This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, part artisan, part caretaker, a conservator works 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 www.imls.gov/applicants/available_grants.aspx.
By Catherine Sease, Senior Conservator, Peabody Museum of Natural History
The Yale Peabody Museum’s collection of historical scientific instruments consists of approximately 4,000 instruments from a variety of scientific disciplines. Despite its significance, the collection has been completely inaccessible since 1991. At that time, due to the planned demolition of the building in which it was stored, the collection was packed up and, due to a lack of storage space, remained packed up until 2011. Over the years the boxes were extensively stacked and restacked and were moved at least three times, including the most recent move over seven miles. They have been stored in areas with uncontrolled climatic conditions, and have been exposed to drastic fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity as well as minor leaks and floods. These are all conditions that could easily cause the deterioration of the instruments.
Because they were packed up, the instruments were unavailable for study, teaching, and exhibition. Their inaccessibility was further compromised by the inaccuracy of the catalog record. We knew that the catalog contained numerous errors; for example at least two percent of the collection was listed as missing. In addition, many instruments had accessories and parts that were not catalogued and some were packed separately from their primary instrument.
Our IMLS-funded project enabled us to unpack the entire collection and rehouse it in new high-quality storage cabinets in a storeroom with climate control suitable for the long-term preservation of the collection. As each instrument was unpacked, the museum’s catalog was checked to verify that the description was accurate and all the pieces were present. Many were also photographed and the pictures were uploaded into the database. We now have a complete inventory of the entire collection on the museum’s database that is available to anyone with access to the Internet. The instruments are now spread out so that students and researchers can easily browse through the collection and see the instruments without touching them. They are now readily available for teaching and exhibit. Even though the project is not quite finished, we have already had requests for the loan of instruments for exhibits and professors are using instruments in their classes.