Agents of Deterioration: Dissociation



When we’re talking about dissociation in a museum and collections context, we’re talking about the loss of data that is associated with an artefact, or just losing the artefact altogether from poor collections management. Separating data from an object can be detrimental because then the object loses its value. Not just monetary value, but educational and informational value.


Having an artefact is one thing, but without its context, all that information of its surrounding, burial environment, what was found next to it, above it, below it… the artefact is essentially worthless because we can’t get any proper information out of it that will contribute to the archaeological record.


Context is key; not just for archaeological artefacts, but all cultural heritage objects.


This agent of deterioration is different from the other nine we talked about because it has nothing to do with the physical integrity of the object, but instead it affects the legal, intellectual and cultural aspects associated with it.


Dissociation occurs when we lose the information associated with an object. This could be a missing label, an accidentally deleted entry on the collections database, mixing up two objects, misplacing an object, or even just writing information down in a way that no one else can understand.


All other 9 agents of deterioration can contribute to dissociation. Incorrect or high relative humidity or water damage can loosen adhesives that are keeping labels on, light can fade the ink that was used to create the label, if the label is put directly on the object like with a lot of ceramics, abrasion from physical forces can rub part or all of it off, a fire could burn up archives or records rooms… you can see how they all can play a part in dissociation.


Another thing we need to be aware of with dissociation is the cultural implications. At lot of museum objects from native cultures hold a continuous value and meaning, which means they need to be taken care of with respect and in a certain way. If an object is handled in a manner that is disrespectful or not proper, the value of the object to the stakeholders could be lost and that is NOT okay!


Combating dissociation is essentially the organization Olympics. Because without any labels or information attached to your objects, your collection just becomes someone’s cluttered basement.


A lot of dissociation measures boil down to good collections management protocols. If objects have labels attached to them or written on them, and then placed with them in their box on the storage shelf, and the shelf itself has a label on the specific spot where the object belongs, AND THEN that spot was marked in the collections database with all the other object information, it’s much more likely that we’d be able to find and care for that object than if everything was just labeled and then placed willy nilly around the room and was never put back in the same place twice.


It’s also very important to have a standard for labelling, documentation and recording. Keeping hard copies on paper are great, but they should always be backed up on a collections management system.


It’s also a good idea to do regular inventories of your collection to make sure everything is where is should be, and all labels are in good condition. This is also super helpful for monitoring the overall condition of your collection, and it may re- familiarize you with things you forgot you had! Think of it like a fun little treasure hunt.


If you find any objects dissociated from their data or vice versa, then create a list of those. With any luck, you might be able to find a few matches here and there. It’s like when you’re sorting out all the singular laundry socks and you end up finding a few pairs that got lost along the way.


Dissociation is a short and sweet agent of deterioration to discuss because it’s all about good housekeeping. Collections managers, conservators, registrars and curators are all key players when it comes to maintaining the integrity of a cultural heritage collection so we all have to give them a huge high five for the organizational mess that they deal with on a daily basis.


Looking to find out more?


Canadian Conservation Institute- Agents of Deterioration: Dissociation by R. Robert Waller and Paisley S. Cato

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