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Carnegie Museum of Natural History Reimagines Storage for Special Vertebrate Paleontology Collections

April 27, 2016 ET
Conservation technician Linsly Church cleans and repairs one of the type specimen which now how a lid with a window to protect the specimen. Methods such as these are improvements to prior storage solutions.

Recipient: Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Program: Museums for America

Year Awarded: 2014

Grant log number: MA-30-14-0045-14

Website: www.carnegiemnh.org/

 

Contact: Gretchen Anderson
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
(412)665-2607
andersong@carnegiemnh.org

 

 

Caption: Conservation technician Linsly Church cleans and repairs one of the type specimen which now how a lid with a window to protect the specimen. Methods such as these are improvements to prior storage solutions. Copyright: Carnegie Museum of Natural History

 

“This project has provided our team at Carnegie Museum of Natural History a better understanding of collection stewardship. Our team continues to carry these methods forward in all the work we do with the museum.”

– Stephen J. Tonsor, Ph.D., Director, Science and Research, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Part II – Article

Carnegie Museum of Natural History, situated in the industrial city of Pittsburgh, Pa., was founded by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in the late 1800s as the Carnegie Institute. Today, the museum continues as a leader in research and innovation, maintaining a national presence as one of the top five natural history museums in the United States. The museum’s mission is to increase scientific and public understanding of the natural world and human cultures.

In the corners of the museum not open to the public, strides are made to preserve specimen collections housed in the original museum building. While there have been a number of storage and environmental upgrades over the last 100 years, staying up to date with industry progress continues to be a concern of the museum.

Enter Gretchen Anderson, the museum’s preventative conservator. Anderson, along with a team of collection managers and contractors, has been charged with rethinking methods of storage and preservation. Environmental upgrades were already in the works, but Anderson took the process a step further with the support of a 2014 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The grant specifically calls for the development of secured storage for components of the museum’s vertebrate paleontology type collection of 462 specimens, considered a valuable resource for paleontologists worldwide.

Old specimen storage, left, shows thin slabs of fragile rock with fossil material embedded in the rock. These trays were previously stored with no padding. Right are new trays, most of which are custom made. Each specimen is nestled into a cavity or cradle mount made of soft inert foam which is lined with a barrier to reduce abrasion of the fossil edges. Copyright: Carnegie Museum of Natural HistoryOld specimen storage, left, shows thin slabs of fragile rock with fossil material embedded in the rock. These trays were previously stored with no padding. Right are new trays, most of which are custom made. Each specimen is nestled into a cavity or cradle mount made of soft inert foam which is lined with a barrier to reduce abrasion of the fossil edges. Copyright: Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Caption: Old specimen storage, left, shows thin slabs of fragile rock with fossil material embedded in the rock. These trays were previously stored with no padding. Right are new trays, most of which are custom made. Each specimen is nestled into a cavity or cradle mount made of soft inert foam which is lined with a barrier to reduce abrasion of the fossil edges. Copyright: Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Small Mammals, Large Collections

The vertebrate paleontology collection conserved in the museum is one of many shapes and sizes. Fossil fishes, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, birds, and mammals make up the collection which serves a variety of uses including permanent exhibition and academic study. In the interest of preserving the collection, the museum prioritizes mitigating risk when considering storage possibilities. Some high-level risks include vibration, handling, and environmental factors such as relative humidity and pollution. Mitigating these risks ensures that the state of the specimen is relatively unchanged over time.

Environmental Factors Unique to Pittsburgh

The museum comes with its own unique environmental factors that Anderson and her team took into consideration. Located in the heart of Pittsburgh, the museum has inherited the notoriously polluted environment of the past. At one time, many of the museum’s collections were stored on open shelves, leaving the specimens vulnerable to dust, soot, and other environmental debris. Housing these specimens in closed cabinets vastly improves their protection from environmental harm while also removing a century’s worth of soot and air pollution.

Storage on the left shows new cabinets with new mounts. The mobile storage system on the right shows the old system – open drawers made of wood. Copyright: Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Caption: Storage on the left shows new cabinets with new mounts. The mobile storage system on the right shows the old system – open drawers made of wood. Copyright: Carnegie Museum of Natural History. 

Upgrading Storage Mounts

Often, collections are kept in storage boxes that can be very acidic, adding to the risk of specimen deterioration. In addition, some boxes do not have padding to keep the specimen from shifting. In response to these issues, the team upgraded the specimen mounts. “These specimens are millions of years old and mostly made of rock—you’d think they would be impervious,” said Stephen J. Tonsor, Ph.D., Director, Science and Research, Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “But they are in very different conditions than when they were first unearthed, and upgrading these storage mounts allows us to provide adequate protection in their new environment.”

Many original specimen labels were written or typed on acidic card stock. As the project progresses, the information is being verified, entered into the computer and printed out on acid-free card stock. Original labels are saved and encapsulated so that they do not deteriorate.

Caption: Many original specimen labels were written or typed on acidic card stock. As the project progresses, the information is being verified, entered into the computer and printed out on acid-free card stock. Original labels are saved and encapsulated so that they do not deteriorate. Copyright: Carnegie Museum of Natural History 

Rewriting history

Along with the storage upgrades, the team looked at the specimen labels. These vital components connect the specimen with all of its documentation. However, much of what was written previously was written on acidic paper, which was a common practice for the industry. The museum is now reprinting the labels on archival cardstock while encapsulating the original labels, protecting them from further breakage or deterioration.

Stewardship of Collections, Stewardship of Teams

As the museum’s only conservator, Anderson relies on staff members from various museum departments to implement these storage plans.  She relies heavily on the museum’s curators, collection managers, and technicians, instilling a culture of cross-departmental communications throughout the institution. Anderson notes that there has been an increased level of willingness to work together:  employees respect what their colleagues do well and strive to update preservation methods. Teams across the museum operate within the mission of conserving and protecting, always working to make their methods more efficient and effective.

A Dusty Path Forward

This project has not only united teams across the museum, but changed the way museum projects are handled. Through the success of this project, the museum has become a leader in stewarding collections.

One of the project’s many byproducts is the museum’s rethinking of storage areas and their usages. “We have been able to reorganize and go through materials that are no longer in use,” said Anderson. “By clearing out those old materials, we were able to make space for other colleagues’ projects, such as establishing a digital photography lab for our vertebrate paleontology collections manager so she can digitize collections.”

As the project comes to a close, the museum plans to share their methods with other like-minded institutions. Tonsor notes, “In the conservation community, there is really a spirit of open sharing. As a result, progress in our field has been rapid. It’s a wonderful thing.”

The museum aims to have the majority of the storage improvements completed by the end of the year.

Programs: 
Museums for America