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Use of Antique Equipment

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    • #134844

      Our director has asked me to try to clarify some gray area in our collections policy and I am hoping that you may be willing to provide some insight regarding the use of your collections.

      Our collections is primarily comprised of domestic items from the turn of the 20th century and this includes antique farm equipment (tractors, engines, hay balers, etc.). Lately, any equipment we plan to use is put into our teaching/use collection right from the date it is accepted. Equipment that was accepted years ago likely has a permanent number on it, which does not necessarily stop it from being used.

      We have some very valuable pieces of equipment that have permanent numbers that we operate and will always have permanent numbers because of their value and they are not intended to be consumed by use. Other items that have been considerably altered by restoration or repairs have been moved to the teaching/use collection.

      We have community volunteers that would love to operate everything we have in our equipment collection, so how do you explain or delineate what can and cannot be used? How do you justify it? Do you have the criteria outlined in your collections policy (can you share)? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    • #134846
      Heather Brown

      Hi Claire,

      I did an initial search for collections policies and came up with a million resources, including two C2C webinars w/resources: Collections Care Basics and Essential Elements of a Collections Management Policy. They both look incredibly helpful, but I’m not sure if they address your questions directly.

      I would imagine value and condition are the biggest factors in whether a collection item should be used. Hopefully some of the other members have policy examples they can share with you. If not, I will seek out some expert advice.


    • #134851
      Grant Briscoe

      My museum focuses heavily on rural life in the 1920s, and as an agricultural museum, I have recently had a similar conundrum. We had three collection categories – Permanent, the “do not touch”, Education, the “ok for public to touch”, and Equipment, perishables that are to be used for demonstration purposes (examples in this one are cotton, wool, gasoline, and things like that).

      I rewrote our collections policy to include a new collection subcategory under the Permanent collection – Limited Use, artifacts/equipment that may only be used by trained and approved staff and volunteers who show a proficiency in the use of a particular piece. Since then, we added some to that subcategory, and have been keeping up.

      Unfortunately, we have another issue. Our museum opened in 1983, and while it had donation forms, the forms signed authorized the us to use the items “upon such Terms and Conditions as the governing body of said organization deems advantageous.” That wording means that we could use the donations in whatever way we see fit according to our Terms and Conditions. But here is the kicker – I cannot find any evidence there ever were such terms and conditions or guidelines. Early on, there were many verbal commitments made by the founder of the museum which were not recorded on the papers, so I cannot be confident in moving them from permanent to education or limited use.

      This is a long way to explain my answer, which is that you should look at your donation forms, and if they surrender the rights to how the object is used or displayed, then you can do whatever you want to with it. To protect them, I wrote in our new policy regarding the handling of artifacts (including equipment) that if it is in the limited use collection, an individual (staff and/or volunteer) needs to attend a training session in order to be authorized to handle/run that specific object. If they want to use/demonstrate/run every single thing in that collection, they must attend a training on each individual object. If the object can be touched/run by the public any day because it is so restored or has been repaired, it goes into the education collection and can be used/touched by anybody.

      My museum NEEDS volunteers who can use the various equipment we have (a cotton gin, saw mill, print shop, cane mill, tractors) since we have so small a staff. But we also need the equipment to be in good hands. Whenever we have somebody who wants to volunteer in an equipment way, we set up training on that, and put them on a list of those authorized to run it. We do not want to be unfair either, so even our staff must be trained and passed off before they can operate each thing.

      I hope this helps you, it is at least what we do.

    • #134853
      Carolyn Schimandle

      Other factors besides monetary value and condition would be significance to the site and rarity–nonmonetary aspects of value. If your site is a historic farm and you have a piece of equipment that was used at the site during your period of significance, think twice about using it. If it is a rare piece of machinery, even if its appraised monetary value is not high, think twice about using it.

      That said, occasionally some collections items are better cared for by being judiciously used instead of mothballed. For example, one place I worked at had an 1892 woodstove original to the house. Stove experts told our collections manager that it was better for it to be used than to be left sitting in the damp coastal climate, to keep metal oxidation at bay. So we had regularly scheduled baking demonstrations.

      I don’t know if that’s true of farm equipment, but it seems like it might be for gas-powered equipment. I hope someone with expertise in that area might chime in , because I need to work this out for our collection, too.

      • #134854

        Wow everyone, thank you for the responses and I apologize for the delay on my end (off yesterday)! I think you all make very valid points and depending on the decisions made, it will all be added to our collections policy.

        Grant, I like the idea of different categories. How do you delineate that on the artifact or do you keep a list? What about in your database. As you indicated, our records are also not the best. We have been in operation since 1936 and our founder was the director until 1963. He did not have deeds of gift and if we are lucky he wrote a note on the artifact in pencil! So, many of the pieces that volunteers want to operate are actually FIC, but may be the only example we have.

