Thursday, November 20, 2008

AMNH Random Specimen Conservation Survey

I’ve been a long-time volunteer/intern/employee at the American Museum of Natural History (about 8 years now, and loving every aspect) in several different departments, and I was elated this past September to be extended an invitation by Lisa to join the Natural Science Conservation Department (hooray!). However, upon being told that my tasks as an intern at the museum involved opening hundreds and hundreds of drawers to assess available space (696 drawers to be exact!?! *cue in dramatic music*), I became slightly confused, and more than a little overwhelmed. What exactly did this have to do with conservation? I couldn’t quite make the correlation between the hands-on specimen treatments that I had anticipated that I’d be doing, and now discovering that I’d be taking a survey of available space and condition on an entire storage floor of the Department of Paleontology. Lisa and Chris, my supervisors, had been so incredibly nice and so accommodating that I was almost afraid to ask, for fear of coming off as unwilling. But luckily, as it turned out, the answer presented itself to me without my ever even needing to inquire. Conservation of the specimens themselves within a collection is almost a moot point without first employing a bit of collections management. I guess I’d been so used to looking at things on a micro level (having just finished up a term position in archaeological textile conservation) that I’d slowly been losing a sense of the bigger picture. When approaching a new collection, it makes total sense to first survey it and get a sense of what you are working with. Only then can you prepare more specifically and plan around the collection’s needs. Now it has become obvious to me that you first need to gauge how much material you need, how much time it will take, how many conservators will be necessary, how one should distribute a budget, etc. It would be impossible to just start at one end of the room and fix every specimen one by one down the line – funds would be extinguished in a heartbeat without even taking care of those specimens in the worst and most dire condition! Gaining a scope of the work that will be needed is absolutely integral, as well as prioritizing the work and immediacy needed by the specimens that are to be addressed.
Basically, this is where I come in. The aim of my project is to rank and assess the urgency of care of the fossil horse collection of the Paleontology Department (which is totally appropriate since there is a great exhibit on horses going on in the museum right now), as well as to chart the space available for expansion.

Basically, the storage rooms themselves, as well as the storage cabinets, have been updated and rearranged recently to meet more current conservation standards (for example, getting new steel archival cabinets with rubber seals instead of older non-archival wooden ones). The entire project was spearheaded by Chris and Jeanne and has taken years to complete. The scope of the project is ENORMOUS and funding (as is usual with museums) has had to be stretched thin and made to go far. However, despite the tremendous overarching progress that they’ve made, the collections still have a ways to go in order to stabilize all of the individual fossils. They need attention on a more minute level, which is very costly. Essentially, my aim is to get a grasp on how they have been holding up in the meanwhile. However, there is no real established method for doing my kind of work, which is also one of the goals of this project: to develop a process. As you’ve probably assumed, it’s tremendously time consuming and costly for staff to just go through one by one and look at each specimen. In a collection of hundreds of thousands to millions of fossils, it would take ages just to see what you’ve got, not to mention get an accurate estimate of what more you need. Not only is time money, but also it would be at the expense of the fossils, which would be crumbling away in the meanwhile. So my task is to try and streamline the process with Lisa and Chris, with the objective being to standardize an effective process.

We’ve already researched many, many articles published by museums worldwide on how to approach a job of such magnitude, and we’ve been working hard to tailor my survey to the specific needs of the Paleontology Department’s collections. So far, we have put together a fantastic and efficient template that makes my work both quicker and easier, without sacrificing the individual needs of the collection (but more about that later on...). So far, with my IPOD to keep me energized, and a ladder to keep me practical (I’m barely 5’1”), I have finished the first portion of my survey, which was to assess all the available space in the collections – and it only took me about a week! It is actually pretty nice to be a test subject in establishing your own process and rhythm to working efficiently. Not to mention, I had completely underestimated how downright AWESOME it is to be able to basically snoop around in the collections (which kinda resemble a scene out of Indiana Jones)! In fact, I was explicitly told to leave no drawer unopened. Think about it – being given the green light to explore the storage rooms of the best museum in the world! It has completely changed my view of museums in general: from sterile cold showrooms, into literal treasure troves of education and caretaking.

