Behind the Scenes in NMC’s Collection: Condition Reporting

What is a “condition report” and why is it important?

Have you ever loaned someone an item of yours, only to have it returned in worse condition than when you had it? Maybe that stain on your favourite t-shirt was there before you let your best friend wear it for the weekend, but then again, maybe it wasn’t…

Dealing with this kind of situation can be a bit like tiptoeing through a minefield. Do you accuse them of spilling on your shirt? They’ll say that stain was already there, but come on, you both know it wasn’t. Do you ask them to buy you a new one? At least pay for the dry cleaning, right? Or maybe you just suck it up and schlep over to the nearest corner store for a tide-to-go pen.

In the museum world, this sort of situation happens more often than you think. And it’s not your favourite t-shirt that gets stained. It could be a priceless artifact on loan from one institution to another that gets scratched, bent, or shattered while being transported. That’s not the sort of damage that can be swept under the rug with a reimbursed dry cleaning bill.

Whether for exhibition or research purposes, it’s common practice for institutions to loan each other artifacts from their permanent collections. And because it’s also common for Murphy’s Law to pop up at the worst times, accidents do happen, no matter how careful you are. When damage does occur during transportation, it is important to have an accurate record of the artifact’s condition from before it left its original institution.

Herein we find a handy little document called “the condition report”.

CR2_840pixA blank condition report template used by NMC. Credit: Hayley Robb.

A condition report is a type of examination procedure used to capture important information about an artifact’s physical state when it comes into a collection and when it leaves. By recording an item’s condition prior to a loan, treatment, or periodically over time as a form of preventive care, we are able to provide a valuable reference point for any later changes in condition.

The type of information typically recorded in a condition report includes a physical description of the object (including dimensions, materials, and manufacturing techniques if applicable); a general assessment of the object’s condition (on a scale from excellent to very poor); a detailed description of the object’s condition (including damages, markings, or fragile areas on the artifact); and recommendations for care and handling. Written documentation is often accompanied by photographs and diagrams, visually indicating damaged areas.

If an artifact is damaged at some point after the condition report is done, this documentation will help in determining what damage occurred, how it occurred, and how to prevent the problem from recurring. Thus, condition reports are useful for resolving disputes, should damage occur to an object while on loan to another organization, and for making insurance claims should an artifact go missing or get damaged in transport.

So what sorts of new acquisitions have happened at NMC lately that have required a condition report? Well as some of you may recall, just last month NMC received a very valuable artifact from another institution: Randy Bachman’s American Woman Guitar.

Randy-Bachman_3_840pxNMC’s Manager of Collections and Artifact Care Jesse Moffatt with Canadian rock icon Randy Bachman and the ‘American Woman’ guitar. Credit: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

An important piece of Canadian rock ‘n’ roll history, Randy Bachman’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul electric guitar helped conceive some of the biggest hits of the ‘60s and ‘70s. NMC’s Manager of Collections and Artifact Care Jesse Moffatt retrieved the guitar from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, where it had been on loan since 2009. (Read more about NMC’s repatriation of the American Woman guitar here).

Before its departure, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum completed a thorough condition report of the guitar, noting all existing damage. Upon the guitar’s arrival to Canada, NMC’s collection staff then completed a condition report of our own to ensure that no damage had occurred during the journey from Cleveland to Calgary.

All visible scratches, cracks, and missing components on the guitar were recorded, as well as any early signs of material deterioration that could become more problematic in the future.

RBguitar_yellowing_840pixAlthough the plastic details on the guitar are in good shape, we still made note that the original white plastic had started to yellow, an early sign of plastic deterioration. Credit: Hayley Robb.

In some cases, damage found on an artifact can be a part of the object’s history. With this particular area in the image below, the scratches that occurred were a result of one of Bachman’s roadies picking up the unattended instrument and playing it, scratching the back of the guitar on his belt buckle in the process. (Allegedly the roadie was promptly fired for this violation).

RBguitar_Bucklerash_840pixClose-up of “buckle rash” on American Woman guitar. Credit: Hayley Robb. 

Luckily for us, no new damage on the guitar was noted. And thanks to our thorough documentation, we now know that if new damage is found, it did not happen during the transportation of the artifact.

Condition reports can be tedious and time consuming, but they are the best way to ensure each artifact is properly documented, and the best way to cover your butt in case damage does occur. So the next time your friend asks to borrow your favourite t-shirt, remember this standard museum activity and snap a quick photo of it first. Who knows, it may save you some grief when it is returned with a stain.


– Hayley Robb

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Want to hear more about the collections at NMC? Be sure to check out past blog entries featured in Amplify, the National Music Centre’s online magazine.


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