State history buffs help preserve artifacts

Bugs, mold, dampness and sun — not to mention floods, fire and earthquakes — can destroy invaluable pieces of an area's history, so the state has created the Oregon Heritage MentorCorps, a group of 33 history guardians trained to help others shield artifacts against the hazards of time.

Using models and practices created by Amy Drake of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, these mentors teach volunteers in small-town museums, libraries, archives and nonprofit organizations how to best guard documents, photographs and historical objects — all for free.

Drake, the curator of special projects at SOHS, created her Technical Assistance Program over the last three years, working with 16 historical societies in Jackson County and several more in Josephine County. She taught them how to ensure steady temperature and humidity, keep things out of direct sunlight and, in the event of a natural disaster, have a plan for who does what to save irreplaceable collections.

"When we accept objects into our collections, we're basically promising to save and preserve them for eternity," Drake said. "It's a very different set of responsibilities than putting pictures in photo albums or storing them in the attic, where temperatures can vary to extremes."

The MentorCorps opened Wednesday, said Kyle Jansson, coordinator of the Oregon Heritage Commission and project director for MentorCorps.

"Amy was the pilot for it, the technical information model for it statewide, Jansson says. "We knew that the most desired asset of museums statewide was to have trained volunteers. ... We tested it out with SOHS, where Amy successfully implemented it. We decided to expand and shape it based on what she did."

Drake, a graduate of Cooperstown (N.Y.) Graduate Program and Grinnell University, created the training model with historical societies in Phoenix, Cave Junction, Kerby and Prospect, and at the Siskiyou Smoke Jumper Museum in Cave Junction, she says.

"People lose their cultural identity without proper collection care," says MentorCorps volunteer Debra Griffith, who is records archivist for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. "It's a great way for organizations to get that extra help they need, without having to make it a line item in your budget."

MentorCorps members attend trainings year-round in areas such as how to protect old textiles from mice, moths and cockroaches and how to best display items with the lowest possible exposure to sunlight, which fades and breaks down objects, Griffith says. Sometimes, all it takes is glass with a special coating to prevent that.

Preservation of photos can amount to something as simple as identifying who's in the shot, when and what they're doing, then writing it on the back — a step too often overlooked because of lack of skilled workers, Griffith says.

For best preservation, shoot for a constant 66 degrees and a humidity in the 30-percent range, Griffith tells museum volunteers.

Virtually all museum and archival collections in Jackson County, except the Eagle Point Museum (which sits near Little Butte Creek), are distant from potential floods, but the MentorCorps training emphasizes inventorying the most valuable collections, their location and who's responsible for grabbing them and moving them to safe locations when disaster hits, Drake says.

Less predictable here are wildfire and, more potentially threatening, a large earthquake that is predicted for the Rogue Valley, she notes.

Large museums have the staff and resources for museum training and disaster collection care, so MentorCorps assistance is aimed at smaller operations, such as Phoenix, says MentorCorps volunteer and secretary-treasurer of the Phoenix Historical Society, Dorothy Cotton.

"We help the smaller ones that don't have access to a lot of information and support," Cotton says. "They can call us and get answers. If something is damaged, we can come and help or respond on the phone. Here in Phoenix, we don't have problems with floods, but in an earthquake, everyone is susceptible. You should attach shelves to walls now, of course, and you can call us for more help after it happens."

MentorCorps, which operates under the state Parks and Recreation Department, did an online survey and meetings around the state and discovered that 85 percent of cultural institutions have no disaster plan, Jansson says.

"They were flying by the seat of their pants," leaving them to figure out how to save collections after the disaster, he adds, so hammering out such a plan and forming a disaster team was the first priority.

"People are identifying roles about who does what, who gets the sandbags, who calls the fire department, who is the media liaison," Janssen notes, "instead of standing around talking about who does what in the middle of it."

Other mentors in this region are Dru Ellen Smith, Wanda Chin and Terry Dickey, all in Ashland.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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