Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, April 23, 2016

This is Unhelpful

If there was a hippocratic oath for museum collections staff it would definitely contain something about leaving behind information in a form which will be helpful to my successors.  We've all suffered through enough collections mysteries to know that an attitude of "I'm going to make up my own weird system to do this!" and "I'm sure I won't forget to finish that project" is a recipe for disaster.

Worst of all are those projects that someone clearly spent tons of time on which resulted in something completely useless. When one of my coworkers started in the department and asked if the collection had ever been inventoried she was told "yes! lots of times!" and shown a drawer full of lists of artifacts. No location information, no images, no condition details. Just a list of artifacts by type.

Anyway, so while working on our collection of fans, I found a note so astonishingly unhelpful I had to laugh. Apparently, some sort of fan expert had been through the box and wrote a summary of what was found inside. Here it is verbatim, IN IT'S ENTIRETY:

Some inexpensive 20th century fans. 
Most fans in this box are last half 19th century. 
A few 18th century fans. 
Three fantastic (no pun intended) fans I’ve never seen before in 35 years of fan research! No other museum has them, including New York Met., Smithsonian, DeYoung, etc. 

There was no included list indicating which fans were which. NONE. Nothing in the box seemed that amazing to me, but I could identify one or two that seemed to be a little different or of somewhat better quality. I spent some time looking at the Met's database and saw a bunch of SPECTACULAR fans which were way more impressive than anything in this box. 





Which made me think...who even knows what was in this box when the note was written? Or if the note was even placed with the right box!?! I later came across a few fans that, while not any more exceptional than anything I saw on the Met website, were potentially in the same league. But wait...there's more! A couple boxes later I found ANOTHER note, with the same handwriting, full of more juicy information: 

Most of the fans are last quarter 19th century. Some oriental. Some very good fans. A lot of not so good fans. A few should definitely be mended!

Without any hint of the object numbers or even a vague description or list there was nothing I can do with this information other than throw it away. 

JK I put both notes up on my bulletin board and am going to laugh at them every day. 


  1. Sitting at desk, trying so hard not to laugh! Recently found a box in storage from 1994 with skirts inside with the note: "ANONYMOUS DONOR/ RETURN TO DONOR (WHO IS UNKNOWN)".

  2. I once went through several years of archived legislation, carefully and with gloves on, because there was no index. I was looking for the law that abolished a previously existing tax on "bachelors and spinsters". The archivist asked me if an index would be helpful because she had a student that could work on it. I replied, "That would be great". Six months later I received a letter saying " I hope you find the attached index of legislation helpful. And that index read, "Statutes of the Legislature, 1900-1927, Content: Six Acts. Act of the Legislature Number One: Six pages, fourteen sections. Act of the Legislature, Number Two, 42 pages, 143 sections " and so on throughout the quarter century of laws. No mention of subject matter or title anywhere!!!! I still couldn't find what I was looking for and in fact no one would have been able to find anything that they were searching for in the legislation. Index = useless and I have worked hard to put aside the antipathy to archivists that this engendered in me.