From the Bench: Conservator of All I Survey

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By Gretchen Anderson, Conservator, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

In 2009, I was hired as the sole conservator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH). I moved from a small museum, the Science Museum of Minnesota, to one of the great natural history museums, housed in a national landmark building and holding over 22 million stellar collections. The most efficient and effective way to determine the future direction conservation should take at CMNH was to conduct a general survey.

CMNH first conducted a general survey in 1989, funded by IMLS. The survey report was used as the foundation for the museum’s first comprehensive long-range conservation plan, a plan that guided conservation efforts for the past 20 years.

This is the second survey that I have been involved in. It was developed in collaboration between museum representatives and a team of expert consultants: Catharine Hawks, Dr. Robert Waller, and LEED Engineers Ernie Conrad and Paul Kreitler from Landmark Facilities Group.

Consultants Rob Waller (left) and Cathy Hawks (right) meet with Invertebrate Zoology Collections Manager Albert Kollar (center).

Phase 1: Planning

I gathered background documents from staff and conducted an in-house review of environmental conditions and monitoring methodology.

Phase 2: Site Visit

The objective was to provide consultants the opportunity to assess the buildings and collections and interview stakeholders. The consultant team was on site for six days. We had to tour three buildings, looking at both the public areas and behind the scenes, such as collections storage and workrooms, mechanical rooms, and attics. We met with staff from curatorial sections, administration, facilities, events, and exhibits. This was by far the most intense and enjoyable part of the project.

Phase 3:  Collaborative Analysis and Strategy Development

The task was to develop workable strategies to reduce the risk to collections. This took the longest and was the most difficult phase. We spent a great deal of time writing and editing the survey results so that the report spoke with one voice. There was a lot of discussion between the consultants on specific issues, such as reasonable environmental conditions

Consultant team views the attic space and notes the glass ceiling.

Phase 4: Final Report  

The final product ended up being a very thorough report that identifies the risks to the collections and prioritizes these risks for future care. Strategies for addressing improvements are recommended. The report is being used as the foundation for a detailed long-range conservation plan and a planning tool for administration.

This survey allowed me, as a new conservator at the institution, to learn who the main players are, and build relationships with my museum colleagues who can help me move collections preservation strategies forward.  As a result of the grant we now have a new long-range preservation plan which will guide our conservation and activities for years to come.