NEDCC Outreach Conservator Tahe Zalal Discusses Her Work
NEDCC Outreach Conservator Tahe Zalal ordinarily travels across the country to provide free Outreach Consultations, the Center's unique service designed to help staff at collections-holding institutions care for their collections.
Let’s have a chat with Tahe and learn more about her work.
First, can you tell us a little bit about why you became interested in conservation?
Growing up, my mom took us to museums and historic houses all the time, which I believe laid the foundation for my appreciation of art and artifacts. It seemed like a natural fit when I found myself working in the conservation field starting in 1999. Knowing that our work allows future generations to have access to original artifacts like I did at a young age is very rewarding.
What exactly does an Outreach Conservator do?
As NEDCC’s Outreach Conservator, I have traveled around the country visiting institutions and giving on-the-spot advice on collections, including specific items of concern or planning for the preservation of whole collections. My activities have included answering questions at our exhibit booth at national and regional conferences, and then scheduling appointments to visit libraries, archives, museums, or historical organizations in the region to offer free advice and guidance on preserving collections. I am happy to help all kinds of collections-holding institutions no matter the size. NEDCC’s mission is to “improve the conservation efforts of libraries, archives, historical organizations, and museums,” and my work is just one of the ways that the Center does that.
What is the difference between your consultations and NEDCC’s other assessments and consultations?
The free Outreach Consultations that I provide are typically two hours or less, and I can answer questions on a wide range of topics, from discussing specific items in your collection to general preservation advice and planning. Or I can just be your brainstorming partner about future preservation and conservation projects. The visit doesn’t result in a formal report, but you’ll have lots of resources for follow-up.
The Preservation Services staff provides Preservation Needs Assessments and Digital Preservation Assessments, which result in a comprehensive report that can be presented to stakeholders or used in preparing grant applications. NEDCC’s Conservators and Audio Preservation staff provide Collection-level or Item-level Assessments focusing on the condition and conservation needs of individual items or whole collections. The conservators can also schedule consultations regarding specific materials. Learn more about NEDCC’s types of assessments and consultations.
How are you helping people during the COVID-19 shutdowns?
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, I have been doing outreach from home by providing guidance through emails, phone calls, or online meetings. Many people are unable to access their collections but still want to discuss topics such as grant opportunities for future projects, storage concerns, or sharing exciting preservation or conservation initiatives taking place at their institutions. Some are able to send photos of particular items with condition issues or that show how objects are housed. I want to give those collections professionals an opportunity to pick my brain. It’s good to get the conversation going during the shutdowns, and then I can still schedule a free on-site visit when it’s safe to travel again. Plus, it’s been great staying connected.
Can you tell me about the types of issues you have been asked to advise on, and about a couple of your particular calls or virtual visits?
The Maine State Archives was my first virtual site visit, and Archivist III Sam Howes still had access to his site. He showed me a stack of folded documents with cement adhered to them creating a block. Although I couldn’t see the object in person, I recommended that he bring it to NEDCC to have it evaluated by one of the paper conservators when it was safe to do so. He had several other questions, including light exposure for a future planned exhibition. Sam mentioned that being able to ask questions in real time and ask follow-up questions was extremely valuable.
I also had a web conference visit with JoyEllen Williams, Special Collections Curator at Kennesaw State University Museum, Archives, and Rare Books, Kennesaw, Georgia. I provided guidance on proper housing and shelving, and gave specific advice on framed items in acidic materials. JoyEllen had questions about how best to handle and store damaged materials until treatment could be planned, and how to prioritize items in need of treatment. We discussed steps that can easily be taken in-house to secure loose materials and prevent further damage.
Emma Stratton, Executive Director at the American Independence Museum in Exeter, New Hampshire, had previously scheduled an in-person visit for June this year. So, we talked for an hour instead, covering topics such as storage environments, light, recommended enclosures, exhibition, the whole gamut. She had prepared a list of questions before the meeting and took full advantage of the opportunity. I advised that a Preservation Needs Assessment would be a great next step because it would provide the Museum with a comprehensive report which could aid in planning activities and fundraising.
