Peabody collection gets a fresh look

Tim White, the assistant director for the Peabody Museum of Natural History’s collections and operations, likes to tell visitors that the only original part of “Old Bill,” a stuffed rhinoceros, is the horn on his nose. But Lynn Jones, a Museum collection specialist, begs to differ.

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Old Bill is a highlight of the Peabody Museum’s collection of taxidermied animals and is currently housed in the museum’s new storage facilities on West Campus. This year, museum staff have moved about 4 million specimens from the Peabody Museum’s worn-down storage space on Science Hill to a new state-of-the-art space in West Campus building known as A21. The recent move gave Jones the opportunity to carefully vacuum Old Bill before the large animal was packed and moved by truck to West Campus. Underneath layers of dust and grime, she found suture lines where original skin had been sewn together.

“His entire bottom half is real,” Jones said, adding that White would now have to change his story.

Old Bill is far from the only specimen in the Peabody Museum collections that is getting a second look, White said. In A21, Old Bill stands near a stuffed African gavial, an alligator-like reptile, that is roughly 18 feet long and was once cut in two with a bow saw — an unfortunate consequence of an earlier, less conscientious relocation effort, White said. Other museum treasures relocated to A21 include a saliometer, a device for measuring saliva production, used by famed psychologist Ivan Pavlov for his classical conditioning experiments, a magnet capable of lifting 2,000 pounds, dinosaur tracks dating back 230 million years and anthropological specimens such as Navajo blankets. A favorite of Peabody Museum archaeologist Becky DeAngelo is a child’s raincoat made out of “walrus gut.”

While all of these items were available to researchers before the move, DeAngelo said, the relocation process has greatly improved accessibility due to the recent cleaning and reorganization of specimens.

Moving the Peabody Museum collection to West Campus marks a significant step in the University’s efforts to advance research in the sciences and to encourage collaboration among the sciences and the arts, said Michael Donoghue, vice president for West Campus planning and program development. Because the Yale University Art Gallery has storage space in A21 as well, the two museum collections will be in close proximity, allowing researchers in both collections to work together more easily than before, said Derek Briggs, the director of the Peabody Museum. Furthermore, the museum will also be able to take on more specimens from other institutions and more effectively host visiting researchers, thereby fulfilling its role as a major university museum, White said. Indeed, the relocation process to West Campus, the bulk of which was completed this academic year, has allowed Peabody Museum staff to see its collections in a whole new light.

CLOSE QUARTERS

Despite having 18,000 square feet of exhibition space on the corner of Sachem Street and Whitney Avenue, the Peabody Museum can display only about 4 percent of its collection of about 12 million specimens at any given time, White said.

Before West Campus — a 136-acre site with 1.6 million square feet of storage space in West Haven and Orange, Conn. — became a part of Yale in 2007, White said that much of the museum’s collections not on display were stored in small, crowded rooms in several buildings on Whitney Avenue, including the basements of the Peabody Museum, the Kline Geology Laboratory and the Environmental Science Center, as well as space in 175 Whitney Ave.

The rooms left much to be desired in terms of appropriate conditions for collection storage, White said.

“The basements on the main campus are really kind of horrible,” Donoghue said, citing problems with climate control and flooding.

In particular, the infrastructure of Kline Geology Laboratory had deteriorated since the building’s opening in 1963, White said. He said within the past five years, the building’s inadequate air conditioning system as well as plumbing leaks in some of the rooms had posed problems for the maintenance of valuable organic materials in the museum’s paleontology collection, among others.

The rooms were not the only problem, White said. The majority of specimens were stored in cardboard boxes on pallet shelves, White said. But not all objects were fortunate enough even to be stored in boxes, Jones said. For example, several valuable ivory tusks were simply stacked on top of piles of boxes, risking potential damage because the tusks could not be easily seen, she noted.

The lack of work space in the basement rooms also made work difficult for museum archivist Barbara Narendra, White said. For over 30 years, he said, Narendra essentially “had to work out of [her] lap.”

“You were lucky if you could stick your head in the door,” White said, referring to Narendra’s work space.

So it was a fortunate coincidence that the University’s plans for the new School of Management complex called for the evacuation and relocation of the collections from 175 Whitney Ave., which has since been demolished, Donoghue said.

In 2005, White and Donoghue, then the director of the Peabody Museum, set out in search of alternate storage facilities for the museum’s collections. White said they initially considered the University’s library shelving facility in Hamden, Conn., as well as several private warehouses off campus. But none of the locations were suitable, White said, since the University had plans to grow its library collection and would need the extra space in its shelving facility. Furthermore, White thought the isolated warehouses would have created a disconnect between the museum’s exhibition space and its collections, making it difficult for researchers to access specimens in storage.

But when the University purchased West Campus, Donoghue and White set their sights on a 465,000-square-foot building known as A21. The space was new, clean, and humidity and temperature-controlled — perfect for storing artifacts, White said. Because the Provost’s Office considered the relocation a priority since it was tied to the new School of Management complex, it was easy to secure University funding as well as grants from the National Science Foundation, Donoghue said.

WESTBOUND

With the budget in place, the museum staff turned their attention to the relocation itself.

“If you’re lucky, a move like this happens once in your career,” White said.

