West Campus Institute gains momentum

westcampus
Photo by Yale University .

While most of Yale’s West Campus feature laboratories for scientific research, the complex will soon include a new center that uses technology to study Yale’s collection of cultural objects, such as dinosaur bones and medieval manuscripts.

After Peter Baldwin ’78 and Lisbet Rausing donated $25 million last summer to establish the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at West Campus, plans to renovate its future home and hire key staff are underway, said Scott Strobel, Yale’s vice president for West Campus planning and program development. The Institute will centralize conservation and digitization efforts for three of Yale’s primary museums — the Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Center for British Art and the Peabody Museum — as well as for the University libraries. Meg Bellinger, director of the Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure, said the renovation, which has not yet begun, should be finished by the end of 2012.

“The grant that founded the Institute provides funds for renovating the space, which will be underway soon, and for providing excellent laboratory equipment for conservation and a digitization facility as well,” University President Richard Levin said.

The appeal of housing the Institute at West Campus comes from the ease of finding a large home for it within the 1.6 million-square-foot facility, and from its natural fit in Levin’s vision of a campus that fuses the sciences and the humanities, Strobel said. Over the past few months Strobel has identified a conservation scientist, whose name has not yet been announced, and he will soon initiate a search for a conservation director.

In the past, Yale’s preservation efforts have had to outsource scientific expertise, but West Campus’s large population of scientists will reduce costs and enable a more active conservation and research program, said Bobbie Pilette, head of preservation at Sterling Memorial Library. She added that the abundance of space at the new 430,000-square-foot Institute will facilitate her efforts.

“[Sterling’s] facilities for lab space are pretty limited, and we do have to deal with large materials or have large projects,” Pilette said. “That gives us a little more wiggle room to take on these kinds of [large] projects.”

While Strobel said that the Institute’s primary focus will remain conservation, the Yale Corporation has approved plans to set aside space in the Institute for a digitization center, designed by ODAI’s West Campus Digital Core working group.

Bellinger said that her office convened a digital core working group before the gift to evaluate the needs for digitization infrastructure at West Campus, but after the donation, they reimagined the role of digital infrastructure at West Campus as more than just a tool for documentation. While the renovation will be focused on redesigning the Institute’s interior, it will also allow the University to install three-dimensional scanners and other forms of advanced imaging technologies.

Jessica Slawski, chair of the working group, emphasized the potential of using three–dimensional imaging technology for research breakthroughs.

“You could take an object from the Peabody — for instance a full-grown dinosaur — and take it apart and scan each individual item and get a three-dimensional image not only of the dinosaur, but also get an idea of its locomotion,” Slawski said. “That opens up a whole new branch of research.”

Even though Yale’s open access policies, adopted in May 2011, grant anyone access to its digitized collections, Bellinger said she is not sure how the regulations will apply to new technology like three-dimensional imaging. Although making information about Yale’s collections available online would enrich the conservation and scholarly communities, she added that the newly digitized collections may not be immediately available to the public.

“That’s the long-term vision. We have a lot of policy work to do,” Bellinger said.

Before the Rausing and Baldwin gift, the University had planned to create a much simpler storage facility for its museum and library collections on West Campus, which it purchased from Bayer Pharmaceuticals in 2007 for $107 million.

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