        For the sake of clarity in the original message, I did not mention that the volunteers that want to operate the equipment are skilled operators (mostly) and aligns with Carolyn’s point. We have a Gas and Steam Engine Club that functions as a somewhat separate entity on our property, although it comes with a host of other problems. How do we educate future generations about how the equipment works if it does not operate? We perform routine maintenance on most everything that is currently in operation, but as those that have the knowledge pass away, we will be in a difficult position. I am finding this an issue with most hand crafts too (cedar shakes, wooden window repair or construction, repairing brick mortar, etc.) and that is a problem for those of us that have historic structures as well (we do). The Michigan Historic Preservation Network has actually launched an initiative to help educate individuals on these fading crafts (there will be a presentation at the AASLH/MMA conference).

        I posted this question to the AASLH-Small Museums Network Listserv and received some wonderful replies that I will share here to add to the discussion, sorry for the length!

        Hello Claire,

        Collections Policy! Collections Policy! Collections Policy! You put in writing what can and can’t be used, the Board officially adopts it and that’s your justification. The Museum sets the criteria for what will and will not be operated: rarity, value, provenance, etc. If your collection is like many and has the obligatory 3 manure spreaders and 16 spinning wheels, then figure out which are the “best examples” or the “rarest” or “belonged to the woman for whom the town is named” and keep those in the “do not use” collection. The others, deaccession into education.

        There are TONS of policy examples out there, you just need to be sure to tailor it to fit your particular situation. You also need to have the Board adopt the AAM Code of Ethics for Museums. These two things will give you the “professional gravitas” to say, I’m sorry, but Policy and Ethics preclude us from demolishing our entire collection in the hay field. Oh, and get a hold of a copy of “New Museum Registration Methods” — very helpful book.

        Developing a Policy:


        Code of Ethics

        Other Helpful Resources

        Michelle Zupan
        Hickory Hill & the Tom Watson Birthplace
        502 Hickory Hill Drive
        Thomson, GA 30824
        FAX: 706-595-7177


        ” ….preclude us from demolishing our entire collection in the hay field.”

        Something to consider about use of “antiques”:

        Sad irons, looms, wood stoves, treadle sewing machines, …and farm field equipment, are all made to last a long time. –If properly used and maintained. Nothing of any sort lasts long if abused. If you have properly trained users of equipment, and keep the tools oiled, greased, painted, sharp, and bolts/nuts/screws tight, then equipment can be (and was) used for generations.

        The biggest mistake farmers, and now museums, can make is to not do due diligence to maintaining equipment. You really need to spend the time it takes to make sure everything is right before use. And then once in use, stop doing what you are doing until you find out why some tool suddenly makes a new sound or acts somehow different. Equipment does not heal itself, it doesn’t get better because you pray for it, or if you hope it will only last until a particular job is done. You need to stop, fix what’s wrong/different, then finish the job. If you don’t, things break, then you “demolish your collection”.

        The exception to all this is sharp tools. Every time you sharpen something, you remove metal. So if you are using a mowing machine -you’ll need extra blades, if you’re using a scythe -it will wear out and be gone in time, same with plow points. But fortunately, all those parts are still available at most any Amish community, or at , the largest non-electric hardware store in the world, located in Kidron, Ohio. Or such Amish owned/run businesses as Midway Equipment on Rt. 250 just east of Mt. Eaton, Ohio.

        It is our opinion, and experience, that tools that get used will last longer than tools that sit silent and slowly mold/rot/rust/powder post beetle away because someone wasn’t actively paying attention to it. Best of luck.

        Museum of Western Reserve Farms & Equipment

        P.S. YouTube is a great resource, with many videos on how to maintain and use most everything.


        Hi Claire,
        Not sure if this will be helpful with your situation, but here’s what I sometimes tell our tour guides and/visitors when they want to know why we are asking them not to touch things…
        “Yes, it’s true that this [object in question] is quite similar to one that you own and still use. And we could probably use this one gently without causing visible harm. The difference is that yours is privately owned, and it’s okay to use it any way you wish precisely because there is another one like it that is being preserved in our museum’s public collection. As stewards of a collection that is owned on behalf of the public, we have a responsibility to preserve these items not just for people today, but also for people who won’t be born for another hundred years. Even gentle use over the long term will cause this item to fall apart much sooner, and it won’t survive to inform and inspire the future!”
        Another way to put it, though a bit patronizing, is to point out that if everyone were allowed to do X, the item would be ruined very quickly, therefore no one is allowed to do X. I used to use a door knob whose silver plating had been completely worn off to illustrate this to visitors ;-).
        Basically, it all comes down to your responsibility as collections stewards in perpetuity. You’re preserving these objects to survive intact beyond your own lifetime. That should be codified in your collections policy as a goal for your permanent collections.
        Perhaps a workshop for volunteers where they can learn about collections stewardship, and become owners and defenders of the process, rather than frustrated by it?
        What about working with them to film the equipment being used, so that they can show the items in action to visitors without harming the equipment?
        Sorry for the ramble!
        Curator/Director of the History Center of San Luis Obispo County


        If you were to put together a session on using/not using equipment, you might also consider expanding the discussion to buildings.

