Collection Care Network Interview with Adam Osgood, Collections Technician and IPM Coordinator at Historic New England

By Jessica Pace posted 07-23-2019 11:27


Adam Osgood is the Collections Technician and IPM Coordinator at Historic New England, based in Haverhill, MA.   I met Adam at the annual MuseumPest Working Group meeting this year and was fascinated to learn about the variety of his responsibilities.  I wanted to learn more about the challenges of working on IPM in an institution the consists of such numerous and diverse locations and structures and Adam generously agreed to be interviewed for this blog.  Please enjoy and feel free to comment!

Q: How many years have you been in this position? 

A: It’ll be 9 years in September.  The title was recently updated to add “IPM Coordinator”.  I was working in IPM before, but it became clear that more time needed to be formally allocated to the task.  


Q: Tell me more about your background before you came to this position. 

A: I have over 20 years of museum work, and a fairly unconventional professional path.  I started at the Harvard Art Museum as a gallery attendant.  My Cinderella moment came with the Curator of Asian Art where I then became a curatorial assistant.  After that I became inventory assistant and photographer, all term-limited positions.  After the Harvard Art Museum, I moved to the Peabody Essex, where I was the curatorial assistant, and then to the MFA Boston as a collections care specialist.  Later, I was an independent contractor for bronze sculpture treatment and cleaning.  Finally, I was the exhibitions coordinator at Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA. 


Q: You have worked with cultural heritage materials from so many different angles! 

A: Yes, well by the end of my tenure at the Fuller Craft Museum, I was at wit’s end.  It was a part time position and I was working 20 hours a week, overseeing 9 exhibits including installation, deinstallation, and maintenance of touring exhibits.  I had a broad resume and was hired because I could do photography, exhibit preparation, and maintain the database. 

It was a time where I was tired of the instability of term-limited positions.  I had two young kids, and my wife and I couldn’t go too far afield because she was beginning her own local business.  The stars were aligned in terms of timing with the Historic New England job. 


Q: What are your responsibilities at Historic New England? 

A: I work closely with conservators and curators, and report to the collection manager.  We’re a small staff of about eight people headquartered in Haverhill, MA. where our collections and conservation facility is located.  The headquarters is an eight-story former shoe factory where we occupy 70% of the building.  There are about 120,000 objects (including decorative arts, paintings, and furnishings) and over one million archival materials. 

I am the preparator, collection care specialist, installer, and integrated pest management person for all 37 properties from Maine to CT (all New England states except Vermont). The properties are mostly seasonal.  Once buildings open, then I’m in the van traveling among buildings consulting with site managers and dealing with climate issues, mold, insects, and larger pests like mice, squirrels, raccoons, weasels, etc., since the buildings aren’t hermetically sealed.   

I also co-manage the photography studio with the full time photographer, and am the primary collections photographer there.  The conservation lab and photo studio are on site at the headquarters.  I do most of photography for our three dimensional collections.  Our full time photographer works with the two dimensional materials and the work is managed through our library and archives department.  She had formal training as a photographer and I have an experiential background.  We have a very nice photo setup with a $40,000 medium format Hasselblad camera that can take documentation and publication photography.  It’s a very adaptable setup. 

I do all the rotation exhibitions and install work.  We hold exhibitions at three sites.  The Eustis Estate Museum is our first stab at creating a climate-controlled, high-level exhibit space where we can borrow materials from other institutions. 


Q: Tell me more about your work with Integrated Pest Management (IPM). 

A: We have 37 properties and actually 30 of them have museum collections so those are the ones that I deal with in terms of IPM.   

My work is mostly centered on insects.  We have a Property Care team who work on the buildings.  I think of them as “carpenter scholars” because the principles and ethics that they apply to their work is similar to that of conservators. They deal with the exclusion of vertebrate pests from the building environment.  Both my team and their team deal with mold issues on the building and on collections materials. We have any combinations thereof.   


Q: What type of local management is there for each site?   

A: The houses are situated in very different types of locations, with various levels of visitorship and staff attention.  Each property is managed differently. 

There is a site manager and some allotted guide staff for each property.   

Recently we started a program for seasonal staff called Preventive Care Assistant (PCA); a huge and important move for us.  About 20 years ago, they eliminated committed staff for cleaning and the task was allocated to the guide staff.  This benefited the budget line but the guide staff weren’t really passionate about keeping an eye on insect issues and also had much less time allotted to this task.  As a result we started seeing more insect problems over the years.  

PCA hires emerging professionals and pre-program individuals for immersive experience in cleaning the space.  This team is trained at the headquarters in object handling, pest ID, as well as targeted and informed cleaning to knock down infestation on the spot.  It’s not possible to do quarantine on the level that they are working, so a thorough cleaning is often the most effective means to deal with insect problems.  The PCA team is managed by site managers but I train and work with them on IPM.  We get t-shirts that say “IPM Champions” printed for them.  They collaborate with me remotely and keep in touch via Dropbox where we share spreadsheets and documents related to trap monitoring. 


Q: Has that been a learning curve for you? 

A: I was raised by two psychologists and that has really paid off!  A lot is learning about the organization.  Every site has its own personality.  Some sites are marquee properties and get a lot of attention.  Some are remote and much more autonomous. We have a delicate dance where we swoop in as the collection care staff but try not to bulldoze the local staff and the work that they’ve been doing. It’s really important to have good people skills and meet people where they are. I try to appreciate that people have the best intentions in mind. 