Like I said, I have been working with the fossil horses, and it’s completely fascinating. I can’t say that I’d had any prior experience in horses, but these fossils are amazing – from the imposing skulls to the intricately grooved teeth. Some of the fossils themselves are practically fossils twice over – they were excavated and brought to the museum over 100 years ago! Even the boxes they arrived in are awesome – sometimes they are in old metal film canisters, sometimes they are crammed into old (now antique) cigarette boxes, and covered with the most sprawling, beautiful early 20th century calligraphy. Sure, there have been times where my work started to feel a little bit tedious (more so because of the constant climbing up and down that ladder), but it was quickly overruled by the sense of accomplishment I got (and still get!) from knowing how beneficial this work is in preserving what we have, and will be able to study in the future. Whenever a scientist is in the storage room with me, I become aware that there are people who spend their entire lives studying the material that will soon be absent from mine when my project concludes. It reminds me what an absolute privilege it is to be allowed this small window into their lives as well as into the life of a museum community. Everyone around me here has such a tremendous sense of forward thinking from studying the past, and I’m more than happy to keep the condition of at least one collections space running at that same pace.

Friday, October 10, 2008

After the end of the initial eight week internship, Jessica and i stayed on for additional time. For the first two weeks, we worked together lining as many upper cabinets as we could! Jessica tied up the loose ends of her georeferencing and I began the task of combing through the localities spreadsheets for Ainsworth, Lusk, Skinner, Florida and Mongolia. A lot of sites required more attention, so the coordinate hunt ensued! After those weeks had passed, Jessica flew home to Chi Town for a brief respite before jet setting to Australia, where she will be residing with her sister for some time.

For the past six weeks since Jessica left, I have been the sole intern, working closely with volunteers and division staff. In continuing with georeferencing, some tricky locales have necessitated a whole new level of ingenuity. I've been finding a lot of information about the family names associated with different localities from local library records. Obituaries and other articles are great ways to link people to each other and to the land. The days of microforms such as microfiche and microfilm are behind us as access to public records news clippings is extensive on the internet. In one instance, an obituary led me to a folklore account that provided a surprisingly accurate geographic map and further, triangulated the position of an evasive locality. I have been working hard at patching up some holes in the georeferencing, further confirming web derived coordinates with information from specimens, shipping records, and other associated data as well as organizing this information into a format that is decipherable to the human eye and agreeable with PaleoCat, the Paleontology Division's specimen database.

Georeferencing is a somewhat new entity in the museum field that staff from all different divisions are interested in carrying out. It is invaluable to gain a full understanding of the source of the specimens in the collection. Before georeferencing, you might know specific locations for many specimens, but there are also going to be a lot of very unclear locations, perhaps named after obscure rivers or old, long since torn down farms. Much research and detective work leads to pinpointing the location on a map and from these coordinates, a better idea as to how localities and specimens are geographically related.

Georeferencing is a translation from one type of data to another.
Hand drawn maps and written descriptions translate into decimal coordinates.

I have also been spending a lot of time down in the collection. You wouldn't realize it, but just keeping materials in supply for rehousing is a task unto itself! I've been cutting foam, maintaining tags (for uncatalogued specimens, specimens needing repair, and drawers needing reorganization), labeling drawers, and keeping lists. Such tasks require detailed notes! Most importantly, I have been working with volunteers three days a week. I've trained them in all of the duties associated with rehousing the collection down on floor three as well as in georeferencing. This sort of transfer of skill is extremely important to the continuation of the project. Having a seamless flow of the knowledge gained through a couple of months of experience on the project saves a lot of time when new volunteers and interns continue our work. The volunteers and I have worked closely together over these past six weeks and it has been great not only to experience their interest, enthusiasm and admiration of the collection but also to hear some fresh new perspectives.

New Floor Layout

Easy To Read Labeling = Optimal

Tagged Drawer

A few recent rehousing highlights:

Old Newspaper Packing: always contains
dated but amusing articles and adverts

It has been a real adventure working as an intern in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. I have observed the organization and management of many different divisions within the museum and gained an entirely different outlook on the manner in which museums function. What you see as a visitor, though beautifully and meaningfully represented by the exhibition staff is a mall percent of the collections held within. Educating the public directly is only one function of the museum. The vast collections are under constant study by intellectuals from around the world and are essential to dissertations and publications in the most highly regarded journals. new revelations make old specimens pertinent every day and for that reason the maintenance and conservation of our collections is essential.