        ~Any farmer will be in most of his buildings every day. Rain or shine, day and often night. Museum “owners” are not.

        Farmers see what is happening to equip./buildings in all circumstances. Stories and lore and tips on upkeep and use get handed down, generation to generation, farmer to farmer. For example, a good farmer whose family has been at it for awhile, will probably tell you that a barn that is unused and empty will shake itself to death within a few years/decades. A barn needs to be loaded with hay in order to hold it down. An empty barn moves a great deal more in the wind and will eventually move enough to loosen and/or break pins and nails. Or, a barn/out building may appear perfectly dry in the sunshine, but can be suffering a good deal in a wind driven storm. If you are not there to see it, its sometimes hard to believe the difference. …Or, if stall doors close or fit very differently from winter to summer, it may mean the foundation is heaving, rising, falling.

        You may think you are preserving things for the future, you may think things will stand forever if you don’t use them, but everything changes. Animals chew, ground hogs dig, birds leave offerings, insects invade, moisture/rain/humidity corrupts. A lock on the door, an occasional look around to see if everything looks ok, is probably not near enough to really know what is happening. But if things are being used, ~properly~, they will get maintained and may last much longer.

        Jim Fry

        P.S. I suppose one other thing to add to the discussion of equipment, is how the equipment is used, –in use. There are all sorts of tricks and things to know about using any piece of equip. If no one ever uses a tool, eventually how to use the tool will be lost. It’s a bit like soap making. It’s actually very simple to make really good soap, ….if someone taught you how to make it. But if you were to try to make soap having no idea of the steps and methods, it may take you years (if ever) of trial and error to figure out good soap making. If you haven’t been taught the patterns and methods to control a horse and plow a field, …if you don’t get killed by ignorance or accident, you’ll at least make a heck of a mess of the plowing.

        So, if a tool is never used, if you’ve never seen a tool in action, how can you imagine it in use. Eventually any tool out of the context of what it was made for, becomes little better than a boat anchor. Future generations just won’t have any idea of how or why something was done or used. –Then what’s the point of having collections of dead stuff?

        We believe in use. Sure, we don’t use the spinning wheel that’s been in the family since the Revolution. But we have other wheels just as old, but without particular “heritage”, that we use lots, for classes or just personal spinning. And for things like the many tractors? We know every farm every tractor came from. And every one of them will get turned over or used now and again. Because if we don’t, eventually they will seize and then they die.

    • #134855
      Grant Briscoe

      For us, we mark our Education collection with an E at the front of the accession number on the object, so an item donated today in the Education Collection would be E2016.___. If it has been used a lot, such as our cotton gin, it was never even given a number, it was put in the Equipment Collection, which legally means it could be abused. I am actually working today on getting our historic structures and machinery which we use into our database, and giving it a permanent number, since the Limited Use Collection does not get special numbers yet. If they do, it will be LU2016.___.

      Machinery will not work if not used at least somewhat regularly, and that can hurt interpretation. We have a large number of smaller collections pieces which I wish could be transferred over to the Education Collection so that they can be preserved and used, but our problem is that we DO have the donation forms, and they had that wording about the “terms and conditions.” With the original people, they may have had incredibly fluid terms and conditions, so I have opted to avoid transferring many of those pieces (before 1997, when we finally defined the terms and conditions, allowing me to transition pieces from collection to collection) in order to avoid potential legal issues, since I do not know when a donor will show up and check on their item.

      Most of our collections are still not into our database (PastPerfect) since we did not have it until recently. When it goes into PastPerfect, we make note of the Collections in there, and, in the notes section, make any other useful comments such as when a repair was made, it was moved etc… I put them in the notes section, that way it is on the main page of the artifact when it pulls up, saving time looking for where the notes were made.

    • #134875

      Lots of great advice! Our equipment or anything used physically in interpretation becomes part of our working collection. If it is being converted from regular collection, we change our prefix “M” to “WC”. In the database and on paper catalogue sheets we moved the M number to the previous number category. We designate on conditions that the aretfact can have unlimited use. This allows us to track locations. We also have a Reproduction collection. Previous Collections Managers used the prefix “RM” before the accession number but recently we just add “KL REPRO” to the object, as it is a reproduction and not an aretfact we don’t need to carefully track it’s location. We also collect strategically for the working collection and donors understand this. When we acquire an artifact for the working collection, we give the “WC” year.collection number.item number and enter it into the database as all other artefacts.

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