White was able to draw on his experience relocating a portion of the Peabody Museum collections from the Kline Geology Laboratory into the new Environmental Science Center starting in 2001. While the project took place on a smaller scale and over a shorter distance, it provided White with a valuable opportunity to conduct an inventory of those collections, he said.

It took Peabody Museum staff about a year to plan the move to West Campus, said Annette Van Aken, the project registrar for the A21 building. Moving supplies such as padding and materials for supportive mounts, as well as new storage supplies such as cabinetry, needed to be secured, she said.

The first step in the packing process, Van Aken said, was creating an identification barcode for each object. The object was then examined to determine if it needed cleaning or conservation work, she said. She added that most of the items, like Old Bill, were thoroughly cleaned, often by vacuuming. Afterward, the items were photographed and cataloged in the museum’s most ambitious digitization project to date, she said. After cataloging 4 million relocated specimens, White estimated that 65 percent of the museum’s collections are now accessible on the museum’s Web site.

For the move, the museum purchased its own 20-foot, climate-controlled box truck but relied on two art shipping companies with experience handling delicate pieces, U.S. Art and Surroundart, to build and pack crates for oversized specimens, Van Aken said. Between the specimens evacuated from 175 Whitney Ave. and the Kline Geology Laboratory, Van Aken said two to three moving trips took place each week. While the moving staff did everything possible to minimize risk, damage to some objects did occur, which was inevitable, White said.

“Once you put an item on a truck, it doesn’t matter if it’s traveling 100 yards or 100 miles, it’s still a move,” White said.

Some objects, such as the museum’s collection of wooden kayaks — which are highlights of the Museum’s anthropology collection — proved especially difficult to move, White and Van Aken said.

“We had to take a window out to get the [kayak] out of the basement [of Kline Geology Laboratory,]” White said.

In the end, the museum hired SurroundArt to move the oversized boats, some of which are up to 28 feet long, since they were too long to fit in the truck.

GETTING SETTLED

Before the specimens were placed in their new storage spaces in the A21 building, Van Aken said many of the organic specimens — such as Navajo blankets made with natural fibers — were flash-frozen when they first arrived to prevent deterioration from mold and animal pests. But not all objects — such as those made of ivory, metal or composite materials — are suitable for freezing, she added. Instead, she said, these objects were thoroughly cleaned using other methods prior to packing.

The majority of the objects have been unpacked into cabinets organized by collection type and alphabetical order, she said. White said each of the museum’s 11 collections is housed in cabinets in one large, well-lit room or area — a far cry from the 19 rooms in four buildings that comprised the anthropology collection’s storage space at 175 Whitney Ave., for example. In addition to object storage space, each collection now has an adjacent workroom for museum staff or researchers to examine objects. The workrooms are providing an environment for visiting researchers to collaborate with museum specialists, who are on hand to provide supporting documents or answer questions.

The new setup also minimizes opportunities for specimen damage caused by food, drink or mishandling, White said.

“We now have people in ‘people space,’ and collections in ‘collection space,’ ” he said, noting that researchers would still be able to browse the collections in their storage spaces.

The new influx of space will allow the Museum to continue its practice of “adopting” collections that other institutions no longer have the resources to maintain, Jones said. The museum has taken on such “orphan” or “endangered” collections from Mount Holyoke College and Miss Porter’s School for Girls in Farmington, Conn. With A21, the museum finally has an appropriate space in which to store these collections, she said.

Since its founding in 1866, the museum has focused on maintaining a dynamic and growing collection as a central part of its mission, White said, and the new space will further that goal.

“A finished museum is a dead museum,” he said.

Jones said she is currently working on remounting several stuffed bird specimens, which are currently stored lying on their backs and need to be remounted in a standing position to prevent damage caused by shifts in feather position, from the Mount Holyoke collection. The project, she said, will be easy to complete in her new work space.

LOOKING AHEAD

Now that the major elements of the move have been completed, White said the process of unpacking in A21 will take about five more years to finish.

Donoghue said despite the initial plan for A21 to be a temporary home for the museum’s collections, the space has proven to be a good fit and will most likely serve as a long-term storage facility.

“We now view [A21] as a pretty much permanent solution,” he said.

Briggs, the Peabody Museum director, said he hopes to involve laboratories on West Campus, such as those in the core facilities, in the re-evaluation of the collections. He said the new storage layout in A21 will make the materials increasingly accessible to researchers, Yale students — including undergraduates — and the public.

“The move is totally dynamite from the West Campus standpoint,” he said. “We want to bring museums [such as the Yale University Art Gallery and the Center for British Art] together that are separated from each other on the main campus so that they start interacting more with one another.”

As for Peabody Museum’s now mostly-evacuated storage spaces such as the Kline Geology Laboratory, they will be renovated in the near future, White said. The air condition system in the laboratory was renovated last year, he said, and the few specimens remaining in these rooms will soon be removed so that the floors can be resurfaced and the walls can be repainted. The renovated space might house storage materials or the museum’s carpentry shop, or serve as a “swing space” for materials, White said.

For now, though, museum staff are settling into their new and improved surroundings, and they are eager to work with West Campus art collections staff and laboratory researchers.

“A21 is such a treat compared to the cramped quarters [the Museum collections] were in,” Donoghue said. “It’s a win-win.”

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