A Curator's Day, Then and Now
by Rebecca DuBey
Each object has a catalog record used to identify and group artifacts together for potential use or examination without subjecting them to excess handling and wear, to track an artifact’s location, and to record its condition. As someone who has been trained to “Preserve An Artifact Until Forever,” the catalog is my most important tool. While it takes time to catalog an artifact, I find it enjoyable because not only do I get figure out what makes each artifact unique and important, I also love to write. And writing about objects requires a mindset different from most.
There is a cheerful debate in the Museum Profession about how much to say about an artifact. Some subscribe to the old saying, “write as much as you can, standing on one foot.” I prefer the more meaningful method: write enough to identify one object from another that looks just like it. I have found this idea helpful many times in my professional life.
Take a recent example, three photographs of the same building in La Valle: one a digital image only (a computerized file, not the actual image), and two damaged in the floods of 2018. All three include an older standing woman, identified on the back of each print. It’s the same woman. In one photograph she is on the small porch; in the other, she is standing on a long exterior stairway leading to the small porch, and then she is standing on a side porch. Only the house remains consistent, or does it? As I look closer, I notice that one has a rolled awning, and in the other, there is a sign above the rolled awning. it was the storefront of a millinery, a place where women’s hats were trimmed and sold.
One photograph, taken from a great distance, includes what looks like railroad tracks running in front of the house, with a large rock formation behind. Well, this is La Valle, after all, the place is filled with rock formations. I’ve ridden through it on the 400 bicycle trail enough to begin wondering if that house, if that location, is familiar. I begin to wonder what has become of the house, and who lived there. Which image is older, which newer?
With computers having replaced the hand written notes and typed catalog cards, it is easier to make acute observations and record the details. I can cut and paste the similarities between catalog records, and spend more time adding the details. I can link the two records together, so that finding one will lead to the others. After scanning each image into my computer, I can enlarge them, finding the details so well preserved despite the damage from the floodwaters. Anybody using the computer database can find the images using search terms because I take the time to include searchable observations, to classify, and to record subjects and locations related to artifacts. All one has to do is enter one of those search terms and the world of historic Sauk County is open to them.
Any artifact connected to this woman, about this woman, owned or donated by this woman, about the house, or the town, is instantly available in lists. When an object is selected from the list, the catalog record appears in its entirety, including a photograph of the object.
When I began my career, my office had room for a desk and two chairs. The rest of the small office space was used by file cabinets, I had eight of them in there. Five of them held complete catalog records, each typed on both sides of a legal sheet of paper. The rest were smaller, card files, seven for each object, each arranged and filed differently. We used those to search and lead us to the larger files. I spent most of my time typing, or searching through drawers, leaving less time to record the catalog information. Less time to muse over the artifacts. Less time to learn about them.
Today, I spend my time differently. I observe, record, write. I spend less time searching for objects and more time providing information about objects.
I love my job.