We come in a supportive role and try to work with what’s there and we can bump up our level of involved as needed per site.  We don’t shut things down unless it’s absolutely necessary.  I think of it as the “do no harm” Hippocratic oath as applied to conservation. 


Q: How do you manage your time when working on the road with so many different sites? 

A: My secret: I’m a generalist.  I like doing many types of things and tasks.  My sanity lies in shared electronic calendars. Often, when people need my time they need me to be physically present.  I have an open shared calendar with the entire institutional staff.  I’m methodical about blocking time that I need.  If my colleagues need my time then they can figure out priority among themselves then add the time into my calendar.  I do manage multiple things but it’s like spinning plates. 


Q: How does the shift in seasons affect your role?  

A: We have a huge facility here in our headquarters where we have our own IPM issues. It’s also a location where we do conservation, exhibition planning, and photography.  So we’re really busy right through winter but with occasional excursions where I go on IPM consultations, or to pick up donations.  We get institutions, collectors, and dealers who come to use our CO2 bubble.  It’s a source of income for our institution.   


Q: Can you talk more about the CO2 bubble? 

A: Sure.  The CO2 bubble is 1,000 cubic feet and has been up and running for 25 years.  It is costly to set up and run, so it made sense to offer services to outside clients. This is part of the reason why Historic New England has been so involved in IPM since beginning of the IPM Working Group (now called the MuseumPest Working Group).  In the early days, many institutions were quiet about the fact that they were dealing with pest issues, whereas we were outwardly advertising.  We’ve been out of “IPM closet” for 25 years.   


Q: Has the technique of managing the CO2 bubble changed over the past 25 years? 

A: Coming on board, I had some experience with IPM but not with the CO2 bubble, and I wasn’t expecting the extent of my full submersion into IPM. 

When I started, the CO2 bubble was coming to the end of its life.  The PVC membrane was failing and then fully ruptured.  Fortunately, there was no real hazard because of precautionary measures that we had taken. But the system came to a grinding halt just a few months into my time on the job.  During that time, we had an anonymous client relying heavily on this because they were running all new acquisitions through the chamber as part of their acquisition policy.  When the system failed, the anonymous foundation told us to “write the grant” and to do whatever it takes to get the system up and running.  I redesigned and refurbished the system, and added new monitoring and environmental technologies, which allowed me to learn the system in detail. We were able to increase efficiency and reduce CO2 consumption by 50% through design improvements - though the basic concept is still the same. It used to be 5 days to get to concentration and now it takes 24 to 48 hours, with the actual treatment being 2 to 4 weeks once the concentration is reached. We look to the Getty publication on inert gasses as the bible of how we execute our treatments. 

We now have a queue from larger institutions for large size or large volumes of materials to be treated aggressively, quickly, and/or in large chunks.  So, I often get called in for consultations on how to do triage to get to the point where things can be contained and treated in the CO2 bubble.  


Q: What is a recent IPM project that you’ve done? 

A: We currently have a massive IPM project at our regional office,  where we’re dealing with a webbing clothes moth infestation in our large boxed textiles with help from volunteers and interns. Our full time photographer and conservator also jump in where needed. I used low-dose targeted pheromone traps to narrow the infestation down to 6,000 cubic feet of textiles. During this project we set up a tethered digital capture station in my space to survey for insect damage, do digital capture, update records, and clean where necessary. Since they’re boxed, we have to open all these boxes to look at the materials.  It took us months just to treat them.    

Through my IPM work, I also came up with a way to use commercially made insecticidal netting as an effective barrier to isolate and pin-point areas insect activity.  I just presented a scientific paper on this topic at the international conference in Stockholm.  Kind of a big deal for me! 


Q: How do you work with conservators at your institution? 

A: I work very closely with the conservators.  We currently have one conservator, Michaela Neiro. We had another conservator whose position was eliminated. We also have one Mellon fellow.  The lab is a stone’s throw from my shop.   

My kids had a lot of fun when visiting me a few years ago in thinking of this place as the art hospital.  I’m the ambulance driver where I do triage and the surgery happens in conservation. It’s not a bad analogy.   

This is a regional center with an enormous level of traffic, so my shop is like a preparator’s shop too - with matting, framing, housing, boxing, crating, and a staging area and a photo area.   

Conservators and I talk regularly.  We like to talk things out, even if it’s just in short stand up meetings.  There’s zero redundancy here in terms of staffing, so we’re always talking about what happens if we’re missing a staff member.  We all have to be prepared to fill in gaps at every level.  I try to fill in for conservators at all the levels where I’m able (no bench treatment) and vice versa.  There are no hard categorizations of “yours” vs. “mine” tasks.   


Q: So do conservators mainly work in the regional office?  

A: Conservators also work in the field quite a bit and have very outwardly facing roles.  They take the collections van to various sites with or without me. For example, Michaela just came back from training guide staff to identify condition issues on site and will also teach IPM when I’m not available.  Communication has to be fluid here and cannot be jammed by institutional bureaucracy.  We all try to stay as closely on the same page as we can.  Once the season opens up then we are all going to be everywhere. We try to keep someone here holding down the fort at all times. 

We all love the work and like each other a lot, and that’s really important. We have lunch together almost every day, including with staff from other departments in the building - business services, development, membership services, etc.  

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