Now that these fourteen weeks have come to a close what is next? The volunteers are going to be at the helm of the project, georeferencing new localities and resuming rehousing until the next batch of interns come in and learn the skills from the staff and the volunteers. I have been offered a part time job in the North American Archaeology Lab down the hall in the Division of anthropology. I have however, enjoyed this rehousing project so much that I am going to continue on as a volunteer in this division.

I recently found this letter Skinner wrote to Frick in the archives. Although it was written nearly sixty years ago, and by an established collector, I was struck by how much it echoed my feelings of reverence of this institution and gratitude to have been able to be a part in one of its projects.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Week Eight

Our final week as a group at the museum was downright hectic. So much so, that I am actually writing this from home on Saturday morning! It all began with business as usual: lining drawers, creating lists for specimens needing attention, conducting inventory and georeferencing. I think georeferencing has quickly become one of the interns’ favorite projects. The task began with an excel file filled with hundreds of locality names from sites where perissodactyl fossils have been found. Each intern was assigned a general area, or collector: Mongolia, Lusk, Ainsworth and Skinner. What ensued was a hunt for any and all information about the localities comprising these areas. Searches began with locality registrars and logs as well as Internet databases and mapping programs. When these sources failed to provide enough information it was necessary to find more in the archives! For some localities, it was necessary to find a specimen in the collection in order to figure out where in the archives information about its corresponding locality might be. Confusing? Well, it was to us at first too. Once in the archives, we sorted through shipping records, maps, correspondences, sketches and pictures. How the times have changed! I came across many a letter beginning “My Dearest Frick” and some amusing antiquated language. We spent the beginning of the week really georeferencing up a storm and writing up reports so as to keep the next researcher informed of our progress.

The Archives

Down on floor three, we continued to line shelves of cabinets. We have come across some really interesting contents over the course of our internship. A few weeks ago it was endocasts (horse brains), last week greasy fossils, and this week purple fossils! Let me explain the greasy fossils because this was truly one of the most amazing things my nerdy eyes have witnessed. Last week while transferring fossils, my hand landed in a glob of goo. An intern and I wondered what it could be, some sort of old-timey museum preservational measure? We called our quirky bizarre-trivia expert Carl and he came down to observe. He told us that the Pleistocene specimen, originally found in Alaska in the 1930s must have been preserved in permafrost and had likely been releasing fat in the form of grease for the past seven decades. Pleistocene animal fat, unreal! Despite all the hullabaloo of these exciting rediscoveries, we finished as many cabinets as were available. We also conducted inventory for each drawer in the beginning of the collection.

Tours this week included a Sweet tour of Ornithology and a museum tour led by one of Paleontology’s own volunteers. In Ornithology, we observed beautiful specimens in the skin collection, skeletal specimens, egg and nest collections. Such work is not for the faint of heart. While we were down there one of the head preparators was telling the others how to massage a muscle in the bird that would relax its ruffled feathers. Thursday’s museum tour was a great note to end our tour series on. We went around to some different exhibits and not only learned a lot about the subject matter, but also about visitors’ perceptions ad reactions to the exhibits.

It has been a quick eight weeks and we have seen and learned an invaluable lot about the way a museum is set up, how the different departments interact and how best to problem solve as a team. On behalf of the interns, I’d like to thank the American Museum of Natural History and the National Science Foundation for this opportunity.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Week Seven

Week seven closes with the completion of around 450 cabinets. Lists identifying which drawers need more attention (they contain uncataloged material, need repair, or better organization) have been completed for each of these drawers as well. These lists will give the collections staff a better idea of where improvements in the collection should be made. The moving company is just a few drawers ahead of us so we have fallen into a comfortable pace while we work together.

This week we finished element descriptions. Each intern was given two card catalog drawers of which we were to transcribe the description of each specimen into a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet will eventually be transferred into the electronic database Paleocat. Having completed element descriptions and inventory sheets we are now focusing on geo-referencing and lining as many drawers as possible as we head into our last week.

