Learn about Collections Management at NMC

We all know that person. The one that obsessed about the objects they held dear.

Maybe it was a friend, a parent, or a finicky neighbour. This person was determined to preserve their keepsakes in mint condition for as long as possible. Whether it was a used luxury car, a newly purchased baseball hat, or their “soon-to-be-priceless” beanie baby toys, these items were not meant to purely exist in the present moment, but in the future as well.

This particular type of person often sought to protect their treasured items by controlling the environment around them. Gloved hands and protective cases were employed in a bid to slow down the effects of time. Sure, their rules may have been a bit strict, but in these situations the best defense is always good offense. And while these sorts of exercises may initially appear exclusionary and self-serving, such preservation methods are actually undertaken in the hopes of allowing as many people to view the item as possible, for as long as possible.

It’s hard to say now whether that friend/parent/neighbour’s efforts were ever rewarded in a tangible way. Perhaps they did manage to snag that coveted spotlight on the Antiques Roadshow, or in the case of beanie baby enthusiasts, a million-dollar payout. Or maybe the satisfaction of owning and caring for that special item was reward enough. One thing is certain though, this particular type of person would feel right at home in collections management, where an enthusiasm for preservation is not only welcomed, but embraced.

Annie_White_Gloves_800pixCollections Coordinator Anne Phillips dresses a mannequin for display in a suit belonging to Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee Earl Heywood. Credit: Brandon Wallis.

Collections managers are charged with the daunting task of keeping cultural objects safe, by identifying and reducing potential hazards to artifacts through thoughtful control of their surroundings. This stewardship does not just end after one individual leaves their post however, no, collections managers are responsible for the long-term preservation and sustainability of the cultural objects. Any actions (or inactions) taken in the present day will continue to affect the artifact many years into its future. Rather than thinking a mere 10 steps ahead, those who work in collections must think 50 – 100 years in the future, in order to assess and predict how an object will age and adapt to its environment over time.

Cleaning_Henri Pape_Piano_800pixCollections Manager Jesse Moffat carefully removes grime from the soundboard of NMC’s 19th century Henri Pape Piano. Photo courtesy of the National Music Centre.

In addition to keeping cultural objects safe (preferably for all time), collections managers must also strive to meet the needs of the collecting institution’s mission statement. At the National Music Centre, our mission statement is to give Canada a place that amplifies the love, sharing and understanding of music. In simpler terms, we not only want you to marvel at our awesome collection, we want it to be a source of inspiration for artists and visitors alike.

Gotye_AIR_800pixCollections staff chat with artists in residence Gotye and Nick Launay during their tenancy at NMC. Credit: Brandon Wallis.

Because our collection philosophy at NMC is based on responsible accessibility, the assortment of instruments and musical ephemera housed at our downtown Calgary location is thus the foundation for services that NMC delivers to the community. Unlike most traditional museums, our collection is a “living collection,” meaning that artists are able to use our historic musical equipment—ranging from the 16th century to rare contemporary pieces—for the creation of new works. Whether used for artist in residence programs, interactive exhibits, or educational services, the collection is a key pillar for the Canadian institution, and good management and care of the collection is essential to making it a useful and responsibly sustainable resource.

Lyle_Bell_EMS_Synthi_100_800pixLyle Bell, from Shout Out Out Out Out, experiments with the analogue synthesizer “EMS Synthi 100” during the band’s artist in residence tenancy at NMC. Credit: Tyler Stewart.

Due to our unique collections philosophy, the responsibilities of the collections team at NMC are unlike any other traditional museum or collecting institution. We not only have to ensure the long-term safety and preservation of the instruments; we must also keep many of them in functioning condition, which can get a little complicated when certain technologies have become obsolete and parts have been discontinued.

JL_RSM_800pixElectronics technician John Leimseider examines the wiring in the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio console. Credit: Jason Tawkin.

Collections management is often thankless work, as it is a constant uphill battle to fight the effects of time. But it is not without its merits. Those of us privileged enough to care for our cultural heritage are given an exclusive glimpse into the past, and the personalities that make up our national history.

So whether you are a music lover, museum geek, gear head or just a big fan of Antiques Roadshow, join us for our weekly “In the Collections” blog spot and get a behind the scenes look at the collections activities at NMC as we prepare for a major move, recover from an unexpected disaster, and work on some truly unique objects from Canada’s musical past.

NMC_current location 2014NMC’s current location at the corner of 11 Ave and 1 St. SE in downtown Calgary. Credit: Brandon Wallis.


– Hayley Robb

Questions or Comments?  Email me at hayley.robb@nmc.ca.

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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