The Cost to Store and Display Artifacts

WARNING:  the following article contains lots of numbers and some math.  I don’t like either one of those things, but I do appreciate information and I like being able to plan.  Information acquired via some simple math calculations is a necessary evil here.  Thanks for following along!

How much does it cost to store and display an object?  This kind of question inevitably comes up among museum curators, registrars, and collection managers when trying to create a budget for the year.  Obviously, there is no one right answer.  How can there be?  Every institution is different.  Every collection is different.  Every budget is different.  For heaven’s sake, every YEAR is different.  But, we can get a general idea with the help of a popular museum architect.

On page 74 of the May/June 1988 edition of Museum News, is an article by Gretchen G. Bank titled, “Determining the Cost: Architect George Hartman’s Formula.”  Apparently, museum professionals have been asking this question for years.  When museums plan for a new building or are looking at the next year’s budget, it is helpful to have an idea of how much space will be needed for collections’ storage (hint:  its always more than you think!) and how much it will cost to care for that collection.  That’s why architect George Hartman, a well-known Washington architect, and designer of several museums (including the George Washington University Museum and the Chrysler Museum) addressed these questions.  He wanted to help his clients get a better idea of what they would need in a new building.  I’m going to use some of his numbers to show you how to apply the information here at the Mower County Historical Society.

Hartman based his calculations on the average building size (100,000 square feet) and average budget for that size museum ($3 million) in 1988.  Figures 1-4 all show the numbers Hartman used.  He took into account the percentage of the budget that salaries, security, maintenance, education, development, curatorial work, and administration would account for in the budget (figure 1).  He also looked at the percentage of the museum’s budget for each of those categories without salaries (figure 2) to show how much.  The information on figure three mostly pertains to building a new museum.  Finally, Hartman showed what he thought the calculations should be to store and display an item (with an average size of 2 sq. feet), based on building costs while also considering the museum’s budget (figure 4).  In general, he figured it costs museums around $30 a year to store a single item.  His calculations take things into account like the cost of a security system and building maintenance to ensure the item is cared for.  It also includes staff salaries – staff with the proper training on how to care and handle collection items ensures that the item is protected and preserved.  He also considered the storage space itself and the average cost of rent at the time.  It is a lot of information to absorb, but the most important number is that $30 a year per item (I’m choosing not to adjust this figure for inflation because 1) I’m a curator, not an economist and 2) it will make the number larger and more depressing).

If we apply Mr. Hartman’s figures to MCHS, the results are quite interesting.  As of December 22, 2015 at 11:58 am, there are 14,660 object records in PastPerfect.  This does not include any items from the archives or photo collections (the total number of items in our collection, including objects, photos, and archives is somewhere around 30,000 items). Our operating budget is around $100,000 a year.  That is 3.3% of Hartman’s $3 million figure that he used to determine his $30 per item per year, so I’ll take 3.3% of $30 which is 99¢.  So, 14,600 objects x $0.99 = $14,513.40 per year to store and display the items in our collection (figure 5).

In the MCHS budget, things like maintenance, security, pest control, and staff salaries have their line items in the budget and do not come directly out of the amount that is set aside for collections care and new exhibits.  But just for fun, let’s take 1/3 away from the $14,513.40 since Hartman says maintenance and security account for about 1/3 of a museum’s total budget.  That leaves us with $9,675.60 to care for the collection.  In 2016, MCHS has budgeted $300 for collections care and $1,200 for new exhibits for a total of $1,500.00.  Our 2016 operating budget is $113,872.00.  That means about 1.3% of the total 2016 operation budget has been allocated for collections care and display.  For reference, all the buildings and outdoor displays at MCHS total right around 40,000 square feet.

So what do all of these numbers mean?  Has I finally lost my marbles and started rambling on and on about money and collections care and new exhibits while I look for a fresh pair of nitrile-free gloves?  I hope not!  I just wanted to try and give you a concrete, numerical reason why we cannot accept every item offered for donation and why we sometimes have to let go of items that have been in our collection for many years without any discernible connection to Mower County history.  I think people get tired of me constantly harping on “museum standards and best practices say this…” about collections care and “we don’t have the space for this!” It is hard to quantify museum best standards and practices, but I’m doing my best to try and follow them as much as I can with our current resources so that the collection is preserved for many years to come.

My goal is also to try and further explain why I do what I do.  As curator, it is my job to protect the collection and ensure its protection for many years to come.  It is also my job to tell the story of Mower County history in exhibits using the objects, archival items, and photographs in the MCHS’ collection.  But creating new, exciting exhibits while also safely exhibiting and storing objects each year costs money.  Even if items in our collection sit on the same shelf for years, it still costs money to provide that climate controlled space, security systems, acid-free tissue paper and/or storage container, safe shelving for that item, and proper handling, just to name a few.  Caring and storing a museum collection is different than storing your own items in your home.  I am legally and ethically bound to care for the collection in such a way as to avoid known causes of deteriorati

Just some of the artifacts in temporary overflow storage in the Church building.

on.  The historical society holds its collection in public trust, which means that the collection doesn’t really belong to MCHS but rather, it belongs to YOU and everyone else who lives in Mower County or has ever called it home.  There isn’t a curator’s version of the Hippocratic Oath but if there was, it would start with “Do the best you can with what you have for what you have.”  I take my responsibility towards the people of Mower County and the collection very seriously and hope that you understand why I cannot take every item offered and why I sometimes do goofy things when dealing with the collection.  And why I’m constantly balancing between doing what I know the collection needs (more acid-free boxes and a clean storage area with protection from UV and dust) versus
the amount of money left in my budget for the year.  (And it is not necessarily a bad thing if an object is in storage for a number of years, but that is a whole different newsletter article – stay tuned for the next post!)

Whoa.  Thanks for sticking around to the very end.  It was a lot of information and plenty of numbers.  Do you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or do you just think I’m nuts?  Either way, do not hesitate to contact me!  I love talking about my job and explaining what I do.


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