On Wednesday we were given a tour of the Exhibition department. They are currently in development and construction of a new exhibit that will focus on climate change. We were shown the construction of a model of “a ton of coal” and a polar bear that will be rooting through a trash pile in search of food. While the construction of the trash pile was a wonderful example of the creativity of the Exhibtion crew, its intended impact was felt by everyone – we are neglecting our planet. This was an interesting department to visit, the walls and ceilings display many parts of previous exhibits, including “death masks” of some of the historic mammals currently on display.

Friday morning we were treated to an early morning tour of the 4th floor by FARB Collections Manager Carl Mehling. This was one of the most interesting tours because he shared many of the secrets that went into constructing these exhibits – from the challenges that went into hanging models and a few real specimens from the ceilings, to moving enormous exhibits from room to room, and dealing with the constant damage created by vandalism and the daily parade of Museum Guests. Despite these problems the 4th floor exhibits are beautifully constructed, and the important role that they play in bringing science to the public is immeasurable.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Week Six Math

The end of our sixth week here at the AMNH not only marks the 75% point in our internship, but is also significant for other reasons. We've finally finished pulling inventory sheets for the third floor (which may sound like a simple enough task, but it took an army of seven people five weeks to complete). We have also achieved something we didn't think would happen at all - we've caught up with the movers (an outside company is working with the museum to physically move and clean all of the specimens). They are in charge of bringing up all of the cabinets and all of the drawers from the second floor to the third, and as of yesterday we had just about finished lining the drawers from the 401 cabinets they have filled so far. Our glory was short-lived, though, because after we finished those drawers they immediately filled up 10 more cabinets.

A look at the third floor collections area. There are rows and rows of cabinets that look like these shown here.

So that begs the questions - why is it going faster some weeks than others? And how much will we really be able to complete before we leave on August 22nd? To begin to answer that, I think it's best to show two pictures that exemplify the two extremes we're working with:

Sometimes we have cabinets that are filled to the top with drawers, and those drawers are full of more specimens than you can count (one cabinet we did had 14 drawers). Others will have one or two drawers that have maybe one large fossil in them. This makes some days much faster than others. Overall, though, we've finished 400 of the approximate 700 cabinets that will ultimately be on floor three. Assuming the movers keep up their current rate (and we do as well), we'll probably finish another 160 cabinets in the next two weeks. Although it will mean that we haven't completed the rehousing (there will be ~140 cabinets left to line) it will bring the project very close to completion.

On another note, we've had some very interesting tours over the last couple of weeks. Last week we were treated to a tour of Earth & Planetary Sciences where, among other things, we got to hold a piece of Mars. This week, we visited the Anthropology department and saw parts of the collection (mostly North American materials) as well as the "Smudging Room" - the only room in the museum where it is OK to burn things. This room was created expressly for tribal delegations that visit the department and wish to perform a smudging ceremony with specific ethnological artifacts.

Well, that's about it for this week. Enjoy the last weeks of summer and we'll be back with an update next Friday.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Week Five: A Week in Pictures

The Perissodactyl project involves a lot of repetition - making labels, transcribing catalog cards, cutting mounds of ethafoam, and of course, lining hundreds of drawers. Although it may not always be the most glamourous work, it is absolutely necessary to ensure that the fossils in our care can remain useful for research for years to come.

That being said, there's only so much we can describe through writing in this blog. I thought this week it would be best to show instead of tell...

This is a box full of Dinohippus fossil foot/ankle bones. The Perissodactyl project is working to upgrade storage conditions (the box above is a collection manager's worst nightmare), and part of that is lining drawers, but another important part is keeping track of how many specimens in the horse cabinets are uncatalogued (have not been assigned an AMNH number and therefore have not been officially added to the paleontology catalog).

Here are some interns, hard at work flagging uncataloged specimens and re-lining the drawers.

For comparison's sake, here is a picture of what a more ideal storage situation would look like:

So you can see, in many cases we've got our work cut out for us. We're not worried, though - we are confident that in the next three weeks we will be able to line and inventory the majority (if not all) of the third floor storage area.

An ethafoam horse made out of scraps. Sometimes you just need a break from mounds of horse teeth.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Week the Fourth

This week is our fourth at the museum, and as it ends, we approach the half way point of our internship. It is often said, but never understood how time can move so quickly when one's days are spent bearing witness to so many new things!

