Part 3 of 4: Out West, arts and sciences find harmony

This article has been corrected. You may view this article’s correction here.

WEST HAVEN — The Peabody Museum of Natural History’s male elephant bone figurine and the Yale University Art Gallery’s female wooden counterpart, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, will soon be reunited — on the West Campus.Two new arts core facilities, focusing on conservation and digitization, are scheduled to open this summer at the sprawling former Bayer HealthCare complex here. The arts community will have at its disposal the 426,000 square-foot manufacturing building A21, which officials say will enable Yale’s already strong professional art schools, museums and libraries to expand their collaboration efforts and preservation capabilities in a way unthinkable on crunched-for-space central campus.

No caption.
No caption.

The two core facilities will join an existing science core facility, the Center for High Throughput Cell Biology, which launched July 1 and is one of three science core facilities — which provide faculty members access to machine-intensive services — planned to open here.

Of course, given that its previous occupant was a pharmaceutical company, the West Campus is widely perceived as a science facility. But Yale officials emphasize that the arts will play just as significant a role in the campus’ future development.

“The arts are on equal footing with the sciences,” Michael Donoghue, the vice president of West Campus planning and program development, said in an interview. “They’re not in any way viewed as an afterthought.”

A TRANSFORMING SPACE

With acres upon acres of available space, the West Campus will make neighbors out of Yale’s currently spatially segregated libraries and arts institutions: the Peabody, Yale University Art Gallery, Mudd Library, Film Study Center, School of Architecture and School of Drama are all at different stages in the process of moving various operations to the new site.

“With West Campus, we can facilitate communication,” Donoghue said. “The beauty of it is that they can be located with neighbors that have things in common.”

But this is still a far-off reality.

Indeed, A21 — a hodgepodge of dusty offices with 1980s décor, painted cinder block hallways reminiscent of a high school gymnasium and low-cost research benches with orange countertops — is in a period of transition. Bubble-wrapped artifacts greet visitors from the many shelves of A21’s bare concrete rooms, thousands of film reels fill the freezers in its loading dock, and piles of leftover equipment lay scattered along the wall of what will be the Mudd Library’s future home.

Although the building still needs to be renovated before it will be ready to permanently welcome the collections, the Peabody has already transported 1.6 million artifacts from its 12 million object collection, with plans to move approximately 1.4 million more by the end of 2009.

Despite its projected use for housing collections, A21 is not going to be just another place to stash overflow artwork and archaeological artifacts, emphasized Jane Pickering, deputy director of the Peabody.

“The important thing is to not see it as a storeroom or annex,” Pickering said. “Everything going on in the museum is going on in West Campus as well.”

The sheer size of the available space makes it possible to browse the stored collections in a way that is not physically possible on central campus, officials said. In current storage, items are often only accessible to curators — and even they need to provide advanced notice to gain access, said Susan Matheson, the chief curator and acting director of the gallery. Many of the collections can only be retrieved with 35-foot forklifts, she added.

While the science facilities were already equipped with ready-to-use laboratories — requiring little more than moving in personnel to run them — the art facilities need to be built up nearly from scratch, Donoghue said.

However, for this same reason, the vision for building A21 is “not as clear-cut” and planners have more latitude in imagining uses for it, Donoghue said.

“On the collections side, we’re trying to be really creative,” he said. “We’re trying to accommodate interesting new storage and curation possibilities.”

CONSERVATION: DEFYING NATURE

One thing, however, remains clear: West Campus will play a major role in helping the arts preserve their relics for posterity.

Conservation efforts on Yale’s central campus are stunted by limited space and resources, said Roberta Pilette, head of preservation for the Yale University Library.

“It’s very tight,” Pilette said of central campus. “We need more space and we want to hire more conservators, but our lab is packed to the gills.”

Then the Bayer complex came into the picture.

“When West Campus was purchased, we said ‘Wow! This has possibilities,’ ” Pilette said.

Thanks to the new core facility enabled by the new site, dusty old manuscripts, archaic furniture, excavated mosaics and fragile paintings can be conserved on a much larger scale, officials in the art community said.

Ian McClure, the chief conservator for the gallery, said the West Campus’ vast space will allow conservators to conduct more sophisticated analyses of large works, such as historic interiors, entire rooms that have been preserved from various periods.

Such projects will take place in the conservation facility’s two labs, one of which will house equipment for analysis and the other, the swing laboratory, to enable preliminary examination. McClure said the laboratories will allow conservators and researchers to analyze material techniques and paint schemes, and to date and locate artwork, books and other objects on a larger scale.

Although the labs are still being equipped, the first conservation project — a 20-foot by 10-foot gallery mosaic excavated in Jordan in the 1920s — is slated to begin by the end of the semester. In addition, some of the artwork de-installed in preparation for the renovation of the Old Art Gallery will be sent to the new analytical laboratory, Matheson said.

The gallery’s mosaic will eventually be accompanied by an even more ancient and exotic artifact: a Brontosaurus skeleton that currently resides in the Peabody’s Great Hall of Dinosaurs.

The large space will not only allow the Peabody to remount the skeleton but also make it possible to showcase the 18-month, six-figure project to the public for weekly viewing, Pickering said. (She declined to name a start date for this project, citing a number of issues to be resolved before the dinosaur could be moved.)

DIGITIZATION: VHS to BITS and BYTES

At the same time, the arts community will use A21 to make virtual backups of their collections.

Tentatively scheduled to open this summer, the digitization core facility will transform physical objects and records into digital media.

“Digitization will help us preserve everything that is vulnerable and valuable in our collections,” said Barbara Shailor, the deputy provost for the arts. “It’s going to be a massive public space.”

A subcommittee of the Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure will submit a proposal to Donoghue in March, outlining the digitization core facility’s functions, she said. Planned functions of the facility include digitization for records and collections, digital fabrication for architecture models and automated data generation. The center will also be equipped with large-scale 3D scanners and special cradles for fragile books.

The director of the Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure, Meg Bellinger, said she anticipates many institutions will take advantage of the high-tech facility at the West Campus. “West Campus will be an environment for sharing both the expertise and the expensive material necessary in a digitization lab — thus optimizing investment,” she said.

While priority will be given to records whose originals are in danger of disintegration, Bellinger said digitizing other collections will depend on the availability of funding. She added that the current economic situation may require planning for the facility to be less ambitious and move more slowly.

Overall, as the arts community works to preserve the past, Donoghue is looking to the future. Despite the opportunities for growth that these conservation and digitization efforts will enable, he warns against thinking about the vision for the arts on the West Campus as simply a plan to “get bigger.”

The facilities, instead, will emphasize synergy and new permutations that will bring what he called Yale’s “position of strength” in the arts to the next level.

“We have fabulous institutions, but this allows us to recombine them, to leverage them, to bring them together to do something novel,” Donoghue said. “It’s about doing new work at these intersections.”

Jessica Letchford reported from West Haven, and Zeynep Pamuk from New Haven.

For part one, “A new campus springs to life,” click here. For part two, “Robots, researchers settle into new home,” click here. For part four, see Friday’s News.

Comments