Does your heart sing when you imagine going to a museum to see a child’s sampler from 1757? Do you dream of getting a good look in those incredible store-room drawers of linens and gowns and hats? I have been doing a lot of this for my current research on 18th C caps. Here are some things I think are Best Practices to follow.
1. First, dig deep into the institution’s web page. If there is an online catalog, use it. Do not to ask the curator to do work you can do yourself.
Learn the policies regarding research visits: specific times, fees, forms, etc.
See if they have an institutional library; it may have unique resources, such as in-house reports or picture files. Do you need a separate appointment to use the library?
Discover the best contact person to receive your request to visit.
Consider bringing a colleague who has done this before and can help you the first time out. (Thank you, Sharon!)
2. Now you are ready to e-mail an informed request. Be as specific as possible. Tell them what you want to do: see, measure, pattern, photograph, etc. Tell them where you have already been to show you have some experience.
The online catalog is often not exhaustive; say, “I found this item that I am interested in, are there others like it?”
Ask about policies you could not locate: fees, forms, etc.
Suggest possible times to come visit, and be flexible.
3. Gather the tools you will need: loop, graph paper, pencils, camera, measure, gloves? (And be prepared to leave any or all of these articles in the locker as per policy.) Test your camera settings ahead of time; bring extra batteries. Bring a flashlight for picture lighting. Make yourself a checklist of what you want to examine in each item.
Bring the e-mail and phone number of your contact. Find out where you may park, which entrance to come to, and at exactly what time. Print off maps or set your GPS. Bring change for the meter.
4. Be on time. Find your contact person and do what they say. Ask again about policies and procedures. (You should already know these things, but make sure, in person, that you understand.)
If you are making a full day of it, ask when and how you may leave to eat lunch – and take your contact person out to eat.
Be ready for anything! A volunteer might sit beside you all day, or you may be left alone in a room with a stack of boxes until closing time. Some work rooms are roomy and sunlit; sometimes you work on top of a cabinet in the basement.
5. Be GENTLE and respectful of the materials. If you move the item, support all the cloth. Look at one item at a time, returning it to its box or stand when you are done.
Write the item’s number on a slip of paper that can be in every photo, to avoid confusion later. Photograph any accompanying documentation.
6. If your contact person is knowledgeable, ask permission to take some of their time today to discuss your research subject. Ask if they can refer you to other items, people, or collections.
7. Be done before your time is up. Don’t keep someone late at work today.
8. Write a thank you note. Send a donation to the foundation. When you go home, look over your notes, redraw your patterns, etc., as soon as possible. Ask If the museum wants copies of your drawings, patterns, photos, etc., for their files.
9. Later, when you write up your research, give appropriate credit to the institution, and individuals who helped you. Follow their rules about publishing photos or academic vs. commercial uses.
10. Corrections and additions much appreciated! Tell us what you think.
Sherri B. Saines
Human and Consumer Sciences Librarian, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio
photos: by Sherri Saines, DAR Collections, Washington, DC