Thursday, May 21, 2020

Preservation Team - Suzy

Preserving our historic collections is a key component of SCHS's mission, so as part of our Preservation Month celebration, we wanted to share some thoughts from the members of our staff who work directly with caring for our collections and historic buildings.

Susanna Fout is the Exhibitions & Collections Manager.

Susanna Fout, Exhibitions & Collections Manager
How is preservation part of your job? What are some of the tasks or activities that you do regularly?
As Collections Manager, a lot of what I do can be described in terms of preventative conservation: monitoring environmental conditions, inspecting and recording object conditions, practicing safe handling techniques, implementing safe storage and exhibition practices. But there’s another aspect of preservation that is often overlooked- and that is preserving an object’s intellectual properties. By that I mean, preserving its story. The who, what, where, and when of an object is just as important as the physical object itself. When new information is learned about an artifact, we record that information and attach it to the object record so that it is easily accessible to future staff, researchers, etc. With incoming donations, this often means gleaning that information from the donor. It's more than just recording “this object belonged to so-and-so, and they lived in Scotia.” It is understanding what that object meant to the individual, or what it says about the time and place, or community.

What led you to a career in preservation?
My love of history began at a very early age, but I never imagined that interest would turn into a museum profession. I was a history major in college and like most students, I wasn’t sure where that degree would lead. I just figured that eventually I would become a teacher. It didn’t take long to realize that teaching wasn’t my strong suit. Luckily, around the same time I had started a work-study for an anthropology professor, digitizing field notes, photographs, and research from a study he had conducted in the Caribbean. I loved organizing, digitizing, and protecting these materials in a way that preserved them but also made them more easily accessible to others. This led to other internships, volunteer work, more academic study, and eventually a career.

What excites you about historic preservation?
The ability to protect our cultural heritage for future generations and sharing that heritage with others is at the heart of why I love historic preservation. But what REALLY excites me is how this field is constantly changing, not only in terms of the technology and methods we use to physically preserve or share our collections, but also in terms of what we determine to be historically significant. We are constantly reevaluating, broadening, and deepening our understanding of material culture to be more inclusive, creating a more diverse narrative that includes all members of our communities. This is especially important for an institution such as SCHS, which has historically focused on collecting objects belonging to the more privileged members of our community. I am excited to be a part of an organization that is striving to be more inclusive - after all Schenectady is, and always has been, a diverse community, a unique blend between the urban and the rural. Our collections should- and will- reflect that.

Finding a home for this refrigerator in the Mabee Farm artifact storage area

 What worries you about historic preservation?
Resources. More specifically, a lack of them. Like many other small-mid sized institutions, we struggle with having the necessary resources to maintain certain types of collections. We have to be more selective in what we collect, and sometimes even turn down donations, simply because we don’t have the space to house certain artifacts, the staff needed to support certain projects, or the budget necessary to conserve damaged artifacts. There are a number of grants and programs available to help alleviate these concerns, but it is still a daily struggle and a worry that is always in the back of my mind.

What is your favorite historic artifact or building?
It's so hard to choose, since there are so many! I will give one personal favorite, and then my favorite at SCHS.

I am obsessed with illuminated manuscripts. It's actually why I chose to pursue a masters degree in Medieval Studies. Manuscripts have this wonderful dual nature as both a written text and a physical object- they are a bottomless repository of cultural heritage. The production of books, their text, the social and economic implications of their use, the artwork- all of it is fascinating to me. My obsession with medieval manuscripts is what led from an interest in working at libraries and archives, to working in a museum with material culture.

In my role at SCHS, my job is both preservation and interpretation. Because of that, I would say that one of my favorite artifacts at SCHS is Loppa, the taxidermy macaw from the Nicholaus restaurant. I talk a lot about how artifacts can tell stories, and Loppa is a perfect example of this. On a surface level, there’s this quirky story about a beloved pet bird that was a bit of a trouble maker, who was then taxidermied and became a mascot of sorts for the restaurant. Pull those layers back a bit and we have larger stories about immigration, the “canal days” and the Golden Era of Schenectady, business and industry, a changing urban landscape- there’s just so much history we can unpack from this one artifact. Also, he’s just kind of creepy and really cool! From a preservation standpoint, Loppa is a bit of a challenge. Taxidermy- especially old taxidermy- can be volatile and dangerous because of the chemicals used. Preservation and conservation of these objects is difficult and expensive.

Loppa is currently on display in our exhibit “Changing Downtown” at the SCHS museum (32 Washington Ave). Since we aren't open to the public right now, you can view a virtual version of this exhibit at https://indd.adobe.com/view/f6b96ae2-9988-469e-8b62-b6f32817a695 - Loppa’s story is included! You can view some of our other digital exhibits by visiting https://schenectadyhistorical.org/exhibits/virtual-exhibits/

What’s been your favorite preservation project to work on?
At SCHS my favorite project has been the reorganization of our storage area in the Franchere Education Center at Mabee Farm. A few springs ago, we relocated all of our artifacts which were being stored in outbuildings around the farm, into our temperature controlled storage. Of course, this meant an absolute nightmare in terms of space, accessibility, and control. We all thought there was no way we could fit these items - some of which are really large, heavy equipment- into our storage areas. I’m a bit of a “neat freak” and I like solving problems, so I had a lot of fun coming up with out of the box storage solutions. A lot of preservation work is a series of small baby steps, conducted over long periods of time, that improve the overall health of the collection. Rarely do we get that big “ahhh” moment where we can see significant change. This was a project where I could physically see progress being made, which was very satisfactory and I am pretty proud of what I was able to complete. Plus, I just really like organizing.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for how our members of our community can support preservation or preserve their own collections/buildings?
One of the biggest ways you can support preservation efforts is by donating your time. When I talk about all the work we have accomplished, none of those projects would have been completed if it wasn’t for the help of our volunteers and interns. Preservation projects are time consuming and having that extra help is crucial.

If you’re looking for advice on how to care for your own collections at home, one of the first things to do is consider their surroundings. You can slow the rate of deterioration dramatically just by taking an object out of an unstable environment. Different objects require different methods of care depending on what the object is made of, but generally speaking, organic materials do not do well in damp or overly dry/hot environments. Unfinished basements, garages, and attics are not good places to store your collections, and when possible, you should avoid using acidic cardboard boxes or wooden trunks/furniture as storage containers. Light is also very damaging to textiles, furniture, and paintings, so avoid displaying these items in direct sun or artificial light. The Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute is a great resource for guidelines to follow when preserving personal collections: https://www.si.edu/mci/english/learn_more/taking_care/index.html


Suzy co-curated the exhibition "Handcrafted: The Folk and Their Art"

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