Thursday, August 5, 2010

Results guaranteed, or your money back!

"At some point it will start to fall apart."  The Curator warned in a matter-of-fact tone.  Not exactly a comforting statement to hear when "it" refers to the early 19th-century four-post bed that I was supporting as she spoke.  But since she is the "object" person, if the fact that a piece of collection was facing total collapse didn't make her start to hyperventilate, then it couldn't be all that bad.  As I tightened my hold on the bed in question, my Director rather zealously plowed ahead, ignoring the dire sounding prediction, loosening the bolts that held this piece of furniture together, expressing her optimistic belief that everything would be fine, and that three people were enough to disassemble a heavy wooden bed.  (Did I mention there were posts involved here?  Tall posts?  And four of them?)  Moments later the Curator's Nostradamus-like prophecy began to come true and we resembled players in a game of Twister as we struggled to keep the bed from coming apart.  The Director yelled for HCH's long-suffering Collections Intern, "Laura, we're gonna need you in a minute!"  And by minute, she really meant second, and by second she really meant - Right Now!

The curator is right.  It takes four people to disassemble a heavy, wooden, four-post bed.  It also takes a Curator the experience of more than a year of disassembling pieces of furniture and packing them away to keep her composure in the face of the imminent break down of a large and heavy collection piece.



Since April 2009, the Curator, along with her various Curatorial Interns, (and in some capacity or another - volunteers, the Director, the Facilities Support Assistant, the Education Director, the Education Director's Intern, the Board President, a Board Member, plus me) has been tirelessly tackling one of the biggest pre-construction jobs facing the museum:  Packing up the 3,000 exhibited objects that currently take up residence in every available space, of every room of the house.  I have been called on several times over the past couple of months to aid in the disassembly of some piece of furniture or other, or to unload huge sheets of cardboard off a delivery truck.  (I flatter myself to assume I was needed because of my amazing physique, rippling muscles and towering height, although I suspect that it could just be because I was within shouting distance and met the minimum requirement of having full use of my arms and legs). 

The Curator has been faced with the monumental (and I don't think it is an exaggeration to use the word monumental) task of preparing collections for the impending construction work.  I don't know if I have made it clear in any of my previous posts how big the scope of HCH's restoration project is, but this is a big ol' project that is going to affect every part of the house, both inside and out, every floor, every room.  If you've ever been to HCH you know that this museum has never suffered from a lack of objects (and when confronted with a box full of empty boxes that our collection policy dictates we must preserve forever, some on the staff may argue the opposite).  We pride ourselves on the extent of our collection, but pride goeth before the fall, and the fall in this case is having to figure out how to protect 3,000 objects from possible destruction during restoration work.

The packing started over a year ago, but the planning for packing began before that.  The site visits the Curator and Director made during the course of the restoration planning included taking into account how each site dealt with their onsite collections that would be smack dab in the middle of construction work.  There are basically two options, either remove the objects from the site and store them in an off-site storage area (let's call that "too expensive for us option #1"), or keep the collection onsite and devise a way of protecting them from the work that would be done around them (call that "our only option #2").  For instance at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, NY, carpenters were able to construct mini-rooms of plywood within the larger room where work would be done.  Their collection was then stored within the mini-rooms and protected from the effects of construction.

If we chose "our only option #2", the packed collection would need to be moveable.  For instance, some parts of the floors will be refinished, therefore any collection boxed in a room where refinishing will take place, should be ready to be removed from the room.  Anne Cassidy, Collections Manager of the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites, who managed both Olana and Lorenzo State Historic Sites' collections packing during their restoration projects, suggested the use of cardboard for packing up the objects.  No, not the type of cardboard box you buy at Lowe's to pack up your box of 1990s music cd's that for some reason you feel the need to keep although you never, ever listen to them.  Instead it would be the type of double wall cardboard that comes in sheets of 96" x 48", that takes two people to carry more than two sheets at a time, and that is as unwieldy as a professional wrestler performing the dance of the sugar plum fairy.

For HCH's purposes, the Curator and Director decided on "our only option #2", and felt that cardboard would be the most appropriate material for our packing needs for several reasons.  It was easier to work with, the double wall cardboard would offer reasonable protection and it would allow for the objects to be moved once boxed up.  Objects are wrapped in either acid free tissue or Tyvek, a soft, non-abrasive, inert spunbonded olefin (say that ten times fast) which basically means it is tear resistant, mold, mildew and water resistant and protects against dust and dirt.  The wrapped object is then packaged in cardboard.  The Curator's goals in packing were to buffer the objects from radical changes in the environment, like when a window is removed, a spike in humidity will not affect the object; to keep dust and debris off of the objects; to buffer the collection from accidental contact with construction workers or construction materials.  If a worker accidentally puts a hammer down on a box, the cardboard is a thick and strong enough barrier to protect the object underneath.  The boxes have to be custom made.  The cardboard, as I mentioned before, come in really large, rectangular shaped sheets.  This is where plain old ingenuity and a box cutter come in, and honestly, the Curator and her minions have made some true works of art.  (I'm partial to the ten-sided cardboard box that houses the dining room table, you may have another favorite).  The custom made boxes with the nicely wrapped objects inside are resting on either cardboard pads or furniture blankets which act as the "wheels" of the box and are "surprisingly moveable" as the Curator said.

