguing them.
The painting will need to be looked at by a conservator. This isn't some dude who gives it the thumbs up or thumbs down--this is a professional, often trained in chemistry, who must scientifically identify the chemical components of the work. Is the paint oil, watercolor, or acrylic? Is the canvas actual cloth canvas or wood? Each of these components and how they come together as a whole affect how the painting will be preserved.
A good bath is in order...
Regardless of how big the painting is or how suitable it looks to the naked eye, it has to be cleaned before going on display. We can't have the light hitting it unevenly or having some parts by dingy and others not. The entire piece has to be cleaned with a solution that is not damaging to its chemical properties (sometimes they can't even use water!).
Not only that, items are often cleaned using tools that are the size of a Q-tip or smaller. You know those little tools your dentist uses to dig around in your teeth? Imagine using something like that to clean a massive painting. Even if your materials to do the cleaning were fairly inexpensive, you still have to pay the professional for their time.
So you have a newly acquired, clean acquisition! Great! You can just stick it on the wall with the other paintings, right? Nope. Museum work is never that easy.
Light, security, and leaks--oh my!
All light is damaging to some degree, no matter the source and no matter how low it shines. So proper lighting--enough to see by but doing minimal damage--must be secured.
Speaking of securing things, the painting has to be hung on the wall properly, which entails a lot more than hammering a nail into the wall and sticking the painting on it. And if the painting didn't come with its own frame, a museum professional has to either find one or build one that would fit the historical context of the work.
Furthermore, the painting has to be secured in such a way that it wouldn't fall even if it were bumped. This is particularly important if the museum is in an earthquake zone. Plus, if the painting is by a particularly famous artist, the museum may want to have a bulletproof box around it for added security.
Then there are other considerations... The painting has to be at the eye level where adults and children both could enjoy it. But it also can't be too close to the ground in case of flooding. And museum professionals have to know the layout of the plumbing throughout the building because it would be unwise to put a work under where a large pipe would be because it could be damaged in the event of a leak.
And preservation isn't an act of isolation that's done before the work is put on display. Preservation is an ongoing process. The work will continually need to be cleaned, and if the room the painting is in is being cleaned, the materials used must be taken into consideration because the vapors emitted could damage the work.
Gypsies, tramps, and thieves!
There's also the threat of vandalism and theft, which can and does happen. Some people like to think they can improve upon a piece of work by adding their own flair, but this is never true. Some people like to think a piece looks better in their living room than in the museum, which is also never true. Thus cameras and motion detectors must be installed and someone must be paid to monitor them. Some museums also have security guards present, which, alas, also cost money.
And good ol' Mother Nature...
The most common method of deterioration is the environment, specifically the humidity. Museums have to have humidity- and temperature-controlled environments, and considering that some works, due to their chemical components, need to be kept in a warm, slightly moist environment, while others need to be kept in a dry, cooler environment, the cost continues to pile up.
There are other, less common agents of deterioration, such as pests. If the work contains any sort of fabric, moths are a detriment. You might think this precludes paintings, but canvas is a fabric, so it can become a problem.
And, believe it or not, there are even more things that go into making a work accessible. The above are just the only ones I've learned about in this intro class.
THE reason you should donate or be called a jerk:
All this brings me to the real reason you're a jerk if you don't leave a donation at a "free" museum. If the goal of museums is to preserve artifacts, they can do that much more cheaply by keeping everything in storage out of public view. But, that's not the goal of the museum--not entirely.
The highest goal of the museum is to preserve artifacts so that the public they serve may experience them. And the mere act of making works accessible means the work is deteriorating faster than it would in storage. And yet, this is a risk museums are willing to take because they know the importance of access and its life-changing magic both on a personal and educational level.
That's right--just the fact that you can see something means that work is slowly deteriorating before your eyes. Not to put a damper on your next museum visit, but it's a scientific fact. And it's OKAY.
So every time you visit a "free" museum, take into account that what you're seeing is in no way free and that the museum is risking the very works it seeks to preserve by letting you look at them.
I think that deserves a couple of dollars. Don't you?