Q&A: Managing Collections at Historic Sites with Terri Anderson

Terri Anderson

Terri Anderson is swapping history collections for art when she joins the Corcoran Gallery of Art next week as a Contract Registrar to help them migrate their collections database from Filemaker to TMS (The Museum System).  For the past five years, she has focused her work on collections management at the 29 National Trust Historic Sites as the John and Neville Bryan Director of Collections at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where she also taught collections management for George Washington University and became one of the national leaders on the challenges of deaccessioning collections at historic sites.  With this transition, I thought it would be a good time to capture some of her thoughts about managing collections at historic sites.

Max:  You’ve been managing the collections of the National Trust for the last five years–what have been the major successes?

Terri:  Our most visible successes were opening several Sites to the public for the first time, including the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut; President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC; and Villa Finale in San Antonio, Texas. Each of these Site openings required many important decisions about collections stewardship and access, and each Site demanded a different approach: one size did not fit all.

At the same time, we had successes that, while less visible, were important to me and the parties involved.  We did a lot of great work with thoughtful, appropriate deaccessions at several of our Sites.  I wrote about our experiences in an essay in the book, Museums and the Disposals Debate edited by Peter Davies.

One of my favorites was completing a deaccession that had been talked about since 1989, a few pieces of furniture that had been on loan since the 1950s to the Adam Thoroughgood House in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  Our colleagues in Virginia Beach had been doing a great job caring for these pieces for over 50 years. It made everyone happy to finally transfer those pieces to the Adam Thoroughgood House at last.

Max:  The National Trust owns about 65,000 objects.  What do you see as some potential needs and opportunities during the next five years?

Terri:  The National Trust collections are quite extraordinary, both in their depth and breadth. There is so much opportunity to explore cross-Site interpretation and celebration of the collections. President Lincoln’s Cottage hosted an exhibition a few years ago featuring Lincoln-related collections from Chesterwood, Wilson House, and Villa Finale. I would love to see more collaboration between our Sites in this way.  I would also love for the National Trust to bring more of its collections online.  Some of our Sites are working with partner organizations to digitize archival collections.  So far, our digitization efforts have relied on staffing and funding provided by our partner organizations, but I hope these efforts can be expanded.

On the other hand, keeping up with the regular maintenance and care of collections is expensive, difficult to fund, and difficult to prioritize in light of so many other competing demands.  Keeping up with basic stewardship will continue to be a significant need in the immediate future.

Max:  You’ve worked with many different types of collections, including art and natural history.  How is managing a collection at historic sites different or unique?

Philip Johnson Glass House: Nadelman sculpture at far right.

Terri:  The biggest challenge at historic sites, I think, is that it’s never just about the collections. You always need to balance the needs of the collection with the needs of the buildings and grounds, and the needs of the visitor. It’s very difficult to find solutions that are good for all of these constituents. An excellent example is the Elie Nadelman sculpture on display inside the Philip Johnson Glass House. I can hardly think of a worse environment in which to display that sculpture, as far as temperature and humidity are concerned. The climate at the site changes greatly over the course of the year—even in the course of a day—and the sculpture sits in the middle of it all, in a glass box. However, that sculpture, in that location, is absolutely necessary to the experience of the Glass House.  Architect Philip Johnson had an utterly precise vision of how he wanted his home to look and be experienced, both from the inside and outside.  We made the decision before the site opened to the public that exhibiting the Nadelman, in that location, would remain an intergral part of the Glass House visitor experience.  My colleagues at the Glass House are vigilant about closely monitoring the condition of that sculpture, and are actively and consistently investing in its care. So, in a way, I’m saying that historic site collections sometimes are in the unique position of being knowingly kept in harm’s way, while staff do everything possible not to actually have harm come to the collections.

Max:  What are the major collections management challenges facing historic house museums, based on your experience at the National Trust?

Terri:  I see two major collections management challenges.  The first is that many of our Sites simply have too much. Many of our Sites came to the National Trust full of collections to begin with, and then the Trust continued to add to the collections over the years. It’s not sustainable. As I mentioned above, I’ve been very proud of our work on deaccessioning, but deaccessioning is time-consuming when it’s done well and done carefully, and spending time on deaccessions is time not spent promoting the collections and sharing them with the world.

Another major collections management challenge, by no means limited to our group of Sites, is expanded use of historic properties. There has been a lot of dialogue recently about how the “velvet rope” tour is no longer engaging and sustainable. Standard tour formats may not appeal to every visitor, and I like thinking about additional ways in which historic sites can be made more exciting to a broader public.  However, there are major collections-care implications to taking down that velvet rope, since stewardship, quite literally, is the opposite end of the spectrum from use.  I think collections staff need to be flexible and open to new approaches, but at the same time, stewardship of the collections also has to be on the table whenever expanded use of Sites is discussed.

Max:  What books, websites, conferences, or other resources have you found most useful in your work at the National Trust?

Terri:  There are so many! But off the top of my head, for collections care, there is no better quick resource than the National Park Service’s amazing Conserv-o-grams.  It’s an investment, but if you can afford it, the National Trust (UK) Manual of Housekeeping is a fantastic book for the bookshelf.  I’ve really enjoyed working with colleagues at the American Institute for Conservation over the years, and there are a lot of great care and conservation-related resources available through their website.

I have gotten many questions about appraisers over the years, and I always direct callers to the American Society of Appraisers, International Society of Appraisers, and the Appraisers Association of America websites to find appraisers.  I love the dPlan website, which is an economical and easy tool for Sites to think through disaster planning for their site.

As far as conferences, probably my favorite since I’ve been at the National Trust was attending the Virginia Association of Museums annual conference.  I felt like it was the perfect size and conference topics for professionals working in smaller museums or historic sites.  I have also enjoyed attending the AASLH annual conference and I am glad that AAM has offered a small museum track in recent years.  I have not attended these training opportunities myself, but many colleagues swear by the Seminar for Historical Administration and the Attingham Summer School.

Max:  Thanks, Terri, for all the work you’ve done for the National Trust Historic Sites these past five years.  Collections management often takes places behind the scenes and is not visible to the public, but we know that it’s the registrars, collections managers, and curators that that take the lead in the preservation, care, research, and display of the objects, documents, and photographs that we enjoy at historic sites.  I know that you’re shifting your focus to art collections, but could people still contact you if they’d like your advice on managing collections at historic sites?

Terri:  I’m always happy to share ideas with my colleagues in the museum field, no matter the type of collection.  And now that I’m a Contract Registrar, I’m also available to help museums with collections projects, big or small. The best place to reach me is at terriander@gmail.com.

4 thoughts on “Q&A: Managing Collections at Historic Sites with Terri Anderson

  1. Emily Wolf

    Really interesting! I would love to see more Q & As like this with museum/historic site professionals.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Thanks! The Q&A format with Terri was her idea, but I think it may launch a monthly series. I already have a version in the works on interpreting African American history and culture (posting in early April?).


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