My personal favorite - the decagon (that's a fancy word for ten-sided)-shaped cardboard box housing the dining room table

"Surprisingly moveable"
Before a single object could be boxed, a detailed inventory was taken of every room.  Photographs of every room, as well as of every object to be packed were also taken.  As objects are disassembled the pieces are labeled individually before being boxed, and now await the opportunity to torture future interns and staff members with the task of reassembling the furniture.

In all the hubbub of planning a restoration, securing funds, meeting with architects and contractors, the packing can easily get overlooked.  It's not as sexy to talk about boxing up a chair as it is to talk about the floating posts of the exterior wall of the house which are literally being held up in thin air (clearly I've been in the restoration and museum world too long if either of those things can be considered sexy), but no work can be done in the house until the collection stored within is secured and protected.  Despite the limitations on money and resources, the Curator has provided the best quality protection for the museum's objects and her timely efforts enable the construction work to begin.  Incidentally, she is thinking of marketing a boot-camp weight loss program, (working title - Box Your Way to Thin) out of this experience because if you think lifting heavy furniture, disassembling beds, cutting through double wall cardboard, scrambling through an obstacle course of boxed objects in small rooms, all in 80+ degree heat and 60% plus humidity isn't going to give you that beach body you've always wanted, you haven't seen her interns.
Box Your Way Thin - Results Guaranteed, or your money back!


  1. Mary, I enjoy reading your blog on the restoration project. Your humor in describing a very serious problem of packing all the historic treasures of Cherry Hill keeps the subject lively and very interesting.

    I have a question. Is this the first time the four poster bed, dining room table etc. have been taken down since they were first brought into the house? Of so, how does the restoration project keep the wood from swelling or warping during the confinement in the cardboad boxes?

  2. I'm glad you're enjoying the restoration project blog. Thank you for your questions. I went right to the source for answers, i.e. our Curator, and below is the thorough response she provided.

    "The dining room table has actually not been disassembled. It has been boxed in intact. The table came from Edward Rankin's family home in Newark, NJ (known as "The Hill"). It came to Cherry Hill around 1901, when the contents of the Hill were dispersed following the death of Edward Rankin's mother. The table was used by the Rankins through Emily Rankin's death in 1963.

    This is not the first time that the bed has been assembled/disassembled since coming to Cherry Hill. It was probably in the household since the 1830s, but at some point it found its way to the garret. Emily Rankin brought it down in 1959 and had it "done over." (This included removing a red finish and fitting the old rope bed with a box spring and associated hardware.) After Emily's death, the museum's first manager (previously the Rankins' live-in nurse) moved a different bed into Emily's room for aesthetic reasons...but Emily's bed has since been returned by museum staff implementing our current furnishing plan (a well researched depiction of the house as it appeared in the 1940s-50s). So...Emily's currently disassembled bed has moved around the house quite a bit over the years.

    As for how we keep the furniture from swelling/warping...
    Anything expected to expand and contract in response to changes in relative humidity (RH) as the cellulose-based object takes in and lets off moisture from the air. With or without the cardboard box, the RH of Cherry Hill's environment will affect the moisture content (and the swelling or shrinking) of the bed and table. Within reason, this is okay. What the cardboard boxes do is...they create a microenvirnment. They sort of enclose the object in a bubble--just not an impervious, hermetically sealed bubble. So if, for example, a window is removed for conservation on a day when the humidity outdoors is 90% ( it's been lately!), lots of that 90% RH air will rush into the house...but the boxed objects will be buffered from that 90% RH air. If the house remained for long enough at 90% RH, eventually the inside of the box would also reach that level--it's not an impervious bubble, after all. But Cherry Hill's environment is not likely to remain at 90% RH for prolonged periods, and our expectation is that the box will keep the object inside at a pretty stable RH until the external environment gets back to normal.
    In terms of warping...we pack things such that there isn't any pressure exerted on them, even from gravity, that would cause warping."

    There you have it, answers right from the Curator's mouth! Thanks again for the great questions!