Behind the Feather Duster

By Hand Through Memory

Sometimes, spring cleaning sneaks up on you, even when it’s snowing outside. This past weekend, the chore began as a quick vacuum to make the layer of cracker crumbs from the 4-year-old disappear. With the dark corners underneath furniture and behind curtains, however, my simple task became an all-day chore.

At the High Desert Museum, our collections volunteers do some spring cleaning of their own. Recently, both Spirit of the West and By Hand Through Memory, permanent exhibits, were briefly closed for an annual cleaning. Open since 1988, Spirit of the West offers a journey through the High Desert in the 19th century, including a Northern Paiute shelter and Hudson’s Bay Company fort. By Hand Through Memory, which opened in 1999, focuses on the Columbia Plateau Indian Nations. These two exhibits house hundreds of artifacts and objects, seen by thousands of visitors every year. To preserve the integrity of every single object, they must be cleaned, dusted and vacuumed.

Yet in exhibits with so many objects, where do you even begin cleaning? My house is one thing. An exhibition is quite another.

As I began quietly poking around the brightened exhibits, I was greeted by a small group of people doing their dizzying chore with immense pride. The spring cleaning is organized and guided by Museum curatorial staff. They are assisted by a group of dedicated, knowledgeable volunteers, many of whom have done this year after year. Darla, one of the collections volunteers, shared with me that the project is a huge part of their stewardship, the great care and ownership they take in the High Desert Museum.

The very first thing they do is remove all of the woolen and fur objects and props. They are packed neatly in labeled plastic bags and put in the freezer for forty-eight hours. Wait, a freezer? In order to destroy any moths that may be attempting to call it home, the object goes into an industrial-size freezer not meant to store employee lunches. Yes, even the taxidermy beaver makes the freezer his den for two days.

Once the woolens and furs and still-life critters are tucked away, the real cleaning begins, the kind of cleaning that happens with vacuums, brooms, feather dusters and soft rags. Just past Silver City in Spirit of the West is a cattle rancher’s settlement, with a wagon and cooking gear across the path from the bunkhouse filled with tack, every piece of equipment one might need to saddle and ride a horse. Each piece of riding headgear is gingerly removed from its hook and slowly cleaned with a soft cloth. The 100-year-old tack is returned to its place, creating the scene for visitors and making them feel like they’ve entered the bunkhouse of a real-life vaquero. No vaquero would let dust gather on his tack.

During my time chatting with the volunteers, I learned the difference between a prop and an object. A prop is something that a visitor might have physical access to, a wool blanket in Spirit of the West or pelt in By Hand Through Memory. Props are delicately stored in the freezer with the furs and woolens but do not require the same level of pristine handling as do the objects. Objects are protected behind glass or at a distance from the visitor and handled with the utmost care.

Once the cleaning of the scenes and objects is complete, the delicate focus returns to the woolens and furs. In Spirit of the West alone, there are seventy wool or fur objects. One might expect that every object is handled the same way, with cloth gloves as if in an episode of “Law & Order.” I learned from Darla that some gloves can pick up fibers from the furs. Thus, some objects require latex gloves and others require a clean hand. The small team working on the project knows without communicating which object requires which kind of glove. Clearly, this is a seasoned crew. One by one, the objects are laid out and cleaned with a low-powered vacuum. A small screen is placed in between the object and nozzle. The screen protects the object, keeping it from giving up too much fiber.

Closing off the popular permanent exhibits is done rarely. It’s done only for the most important of reasons, cleaning being one of them. The team works fast, with care and speed. Spirit of the West and By Hand Through Memory were each closed for five short winter days.

Both exhibits are back open to the public and looking as pristine as ever. Already, I can’t say the same for my carpet.

 

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