This week has truly been the culmination of all the experience the past three weeks has taught us. We have been constantly coming across new methods of performing our tasks more efficiently. Some of these have saved us time, and some have turned out not be be as effective as we had hoped. This week, however we applied the best of our methods and have been lining drawers like crazy, printing out inventory sheets with ease, and transferring information from written source to electronic quickly. I guess it takes a while to find out exactly what will work best and to uncover computer shortcuts. Now that we have we are a working very well together as a team.

I think everyone has also reached a point of familiarity with the area as well. It is always interesting to hear one another's stories of traipsing around the city, or to join in on the adventure when possible, even if it is only a short walk, subway ride or a lunch break.

As a result of rescheduling, we had two collections tours this week! On Wednesday we went on a tour of the museum's wasps' nests. The collection contained over a thousand nests ranging in complexity. We first were shown small, simple, single-celled nests in the type of honeycomb pattern similar to what you've probably seen in your yard at some point. Along the way, Christine showed us nests attached to leaves, camouflaged with intriguing bark patterns and in strange arrangements. The most complex were multi chambered, large spherical or conical nests. I'd stay away from those if you ever see one! The wasps' nests collection contains specimens dating to the early 1900s. This collection is really remarkable because each specimen is extremely fragile. The nests are constructed by a mixture of wasp saliva and wood pulp or mud. In such an instance, maintenance of temperature and humidity conditions is crucial to the preservation of the collection. There are monitors for temperature and humidity both inside and outside of the cabinets and the cabinets have been beautifully lined with archival materials.

Yesterday, we were given a tour of one of Ruth's old stomping grounds, Mammalogy. This tour was incredible! The study of mammals encompasses a wide spectrum. It was fun and interesting to see all the department had to offer. In addition to showing us the collection, Darrin, our tour guide shared anecdotes from the field and enthusiastically catered to our many requests. Since mammalogists are interested in all facets of their specimens, the collection contains skins, skeletons, plasticates, and alcoholics... Each of these types of preservation serve a different purpose and we got to see examples of them all. Personal highlights: tiger pelts, elephant skulls, early 1900s photo archives and a mouse lemur presevered in alcohol!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Week Three

With the end of the third week, things have settled into a routine. On Thursday, we began the last of our varied tasks: inventory. Because the American Museum’s fossil collection nearly doubled when it obtained the enormous vertebrate fossil collection of Childs Frick in the late 60s, the AMNH’s paleo collections contain a large number of uncatalogued specimens unknown to the department’s electronic database. Add to this that the specimens are in the process of being moved up a floor and their cabinets rearranged, and the inventory can be trickier—or at least slower—than you’d expect. Even so the process is important. With a collection so large, a specimen misplaced even by a single drawer can effectively vanish forever.

The rest of our tasks for the week were not new to us and we are perfecting our techniques. Lindsay continues to be terrifyingly ahead of the rest of the game when it comes to entering specimen descriptions from the paper catalog cards into the computer. These element descriptions, when entered, will allow researchers to know which parts of the animal are available for study for each specimen number. We’re all getting better and faster at lining the collections drawers with protective foam, though Ruth has done her best to daunt us. By her calculations, she tells us, we’ll need to be lining 21 cabinets a day in order to finish the necessary 700 that will eventually take up floor 3. We’re somewhere in the 60s. That’s a long way to go. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it was Lindsay who replied immediately, “Mm, that’s doable.” We’ll see!

Georeferencing probably poses the most difficulty. Even those of us with the best kept notes to read from have to parse the different variations on a single locality name or the geographic markers—counties, streams, towns, schoolhouses—that may have shifted or disappeared. And then there’s Mongolia. Attemping to pin down GPS coordinates for a location that’s spelled three different ways in notes written by the same person and that’s located in Inner Mongolia these days can really take the shine off of Google Earth. Inconveniently, it seems Google doesn’t know everything.

In the most quotable moment of the week, we missed our mammalogy tour because I had the brilliant idea to cut my thumb with an Ethafoam knife, the first and probably only injury of our summer project. But Darrin, our would-be tour guide and taxidermist extraordinaire, was on the ball when Ruth called to postpone. Without missing a beat, he said, “No problem, bring her over and I’ll stitch her up.” Luckily, my thumb’s alright, and it all ends well if you get a story to tell out of it.

