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Museum Technician Helps Care for Priceless Artifacts

By Cindy Atoji Keene

The zen part of Adam Osgood’s job as an arts handler is staying centered and calm while caring for a gilded 18th century tea bowl instead of being filled with anxiety that the priceless object might accidently tumble to the floor. Or being able to intuitively discover a better way to store and ship a rare manuscript that is so brittle that it could easily disintegrate or crumble. “It may sound strange, but I find the more delicate and fragile an object is, the more calm I become while handling it. I’ve had to train myself for a long period of time to get to this point,” said Osgood, a collections technician for Historic New England, where he helps care for the organization’s artifact collection, maintained and preserved in 36 historic house museums, including the Quincy House and the Gropius House.

As a former gallery attendant at an art museum, Osgood spent hours watching museum-goers peer into the cases of the Asian art collection, never dreaming that one day he would be actually be tasked with the responsibility of overseeing such centuries-old antiquities. “As a preparator or collection care specialist, I am the primary human contact with the collection and get to touch things a lot, which is a very cool part of the job,” said Osgood, who works with conservators to mount and dismantle exhibits or figures out the logistics of moving displays, whether to the conservation lab or photography studio. “In a period room, you can’t go willy-nilly and just put a nail anywhere in historic wall paper, since the entire building is an historic object to be cared for. You need to be cognizant that you’re hanging a piece of art in an environment where the very rug you stand on is part of the exhibit.”

Q: How did you go from gallery attendant to the frontline of museum collections?
A: I’m a visual artist and a musician, and 12 years ago, while working as a museum attendant, I learned a lot about the collections by reading and talking with curators. My Cinderella moment came when I was offered a position as a curatorial assistant. I never thought a BFA would get me a 9-5 job, which is where I’m at today, after working in various museums.

Q: How does your background as a sculptor help you care for the exhibits?
A: It’s a plus in this line of work if you know how things are made and understand how to take care of them. As an artist, it’s my natural compulsion to protect an object from any inherent weakness in it. For example, I never hold a teacup by its handle, as it’s the weakest part of the cup.

Q: How many objects do you deal with as a collections technician?
A: We have over 70 to 80 thousand pieces of furniture, paintings, ceramics, metal, glass, textiles and works on paper. Many of these items are preserved in our Haverhill storage facility where we control the temperature and humidity as well as ultra-violet light levels. One floor is largely dedicated to furniture; another section has rows and rows of paintings and prints, and yet another categorizes textiles, costumes and clothing. I am continually protecting our collections from pest infestations. If someone donates an upholstered chair, for example, there is a risk of carpet beetle infestation, especially if it’s stuffed with horsehair. As a precaution, I will place the chair into a carbon dioxide gas fumigation chamber to get rid of any pests.

Q: You’re constantly handling valuable artifacts. Do you have any horror stories about near-catastrophes?
A: We all have them. In the trade, you’re considered a better art handler for having experienced a potential disaster. My near miss happened while I was putting a box of textiles on top of a tall cabinet. I blindly pushed the box on top of the cabinet and still remember vividly the sound of an unseen metal object crashing down on the other side. Unbeknownst to me, on the opposite side of the cabinet was a pushcart full of 300-500 year old ceramics. To this day, before I put anything anywhere, the entire space has to be surveyed to be sure it is completely clear. Nothing was broken but I learned my lesson. Once you’ve experienced something like this, you become a smarter professional.

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