How two women are changing the face of artifact and collection care
East County News Service
February 12, 2019 (San Diego) – Starting any company is always a risk, but starting one that is so specialized that only a small handful of people in the entire country do it, well that’s on a whole new level. Yet that is exactly what local San Diego author and historian, Melanie Dellas, and museum professional and anthropologist, Karen Lacy, did – and they are changing the way museums and private collectors think about caring for their objects and fine art.
Their company, Muse Curatorial Consulting Group (MCCG), was born out of a love of history and historical preservation – and from a growing need they saw within the industry. It serves cultural institutions across our region, including San Diego’s East County, and beyond.
“Melanie and I have been caring for museum collections for over 25 years, collectively,” Lacy said. “During that time, we have worked with various institutions and collections from around the world, and saw differing standards and knowledge of preservation and care. We saw a need for a centralized group of professionals offering a variety of skills, as well as to advocate for the need to put collections care as a priority. We created a one-stop shop for museums and private collectors to fulfill that need. From collection management, conservation, and archival care, to grant writing, exhibit development/design, and custom storage and rehousing, our team of professionals can do it all.”
Dellas and Lacy met 7 years ago when Dellas was in grad school at the University of San Diego and was interning at the museum Lacy was Collections Manager for. A single mom of two young sons, Dellas was a full-time student and full-time mother who needed to reinvent her career after the recession closed the doors of her previous business.
“I needed to show my sons that no matter what life throws at you, you can be strong, pick yourself up and take the risk to follow your dreams,” she said, adding that when it was time to choose a museum to intern at, the San Diego Museum of Man was her first choice. “I wanted to work with the mummies! And it was there that I realized what I wanted to do next: protect artifacts and keep history alive through material collection care. Karen was my boss and mentor, and we bonded over history and motherhood.”
The two women struck an immediate friendship and co-curated the museum’s Monsters! exhibit, which showcases their mutual love of folklore, mythological creatures and pop culture monsters from around the world. “Melanie was more interested in the Classic mythology, whereas I was fascinated by Dracula, fairies and zombies and how they were being reimagined for film, television, and literature,” Lacy said. “We were a perfect blend.”
Six years later, the women decided starting their own company would not only give them more time to spend with their families, but would allow them to care for cultural objects in more than one museum, as well as for private collectors. They have always been inspired by history, so when forming their own company, using history as their muse, was easy, and Muse Curatorial Consulting Group was born.
“It was definitely scary to say to my husband and myself, ‘OK, I’m leaving the world of full-time employment with benefits to start a company that may or may not take off,’” Lacy said, “but Melanie and I knew it was worth the risk. Private collectors are constantly looking for people to help them care and exhibit their objects and many museums need temporary staff they can trust. We realized there was a need and knew how important a job it is to preserve history for future generations. Besides, how often do you get the opportunity to challenge yourself and hang out with one of your closest friends?”
Starting a business is nothing new for Dellas, who successfully owned two magazines for nearly 10 years: Native American Casino and San Diego Performer. Native American Casino received the Gaming Voice Award – Best Publication from the American Gaming Association and the Gold Ink Award for Best Cover Design. She has also been published in the San Diego Business Journal’s Top 50 Women Business Owners.
But this company was different. “My previous company was very corporate and entirely dependent on ad sales, and the recession made it impossible for us to continue, unfortunately,” Dellas said. “However, MCCG is different in that it combines my knowledge and love of business, with both mine and Karen’s passion for history and historic preservation. It’s very easy because we go to the client and are able to provide much-needed services for museums and collectors that have small budgets and may not be able to support a full-time staff person, yet really need the help.”
MCCG offers a broad range of services for its clients, aimed at supporting the preservation, conservation, assessment, and respectful care of historic and cultural materials, artifacts, and archival records. “Our mission is to guide each client in the preservation, curation and respectful care of historic and cultural ethnographic, archaeological, fine art, and archival collections,” Dellas added. “We provide services to private collectors, museums, businesses and cultural organizations, and train them to take the lead after we have completed a project, while maintaining open communication for as long as is needed.”
Both Karen and Melanie bring a family approach to collections care. “It is not just about the object, but the history of the object and its meaning, both known and unknown, that is important to preserve,” Lacy said. “With this holistic view of object care, we bring a high level of care standards to each object but also connect the owners and stewards of the objects to a better understanding of the object itself. If a steward knows the object, they will be better able to care for it.” Muse prides itself with caring for the objects you love. Each object, piece of art, book, or photograph is treated with respect and love regardless of its monetary or historic value. Muse chooses to care for objects the way you care for them, making us the perfect partners in stewarding your collections together.
