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.