At Conserv, we care about collections AND the people who care for collections. In this latest blog, we talked with Kristen Costa about how she uses Conserv’s museum preservation tools to take tasks off of her plate as she manages a collection spread over different locations.
As the Senior Curator of the eclectic Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) in Rhode Island, Kristen Costa must be multi-disciplined. Luckily, her lifelong curiosity has prepared her well. Originally from Massachusetts and surrounded by remnants of the American Revolution, Kristen grew up with an early appreciation for history and a love of learning.
When picking an activity on vacation as a kid she, “always chose a museum or a historical site.” Even though she wanted to be a doctor, Kristen realized her strengths aligned closer to a career in the humanities, specifically cultural heritage. She majored in American Studies at Franklin Pierce University and received a Master’s in Public Humanities from Brown.
As a self-described “professional generalist” of the museum world, Kristen developed her skills working at county historical societies and sports halls-of-fame. Her varied experience eventually landed her an Assistant Curator job at the Newport Restoration Foundation, and over the course of the next 14 years, she became the Senior Curator.
Established in 1968 by heiress Doris Duke, the foundation is responsible for two historical house museums in Newport– Rough Point and Whitehorne House– as well as the forty-acre Prescott Farm, a preserved tribute to agrarian heritage. Although Kristen considers the 11,000 piece collection to be on the smaller side, the separate locations require her to cover a lot of ground.
Collections preservation tools should not add more work
A large part of Kristen’s job is learning about, researching, and interpreting Doris Duke’s life and collection to educate visitors about this “unconventional woman of her time,” but Kristen is also in charge of caring for the collection and the historical homes in which it is housed. This includes Integrated Pest Management (IPM), supervising conservation, overseeing contractors, managing collection techs, directing interns, maintaining exhibits, organizing exhibitions, and completing a multitude of little tasks that come up everyday. She mused, “every now and again, I’m like, ‘why didn’t I choose something easy?’”
A major chore for her was looking after the sensors she had inherited from her predecessor. Kristen explained, “We have sort of a mish-mash of Onset HOBOs, and I say mish-mash because I have some that are Bluetooth-enabled, I have some that are old-fashioned with the paper charts, and I have some that you have to put the shuttle in.”
One thing the sensors did have in common was that they required her to physically gather data at both museums once a month to make sure the environmental conditions were in range, a task that took a considerable amount of time.
Further, since her office is at Rough Point, and Whitehorne is a mile and a half away, she would have difficulty traveling between the two to collect information from the sensors, especially during the busy tourism season with heavy traffic and a full parking lot.
Her facilities team could be at any of the three sites on a given day, so even after retrieving the data, finding time to communicate her findings was its own challenge. Her longtime facilities manager helped her utilize the HVAC system to supplement the antiquated monitoring, but she found it understandably inconvenient.
To interpret the data, they still had to sit down at a computer together, taking time out of both of their busy days. The insights were often after-the-fact as well. “I’d say, ‘Hey, sometime in the middle of September we had this huge spike, and he could go in and say, ‘oh yeah that was the day the motor cranked out,’ or something like that. So it wasn’t ideal,” she explained.
Remote environmental monitoring that just works
Environmental monitoring is important, especially at these ocean-side museums with sensitive collections, including gilding, fine mahogany furniture, and a large costume collection. So when the facilities manager left and Kristen came back from maternity leave on a hybrid schedule, she started looking for a new system.
She wanted sensors that would provide real-time, remote data to save her precious time and keep her team on the same page. That is when Kristen heard about Conserv from her contract conservator whose son went to school with one of our founders.
Installing environmental monitors in historic buildings like those managed by the NRF can be tricky, but Conserv makes it easy. The Whitehorne House is an old brick building that interrupts the functionality of Bluetooth enabled HOBO sensors. Since we use LoRaWAN connectivity rather than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, Kristen said that our sensors work perfectly at Whitehorne.
Rough Point offered additional obstacles. “Initially because the building is steel, masonry and granite, we did have to play around with where to install the gateway,” she told us. But even in that challenging environment, the gateway worked just fine after finding proper placement.
Quickly, Kristen realized Conserv was exactly what she needed. “I loved that I could log in, and all the info was right there. I could see it in real time,” she said. Our system saves Kristen hours of time she would have spent maintaining her old environmental monitors.
Before Conserv, she told us upkeep of the HOBO sensors, “became such a rote exercise that I wasn’t really monitoring– I was just making sure that those things didn’t die.” With our system, she can rely on alerts to tell her if a battery is low or if conditions are out of range, and she likes that we are a steady partner that is always there if she needs us. She told us, “I know that if something happened tomorrow, I could reach out to you.”
Preservation tools that save time for a diffused team
Conserv’s remote system is especially useful to manage environmental conditions with her team spread out in different locations. Kristen can monitor the situation at Whitehorne while in her office at Roughpoint or when working from home. She can check the weekly report over lunch from her phone as opposed to traveling to different sites, downloading data, and then spending time poring over information from a month ago.
The shareable reports created by our software can be sent along to the facilities crew so that they can respond quickly if something comes up. Also, her colleagues can download the app themselves to keep an eye on the museums no matter which site they are currently working at.
Kristen thinks that the ease of use allows for a lot more buy-in from the team on environmental monitoring. She told us that pertinent information is “easy to see, it’s not like you are looking at this tiny chart, trying to figure out which side is which and what the different things mean.”
The real-time data came just in time for the Whitehorne House because the NRF had recently received a grant to renovate the building’s systems.
With Conserv, Kristen was able to communicate easier with construction consultants. “We were able to use that data and let these consultants see it in real time, too,” she said.
Kristen has plans to utilize Conserv even more in the future, like tasking an intern to import all the old data from the HOBO sensors. Although she is trying to implement the IPM recording available through the software, she still needs to retrain the collection techs so that they can finally stop saving bugs in their freezer.
She liked the update that allowed her to stay logged in to Conserv Cloud, letting her bring up vital information even quicker without having to remember her password.
We know every second counts for someone as busy as Kristen, so we are always optimizing and adding more functionality to our preservation tools based on feedback from professionals like her. As a nimble partner in collection care, we hope to continue to make her life as a Senior Curator a little easier.
If you have any questions about environmental monitoring, integrated pest management, or just want to talk about preventative conservation, please reach out to us! Don’t forget to check out our blog or join our community of collections care professionals where you can discuss hot topics, connect with other conservators or even take a course to get familiar with the Conserv platform.