Uncle Couvi's Rules For Visiting A Museum To Perform Research
by: Lynden Couvillion
1. Make an appointment
a. The museum business is a business with deadlines, timetables, workloads
and irate bosses. Be prepared to adjust to their timetable since you are in
their area of responsibility.
b. Many collectors believe that museum personnel are sitting around with
nothing to do and are just waiting for someone to come in, put them to work
and berate them for their lack of knowledge. This isn’t so. They have
a lot to do and very few resources with which to do it.
2. Be Polite And Considerate
a. This curator is responsible for number of items in a number of fields.
Your unexpected appearance may result in your being accompanied by the lady
in charge of the pornographic Mayan ceramics and not the gun and saddle guy.
b. Be prepared to quit at quitting time.
(1) Museum curators have irate wives, children, dogs and other familial
and household responsibilities.
(2) This stuff may be endlessly fascinating to you, but this boy has seen
it every day, all day for the past several years. Mama doesn’t want
to hear that - she is late for her job, he is late for supper or he missed
Lil’ Nubbin’s soccer match because he had a collector that wouldn’t
(3) If you can’t live without this stuff for a few hours, maybe
you should look for professional help.
3. Be Careful How You Handle Artifacts
a. Pick up nothing without express permission.
(1) Many museum artifacts are very delicate. Its original strength is
no indication of its current strength. One inconsiderate, ham-handed visitor
can do a lot of damage by just picking up an object.
(2) I am currently faced with the prospect of packaging a 300 lb projectile
from the USS Cairo that is shedding sheets of wrought iron. That bad boy
was stout when it was built, but is no longer so.
b. Bring white cotton gloves and glove up before handling artifacts.
(1) We don’t want the stuff on your hands on our artifacts and we
don’t want what’s on our artifacts on your hands. As I write
this I am recovering from a case of “Contact Dermatitis” from
the application of some unknown substance to my skin.
(2) I was very impressed by a collector who visited and the first thing
he did after entering the storage area was to pull a package of white cotton
gloves out of his pocket, gloved up and passed the rest of the gloves out
to my staff.
4. Have Only Enough People In Your Party As Needed for the Job
a. These people have the responsibility for the physical security in their
collections and they don’t know you. They don’t know if you steal
or if you don’t. One or two interested parties is about all one curator
can manage at one time.
b. Nothing is more exasperating than a bored wife and a herd of dogs and
kids running amok in a museum storage area. One researcher I dealt with brought
his nervous little bug-eyed Chihuahua when he visited and placed the dog on
the table with the artifacts. While this may be perfectly acceptable at home,
it isn’t in someone elses area of responsibility. The gentleman was
truly hurt when I asked him not to bring his nervous little dog back.
5. Bring Your Own Photographic And Reproductive Capability
a. In this day and age a digital camera is a necessity.
b. You may not be able to tote a copy machine with you, but make arrangements
for copying, packaging and mailing. Don’t expect the institution to
pick up the tab for your research. Pay for it.
6. Leave Something
a. A donation is not required, but a check for $20.00 to the museum fund
goes a long way in opening the door for your next visit.
b. If you have any publications that you can donate, especially new ones,
try to leave one. This not only pays for this trip, but greases the skids
for future trips. Steve Stuckman sells a reprint of the US Ordnance Manual
No. 1719, HORSE EQUIPMENTS and EQUIPMENTS FOR OFFICERS AND ENLISTED MEN, May
10, 1905 Revised July 3, 1908, GPO, 1917 for about $10 bucks. Leaving something
like this when you go helps the institution plenty; it especially saves wear
and tear if they are using their own original copy.
c. If you write anything using information obtained at a museum you owe
them a copy or two. Sign it and thank them in print for their cooperation.
This is not a gift; it is an obligation. Their appreciation will be undying.
d. Leave a good taste in their mouths. I am partial to Mexican. If possible,
buy the boy’s lunch.
7. Be Careful Not To Mix Artifacts
a. Insure that any of your artifacts brought in are marked or tagged so
that they don’t get mixed up with the museum’s pieces. Insure
that the curator knows that you are bringing it in. Don’t put yourself
in a position where the curator has to wonder if you are playing Three-Card
Monte with his artifacts.
b. Make sure the curator is well aware that you are bringing in artifacts.
They may want to segregate you and your artifacts from their collection to
prevent mold, mildew or insect contamination. It isn’t your deodorant.
The environment in museum storage is different from your closet at home and
there are greater issues at stake.
8. Don’t Become A Pain In The Posterior
a. Make sure your conduct causes you to be invited to return.
b. Space your visits out so the staff can still perform their regular duties.
c. Make arrangements through the chain of command. Make sure the boss doesn’t
beat up the curator when you have commandeered the curator for your research
9. Be Good
a. Offer as much information as they can absorb, but no more.
b. Volunteer to help when they have exhibit openings and museum events.
You may end up parking cars, but you are still making a true contribution
to the museum.
c. Invite them to visit your collection. Interaction is a good thing.
d. Assist in identifying artifacts and be able to prove it. Your positive
reputation will be greatly advanced if the information exchanges go both ways.
A couple of electrostatic copies can make a big difference to a curator with
little or no resources.
10. Enjoy Yourself
a. For a curator the visit from a good collector is like a free day off.
b. Many will go out of their way for you because you appreciate what they
do and how they have to do it.