I had met Miranda Peters at the New England Museum Association Conference in 2019. She is Director of Collections at the Fort Ticonderoga Museum in New York, a site that I had once visited during vacation. Miranda was interested in taking time to think about future conservation projects during the web conference session, and to follow up on the free resource links that I had sent.
What do you enjoy most about your work? Both pre-COVID-19 and now?
Besides getting to travel around the US visiting museums, libraries, and archives and seeing their incredible collections (Hello, dream job!), the true highlight is making a positive impact. It can be as simple as directing people to our preservation leaflets, sharing creative fundraising ideas and grant opportunities that could be a good fit, or pointing out something that can be done in-house that requires little to no money. I think having an outside perspective helps to highlight some of those issues that might be overlooked because larger priorities take precedence.
Although my travels are on hold for the time being, it still is satisfying to know that I can provide the same kind of advice to professionals that oversee their valuable collections during the shutdowns. Offering collections advice related to COVID-19 is especially meaningful right now.
When is the best time to reach you?
Normally, I would be away at conferences and on-site visits, but now I'm easier to reach. Please feel free to get in touch to ask those nagging preservation and conservation questions, or just to share a recent success with a conservation or preservation initiative.
I’m available Monday through Friday from 8:30-4:30, and you can email me anytime to set up a time to chat!
Tahe recently virtually visited several clients around the U.S. The conversations were helpful in a number of ways and her clients commented on the value of meeting with Tahe:
Director of Collections
Fort Ticonderoga, NY
I had the pleasure of meeting Tahe in person last fall at the New England Museum Association conference. When Fort Ticonderoga's collections management staff began working remotely back in March, Tahe reached out with free resources and training that would be useful to me and my team. She also offered to set up a web conference chat to discuss any conservation needs my museum might have.
Tahe’s informal, approachable demeanor encouraged me to think about future conservation projects that we would like to accomplish, which was a treat when I had spent so much time just thinking about the here and now in the midst of the pandemic. She had also ordered one of the museum's Gorget tee-shirts, based off one in the collection, between the time we met at NEMA and when we spoke via web conference.
I am thankful to have such a knowledgeable conservator, as well as a personable and caring individual in my digital Rolodex.
Miranda Peters and Tahe Zalal web chat during an Outreach Consultation.
Special Collections Curator
Kennesaw State University Museum, Archives, and Rare Books
My virtual meeting with Tahe Zalal was an incredible opportunity. The meeting was completely customized to address the preservation needs of the rare book collection at my institution. For example, Tahe used her expertise on paper conservation to suggest methods for treating books with foxed pages and preserving a collection of donated books made with rapidly deteriorating wood pulp paper.
I especially appreciated Tahe’s encouraging spirit. During these unprecedented times when I am unable to access the collections on a daily basis, Tahe and the NEDCC gave me a chance to develop professionally, connect with a colleague, and feel good about my work as curator of rare books.
Some items discussed during the consultation:
an example of foxing, and the cover and title page of a rare 1896 paperback
on deteriorating wood pulp paper.
American Independence Museum
COVID-19 has reminded us how critical collections care is, especially at a time when staff are working from home. We wanted to take this opportunity to act as the best stewards of our collection and assess where we stand with collections care.
We are a small history museum housed in a ca. 1721 house with no HVAC. Like many small museums, our collections care is a mixed bag. Some of our rarer items have been conserved and properly housed by NEDCC in the past, but we want to ensure all our collections receive the attention and care they deserve.
By having a virtual conversation with Tahe, we were able to discuss some of our pressing concerns and hear more about the assessment program and a path forward. We also shared a few photos of objects we were concerned about and discussed potential solutions. The silver lining of COVID-19 is that it is permitting us time to slow down and look at our operations through a different lens.
Even without the public in our buildings, we have a duty to provide the best level of care to our collections and buildings-- and we are grateful to NEDCC and Tahe for providing us with an opportunity to do so during this unprecedented time.
Learn More about the American Independence Museum