The Muse Team
Co-Owner & Cultural Object Preservationist
Prior to MCCG, Melanie worked in the Curatorial Department of the San Diego Museum of Man (SDMoM) for seven years helping in the preservation of the Museum’s 100,000+ ethnographic, archaeological and archival objects. Some of her many responsibilities included conservation and rehousing work on objects; monitoring environmental conditions; cataloging and inventory; assisting in the creation of object handling procedures; monitoring the installation and de-installation of objects within exhibits; writing condition reports, and training volunteers and interns. She has also conducted in-depth historical research on many collections within the Museum and within the community.
Melanie has co-curated the Our City, Our Neighborhoods exhibit for the San Diego History Center, and co-curated Monsters! for the SDMoM. For both exhibits, Melanie helped create the exhibit storylines and content; conducted in-depth research, chose the objects and ephemera to be displayed, and wrote labels for the objects. For Our City, Melanie was also responsible for budget creation and implementation.
Melanie is also an experienced grant writer for the nonprofit community, author, and magazine editor and publisher. She has written three books in her Fantastic, Fabulous Creatures & Beasts series, which gives readers an inside look into mythological creatures from cultures around the world. She has also co-authored a book with her oldest son titled, Pat-A-Cake, Pat-A-Cake...We Made A Mistake! Her two magazines, Native American Casino and San Diego Performer, were in circulation for 10 years, collectively. Native American Casino received the Gaming Voice Award – Best Publication from the American Gaming Association and the Gold Ink Award for Best Cover Design. Melanie has also been published in the San Diego Business Journal’s Top 50 Women Business Owners.
Melanie is an Associate Member of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works, a member of the Archaeological Institute of America, Chair of Convivio’s Italian Heritage Commission, and past-president of Schola Antiquorum, the Ancient History University. She graduated with honors from the University of San Diego with an MA in History, and from Purdue University with a BA in Professional Writing and Editing. She has also studied at the Northern States Conservation Center.
Co-Founder & Cultural Object Preservationist
Karen Lacy has over 18 years of museum and writing experience as well as a Master’s degree in Museum Science, a Master's degree in Anthropology, and a Bachelor’s in History with minors in Art History and Anthropology. Throughout her career, she has strived to combine her love of anthropology, history, collection care, and teaching. She has worked, volunteered, and interned at a number of museums including history, art, science/technology, and anthropology museums.
Prior to MCCG, Karen was the Collections Manager for the San Diego Museum of Man (SDMoM). Her duties included care of the artifact collections, research and development of exhibits, pest management, environmental monitoring, and aiding the curatorial department in keeping with national AAM/ICOM standards. A large part of her duties included working directly with interns and volunteers, training them on various project tasks. She also worked heavily with the archaeological collection, performing site record searches and artifact access for local Cultural Resource Management firms and local Native American bands/tribes.
This position enabled her to work with people and ethnographic collections from all over the world, such as Alebrijes and Mata Ortiz pottery from Mexico, and textiles from Guatemala, as well as numerous objects from ancient Egypt and South America. Additionally, she attended meetings on behalf of the curatorial department with special events and exhibits, updated the employee handbook, co-authored the volunteer handbook, as well as co-curated an exhibit on Monsters! Since 1999, Karen has participated in annual excavations with various universities and the Texas Archaeological Society, working with volunteers at various experience levels. Prior to working at SDMoM, she curated a number of exhibits including the Women of Flight, Amelia Earhart and a traveling exhibit SPAFF, the South Plains Army Airfield.
Karen believes the best way to care for collections is continuing education in the museum and anthropological professions by being a board member of the San Diego County Archaeological Society (SDCAS), attending classes at the Balboa Art Conservation Center (BACC), and various other workshops on collection care. She is constantly familiarizing herself with new tools and techniques including several collections management databases such as Collections Space, PastPerfect, EmbARK, Re:discovery, Microsoft Access, and FileMakerPro.
Beyond her MCCG duties, Karen loves teaching. She is currently an ESL teacher through an online platform and is an Adjunct Lecturer in Anthropology at the San Diego City College. She has also become a coordinator for the California Archaeological Site Stewardship Program in which two-day workshops are conducted, lead by Karen. Through this program she is training new site stewards to help protect cultural resources throughout California.
Listen to our podcast, Muse Stories: The Unusual History of Every Thing, on all podcast outlets or our website: www.MuseCuratorial.com.
Muse Curatorial Consulting Group supports and adheres to the Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC):
- Limit damage or deterioration
- Provide guidelines for continual use/care
- Recommend appropriate environmental conditions for storage and exhibition
- Encourage proper procedures for handling, pacing and transport
- Document examination, scientific investigation and treatment by creating permanent records and reports
AIC is the national membership organization of conservation professionals that advances the practice and promotes the importance of the preservation of cultural property. Our conservation professionals are all members of the AIC.
MCCG is a member of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, American Alliance of Museums, American Federation of Museums, San Diego County Archaeological Society, California Archaeological Site Stewardship Program, and American Association for State and Local History.