Friday, October 17, 2008

Tips on Documenting Antiques

Say you've spotted an antique in a museum that you would dearly love to reproduce. How do you obtain permission and, if approved, how do you go about taking measurements and photographs?

First, you need to contact the museum's curator and ask for permission. In correspondence, be polite, honest, brief, and let the curator know that you will accommodate his/her schedule.

So. Now you have permission to document measurements and photos of your beloved artifact. What do you need? How do you prepare? All you need is a ruler, tape measure, notebook, pen, and camera, right?
Yes and no.

That's all that accompanied me on my appointment with the scheitholts, and I was ill prepared....and nervous that I would take up too much of the director's time. So much so in fact, that I forgot to take the measurements of the overall length of both zithers!

This morning I heard back from the curator at the Gettysburg Military Museum, granting me permission to photograph and measure Robert E. Lee's Medicine Box (after December).

I haven't been this excited since the Christmas I unwrapped my "Space 1999" action figure set and model spaceship.

This time, I'll take a worksheet with me that lists all the parts of the cabinet that need to be measured and columns for wood/other material, width, length, height, and thickness. I'll also sketch the cabinet (it helps if you can take a snapshot before your appointment) and label the parts so I remember what each set of measurements refers to.

The other thing I'll do is not get too creative with the photos (like I did with the zithers). I'll be sure to take lateral, top & bottom, and straight on shots of each part of the cabinet. That way, if I forget to take a measurement, I can refer to the photo and use a known measurement to obtain the missing one.

Have I forgotten anything? Probably. But it's an exciting learning experience of galactic proportions.


Metalworker Mike said...

I can only think of one thing to add to this, and that is that if the thing you are intending to copy has moulding then you might find that you can't get an 'end' to trace, so you might need to take a profile gauge. Plastic only, please. :) You'd probably need to clear the use of a profile gauge specifically with the curator, but it's the only fast way to get the profile without injuring the piece. Field-expedient references might be bent up out of a paper clip, but a standard profile gauge (those things with thousands of fingers that you push against a profile then it holds that profile so you can trace it on paper) are much faster, easier, and usually more accurate. The profile gauge can also help you on all kinds of turnings like feet, knobs, etc.


Anonymous said...

Hurray for you! That's an extremely interesting chest and it is fun to anticipate your report on getting to know it.

The worksheet is a great way to be sure you get all the measurements. Would it be too redundant to include a checklist of photos you would like to take?

I hope you can share your findings with us.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget to take a small ruler or other measuring gadget for the photographs. You'll need a reference point from which to gauge future measurements.

Anonymous said...

I recommend you try the software program "Sketchup". It is a free download and easy to use. You can actually put a photo in the program and then trace and scale anything from your photo if you have one very accurate dimension you can see in the photo. I have made complete sets of plans and you can do a three dimensional rotatable (is that a word?) view and get any dimension you need. It is marvelous. You can buy the pro version if you like it and it will do more things.

R Francis said...

And, if the museum has done its cataloguing properly they will have taken the overall dimensions and much besides. So you may be able to get the zither size without a second trip. Often the Registrar or conservator of the collection will have more pertinent information for your purposes than the curator. And they should be able to tell you the exact materials and the conservation history which might give you clues as to possible failures in the original design.

Anonymous said...

Having been there I can bet you get home without some important information. The importance will be directly related to distance traveled and difficulty of access. Take a mirror with you so you can see underneath better. I even take photos of things seen in the mirror. most of the time you can't touch the artifact so the plastic profile gauge is a non-no but you can take photos of moldings straight on and get a profile from those. Some times you need a sheet of paper to put behind to get a clear image. If the piece is tall a mirror on a stick is very handy. Some people make 1" cubes to put in shots to aid in measuring later. This works fine if whatever you are measuring is in the same plane as the cube other wise a large locking tape measure can be extended and set on the floor next to the piece for your photos. Take many photos, you will be glad you did. Take them from as straight on as you can.

Anonymous said...
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Kari Hultman said...

THANK YOU for the all the great ideas. I was hoping that people would chime in with their own techniques. I will be ultra prepared for this next documentation!

Anonymous said...

I have done this a few times with heritage houses which are a little larger than a zither, I'll grant you. With these, I am able to take complete measurements but even so, there is always something missing. On my second attempt, I tried positioning pieces of wood of known lengths into the square-on images I took of different details. It worked out well for me. When something didn't seem right in the plans I developed, I simply used those pieces of wood as a measurement reference and transfered that measurement to the missing value in the same image. Its not perfect but it is close. They also allowed me perspective as I created the plans.

Also, just a quick thanks for recommending The Village Carpenter by Walter Rose. It was a very enjoyable read and I'll no longer feel guilty when I put down my hand planes and move over to my electric drill press.

will said...

Have you seen John Kassay's "The Book of Shaker Furniture" (1980). It has marvelous, finely detailed drawings of Shaker furniture - it was based on years of his own research.

In 1998 he released another book of detailed drawings,"The Book of American Winsor Furniture: Styles and Technologies".

Anonymous said...


Will you be making the measurements of the Medicine Box available? I have a couple of people interested in reproductions.

Also when reproducing items from collections, it is important to give credit to the institutions.

Of a lesser note, I think it is imperative that the pieces be marked in such a way as to not be confused with the original. A modern touch mark can be removed but a hole drilled with a modern drill will not show up except on x-ray, a la Henry Ford Museum Brewster Chair.


Woodfired! said...

Useful post as always, Kari. You often make me laugh out loud (in the best way!) but the Space 1999 reference was glorious. Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. Phew!! Aren't we gloriously diverse in our interests!

If you ever get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY could you use your new skills to measure this for me? This magnificent coin cabinet by François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter is an inspiration for me. I will base a cabinet on it some day.

Kari Hultman said...

Mitchell, thank you for the suggestion and I'm glad that you enjoyed the book.

Stephen, thanks for bringing that up about marking reproductions so there is no confusion. The Mercer Museum curator asked me to sign and date the zither for that very reason. I was not permitted to post exact measurements of the scheitholts, so I'm not so sure I'll be able to with the medicine box. I'm finding out that museums are very careful about that sort of thing and have lots of restrictions. I had to sign all kinds of papers in order to access the zithers.

Mark, I thought the shape-shifter lady was pretty cool, but her eyebrows freaked me out. haha

The cabinet at the Met is fabulous! 22 drawers on each side sounds like quite a challenge. I've never been to the Met---I'll add it to my list. : )

Kari Hultman said...

Bill, I own the Shaker book by Kassay and you are right--the drawings are exquisitely detailed.

Shazza said...

Space 1999 Action Figure set and model spaceship? For real?

Wow - I only had the Star Trek enterprise model kit.

You tackeled the hard stuff.

This just proves once more we are kindreds of souls and total dorks!

Kari Hultman said...

Shazza, that was one of my all time favorite gifts. That, and the football my dad gave me when I was 7.

Dorkdom was my destiny!

Anonymous said...

I stumbled on to your site after looking to see where Alf has been. First I see that you attended the recent Brown sale. I did also, and have not missed one for a number of years--always worth while! Then in a later entry I see you have an interest in Robert E. Lee's "medicine box". Would this happen to be the box displayed on top of his field desk? I have a number of photographs of this from the old Gettysburg museum. I build my interpretation of the desk/table but have yet to get around to building the top portion.

Nice site!

Kari Hultman said...

Hi Anon, the medicine box was on the floor in the display that I saw at the new Gettysburg museum, but it's probably the same one you photographed. I liked his field desk, too. I bet you had a fun time building it. : )