A Summer in Collections Management

The listing for August events on the Pennsylvania Trails of History is in last week's post.

PHMC Keystone Intern Caroline Briselli is a rising sophomore at the Pennsylvania State University, majoring in history with a minor in business in the liberal arts. In this week’s guest post, she shares with us her experience working in the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Collections Management office. Thank you, Caroline, and best of luck for the next steps in your career.

What’s the role of the collections management office? What does a registrar do? How do museums acquire artifacts? If someone had asked me those questions a few months ago, I couldn’t have given them anything more than a blank stare. Today, after spending thirteen weeks interning at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, I can answer all those questions, and more. The experiences I have gained this summer, and the opportunities I have had access to are incredibly valuable and very unique to this program.

Red, white, and blue cotton dress worn in Highspire, PA, parade, 1918
via PA Trails of History Facebook page
One of my favorite parts of the internship is helping with the inventory project. The State Museum recently embarked on a complete inventory of their collection – every artifact, from the heaviest pieces of furniture to the most delicate porcelain doll, is getting counted. While it may seem overwhelming, this project is essential to gain a better understanding of our collection and what’s in it. [Editor’s note: PHMC has been sharing info on social media (including Trailheads) about rarely seen artifacts encountered during the inventory project.] I worked side-by-side with a curator to inventory almost 2,000 artifacts in the Community and Domestic Life collection and came across everything from silverware to textile stamps to candlestick molds to still-full bottles of Pennsylvania liquor. Every drawer, box, and shelf had a unique artifact with a story!

I also catalogued a collection of Christmas artifacts – ornaments, Christmas tree lights, stockings and even a Santa Claus puzzle. I measured, photographed and described each artifact, then entered the information into CuadraSTAR, the collections management database used by the PHMC. Cataloguing is the process of creating a record for an object, which allows the collections management office to keep track of information about artifacts, such as their appearance, their condition and their provenance.

The collections management office not only handles the collections of the State Museum, but also those of the PHMC’s historic sites. One of these sites, similarly to the State Museum, had recently undergone a complete inventory, so I helped with the second step of the process, inventory justification. Using the catalog information, as well as accession records, I worked to make sure that everything on-site was in its place, and looked for anything that had been lost or misplaced. It was always very rewarding when a stray artifact could be reunited with its catalog number!

I visited several of the PHMC's historic sites. One of my favorite trips was with my supervisor, Mary Jane Miller, the collections manager. We attended a collections committee meeting, where I learned about the process by which the PHMC acquires – “accessions” – and removes – “deaccessions” – artifacts in the collection. This summer, I also learned more about the role of the registrar, who works to keep track of accessions, deaccessions, and loans, both from our museum to other museums and from other museums to us.

Over the past several weeks, I have gained experience that will help me as I pursue a career in the museum field. The role of the collections management office is to keep track of all the artifacts in a museum, and I’m fortunate to have worked in the office that provides this crucial service to the PHMC. I’ve learned how to inventory, how to justify an inventory, how to catalogue artifacts and how to use a collections management database. Outside of collections management, I’ve sat in on webinars about the future of museums, shadowed the museum education department, visited historic sites, and attended a nomination meeting for the National Register of Historic Places.

2014 Keystone Interns during visit to the Railroad Museum of PA
I would encourage anyone interested in the field of history to apply for the Keystone Internship program. PHMC, has so much to offer students in the way of experience and networking. Our intern coordinator, Amy Jukus, organized events that help the interns make connections with museum professionals who can provide advice about career paths, education, and the field. Interns have the opportunity for professional development and career exploration, and PHMC staff members are always willing to let interns shadow them.

I have had a great summer interning at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and I would like to thank everyone on staff for supporting the interns – especially Mary Jane Miller, Maureen Lane, and Amy Jukus!


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