This is part II of an interview with Zinnia Willits, Director of Collections Administration at the Gibbes Museum and current President of the South Carolina Federation of Museums.
Where did the idea for the White Gloves Gang originate?
The first SCFM White Gloves Gang (named after the protective white gloves many collections professionals wear when handling fragile museum objects,) was held at the Georgetown County Museum as part of the 2012 SCFM Annual Meeting. While I had a general model of how the program should work (based on the Reinforcement Crew) in many ways I can admit now that I was flying by the seat of my pants! I was well aware that our first WGG project was bound to have a few hiccups, but we were not going to learn how to do it unless we tried!
Planning the first WGG included finding a host institution and explaining what exactly we wanted to accomplish. This involved building a trusting relationship with the staff at the Georgetown County Museum (GCM) since I basically asked them if my group of volunteers could have carte blanche access to their collections and exhibitions for an entire day! Then Director, Jill Santopietro, could not have been more gracious or enthusiastic about being the first WGG “test case.” After making initial contacts, I completed several site visits to GCM and worked with Jill to identify potential collection and exhibition projects that could be completed in a day. Next I had to advertise the project and gather a volunteer force; I also solicited vendors to donate archival supplies…I don’t think I even had a real budget for the first WGG. My wonderful friends at Hollinger Metal Edge graciously donated supplies for the first WGG. The shipment of hundreds of dollars of donated materials meant so much to the GCM who did not have any budget for these types of essential preservation materials. Other tasks included setting the agenda for project day, communicating the plan to our group of ten collections volunteers, dividing the group into teams, laying out each project and making sure volunteers had the necessary tools and supplies. It was a long day, but I loved every second of it and those first WGG volunteers made incredible progress on exhibits and collections at the GCM. Teams “freshened” exhibits and added protective archival barriers between casework and historic artifacts, created padded hangers on which to store and display fragile textiles, vacuumed (with a special museum-quality vacuum) historic christening gowns to remove layers of dust gathered from being on constant display, created storage containers for objects that needed a “rest” from display, adjusted light levels to better protect light-sensitive, fragile objects and so much more!! After this first experience in 2012, it was evident that the SCFM White Gloves Gang was a viable program to be built and developed.
Tell us something you’ve learned about the challenges of small museums through your work with the White Gloves Gang.
I have learned that all museums, whether large or small, matter to the communities they serve. The collections that small museums maintain are exceedingly important to the people who donated them and the stories they tell are the historical fabric of the town, county or region the museum represents. However, many small museums do not have the appropriate staff or budget to adequately care for or exhibit the objects that are so important to people they serve. A museum’s sole staff member may be the Director, often an individual with excellent administrative experience and leadership skills but minimal (if any) training in collection and exhibition management. In many cases these sole employees spend the majority of their time devising programming and membership initiatives that will ensure the museum can keep the lights on and doors open to survive another day! They know instinctively that the collections and exhibitions need attention, but there is very little time, money or training to devote to the objects that are the very reason for a museums’ existence.
However, the SCFM White Gloves Gang program is an excellent resource for these small museum staffs that need collections help; I have seen the benefits and inspiration our projects provide first-hand. The WGG is a tangible manifestation of SCFM’s mission to serve, represent, advocate and promote the best interests of South Carolina museums; the program educates small museums in ways they can make simple, often inexpensive changes to better preserve, and promote the collections they house and the missions they endeavor to uphold. The staffs at all WGG host sites have been grateful for the support and have let us know that watching collections professionals devote an entire day to the display and storage of the museum’s objects was inspirational; in many cases our work resulted in the Director taking future steps to raise funds for a collections manager or to hire an exhibition designer to assist with the way stories are conveyed. These small, devoted staffs are stretched thin in terms of resources and I view it as SCFM’s responsibility to reach out and help however we can. The WGG provides a statewide network of support and supplies for collections management as well as access to collections professionals that a host site can forever turn to for future advice!
What are the future plans for the White Gloves Gang and or how will this program grow?
SCFM announced this past month that the WGG will be hitting the road! I have wanted to expand the program beyond our annual meeting for some time and have finally moved forward with this endeavor. SCFM member institutions can now apply for a day of WGG services and we hope to send volunteer teams out to complete at least two WGG projects per year in addition to the project at the annual meeting. Our WGG volunteer corps currently numbers around thirty collections professionals from across the state and is growing daily. My goal is to provide any South Carolina museum that desires a day of white glove services the assistance they need! I now have a wonderful White Gloves Gang co-chair, Melissa Jolley, Curator at the Savannah River Site, who assists me with organization and management of each project and the WGG volunteers. What fun (and a relief) it has been to share the responsibility and excitement of connecting people and projects with one of my SCFM peers! I have also recently seen an influx of museum studies students and non-collections professionals joining the WGG volunteer group; I love this! We pair those that want to learn about collections management with the seasoned professionals and in this way, each WGG project becomes an opportunity to train others and learn from peers…its win, win!
Recently the SCFM Executive Committee voted unanimously to appropriate funds to the SCFM WGG thereby officially adding the program to the annual budget. I will continue to work with our generous partners in the archival supply industry to provide donations of necessary project supplies and hope to eventually secure a lead sponsor to ensure the program’s future (naming opportunity anyone???) I will continue to engage South Carolina museum professionals to volunteer and participate in the program and encourage all SCFM members to get involved and give back. I am so proud of the SCFM White Gloves initiative and all those who have participated and supported us over the years. I am hopeful that our program will continue to grow and will serve as a model program for other state museum associations. South Carolina museums matter! Their collections and stories are important and SCFM wants to support these museums in any way it can!
Thank you Zinnia for taking the time to share this story with us! For more information about volunteering with the White Gloves Gang or in requesting a visit from the WGG, visit the SCFM website.