Next week… the half way point!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Week Two

This week we started Geo-referencing the horse collection. We concentrated on four main locations: Lusk, Ainsworth, Mongolia, and Skinner’s Quarry. To maximize the benefit of these fossils it is important that our information is as complete as possible. Knowing the precise location where a fossil was found is just as important as the fossil itself. It is the task of the interns this summer to fill in as much information about the locations of finds as possible. Country, State, and County are crucial pieces of information to have but they are not always stable in their definition. Determining the latitude and longitude of a locality is an excellent way to ensure that future generations will know precisely where a specimen was found. This is being accomplished by consulting Google Earth, Topozone, and other web based applications that make this endeavor possible and easier than ever.

On Wednesday we were treated to a tour of the Ichthyology Department. They are currently receiving shipments of fish from the Congo where a team of scientists are collecting and conducting research. The Ichthyology Department utilizes a few methods of specimen preservation. The most common is alcohol which allows the entire specimen to be preserved, some specimens are stored in skeletal form, and some are cleared and stained. An enzyme is injected into the fish that turns all tissue clear and stains are used to color the bone and cartilage. This allows one to view the skeletal morphology without visiting the bug room first! The most interesting specimens shown were the Tetra skull with huge teeth, the Tiger Shark jaw, an Electric eel, a Marlin skull, and two gigantic Coelacanth specimens. The female specimen here at AMNH was responsible for settling a long running debate on the development of this unique species. She was carrying 5 pups when she was collected, showing that Coelacanths do not lay eggs but give birth to live young. These finds are crucial in contributing to our understanding of life strategies employed by species and ultimately of their evolution.

We are picking up the pace a little bit each day as we line the drawers on the third floor. It seems a daunting task at the moment as we are still coming up with new ways to increase our speed without causing damage to the fossils. A good lesson in patience and perseverance.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The beginning....

As part of the rehousing project in the perissodactyl collection at the AMNH, four intrepid interns will spend the summer in the AMNH’s world class fossil horse collection—the sort of thing that makes inventory interesting. The first week of the internship passed as four days of precisely planned training, early stages of our tasks, and our reward for traveling to an institution like the AMNH--tours of the other departments around us.

Some of the training was simple demonstration: cutting an ethafoam template to line and protect a drawer of specimens. Some of it reminded us more of our college lectures as we gave our attention to the volumes of information in Chris Norris’ thorough power point presentations.

With our training behind us, we have begun on the biggest of our summer tasks: carefully removing and replacing the specimens of each drawer of equidae specimens in order to line the bare or cotton-lined drawers with protective Ethafoam. Unlike the cotton lining that was previously found in some of the drawers, the Ethafoam will not outgas as it decays, possibly effecting and damaging the specimens chemically.

Between shuttling quickly between training sessions and work periods (and the staff cafeteria with its unexpectedly luxurious selection of cakes), curators and experts in other departments were kind enough to show us around their domains. Ivy took us to her fossil fish, where we saw the remains of a mysterious shark relative Helicoprion known only by its ostentatious tooth whorl.

At the Vertebrate Zoology prep lab, Neil showed us the mildly gruesome flipside to any museum's neatly mounted recent skeletons: the maceration tanks and the flesh-eating beetle room. Both are methods to remove the flesh from the bones of a carcass. Of the two, the beetles are probably the pleasanter. They eat only dead, dry flesh, and smell no worse than a musty pet shop or the elephant house at the zoo. You can flip open the lid and observe their methodical work without much discomfort. As for the maceration tanks, tanks in which the fleshy bones are put in water and left to rot for a long period of time—Neil mentioned casually that forgetting to change out the water in which the meat has been a rotting feast for weeks for huge numbers of bacteria before leaving for the weekend is a mistake you’ll regret. The regret might have something to do with the fact that the air outtake for the maceration room is disastrously close to the air intake for the planetarium next door.

Other sights seen on the various tours include the bizarre curling shells of the heteromorphy ammonites, the giraffe skins in Mammology’s collection, and the false brontosaurus skull that had been mounted onto what is now Apatosaurus.

And tomorrow… a bit of a rest. Happy Fourth of July.