Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Final Frontier

Some years ago, the mammal collections at AMNH were in the care of a man called Helmut. Helmut was a tall German of impeccable dress and manners. When Helmut started work there were no such things as collection managers, so he was classified as a museum technician, but he was collection manager in all but name. In the 1970s and 1980s, Helmut did much of the groundwork that took the AMNH Mammalogy collections from the Dark Ages to, if not the 21st Century, then at least the beginning of the 20th.

Helmut was a master of the arcane process by which collection managers make collections fit into spaces much smaller than they previously occupied. This is a major activity in almost all museums. Collections seem, to the untutored mind, to take up a quite unreasonable amount of space. At the Peabody Museum, the Vertebrate Paleontology collections currently occupy over 12,000 square feet. That’s about 8 times the area of my house. Now admittedly my house is not a big one, but that is still a fair amount of real estate. And the Peabody’s collections are small potatoes compared to some – at AMNH, the paleontology collections take up a whopping 60,000 square feet. Furthermore, because of the way in which museums have grown, collections form little (GULAG) archipelagoes of space across a museum’s floorplan, dividing and butting up against galleries, offices, and other non-collections areas and generally getting in the way every time you need to build something. So if you are a museum administrator and you need an extra couple of hundred of square feet of office space for a new hire (especially one who’s going to do something useful, like raise money) then it probably seems like no big deal to ask a science department to eat a 0.33% reduction in floor space, right?

Little nibbles of space like this get taken out of collections all the time. And every now and then, somebody will take a great big bite – say 1,000 square feet for a new molecular biology lab. When this happens, a complex little dance of planning and negotiation takes place between curators, administrators, and collection managers, at the end of which your collection usually gets some “new” space – which will, I guarantee, be less than the original space and often in a less desirable neighborhood of the museum. If you’re lucky there will be some new storage cabinets or shelving, or perhaps a rail-mounted compact storage system that lets you absorb some of the space losses. But you have to trade this against the fact that healthy, well-managed collections tend to grow. New specimens are collected in the field and brought back to the museum for study – this is how science (or at least the museum portion of science) progresses. So our 12,000 square feet of paleontology storage at Peabody might be 18,000 square feet in 10 years’ time.

Here’s how Helmut dealt with space reductions. Suppose you have an antelope skeleton that takes up three drawers of a storage cabinet and you get told that you are going to lose two thirds of the space currently occupied by your antelope collection (this is a real life example, folks). So you unpack the three drawers and sit down with one empty drawer, a big pile of bones, and a pack of cigarettes – like I said, this was some years ago. You pull some of the bigger bones in first; the skull, the pelvis, etc. Then you begin to pack the smaller bones in around them, twisting and turning each bone into the position that best minimizes the vacant space between it and its neighbors. You run bones over and under each other to make the best use of all three dimensions. Then you pack any remaining gaps with the smallest bones. You have now fitted your antelope into one drawer and, in doing so, created a three-dimensional Chinese puzzle which will defy the efforts of any subsequent researcher to untangle. In the words of one of my colleagues, the specimen has been “Helmutized.”

Helmutization is an extreme example, but all collection managers have had to do this to a lesser extent at some point in their career – reduce the space occupied by their collection at a cost to its accessibility. There’s also a significant risk of damage – it becomes harder to protect the specimens if they are in close proximity to each other and good collection housing takes space; take a look here for an example of this. So collections grow and at the same time the staffing of museums expands (and sometimes contracts, as we are discovering lately) and we find ourselves in a space crunch. Many museums occupy city center sites where the costs of putting up a new building are high and room for growth is lacking. The usual solution to this is to develop a new facility somewhere else entirely, perhaps on the outskirts of town. Then you can have space aplenty, but at a different sort of cost. If you put exhibits offsite, will the public still come? What about school-groups, particularly those from disadvantaged inner-city school districts? If university research collections move off-site, how do you maintain the synergy of having faculty, staff, and students from different disciplines working in close proximity to the collections? If you move staff offsite, will they feel isolated from the rest of the museum? There is a great temptation to use offsite storage as a dumping ground for things that are felt to be unworthy of precious storage space on the main museum site – the problem with this is that it avoids making hard decisions about what should or shouldn’t be retained, while ensuring that no-one wants to invest much time or resources in developing the offsite facility.

The Peabody is currently facing up to some of these challenges and I’m sure I’ll be rambling on about them more in the future. For now, let me close with an example of how much space dominates our thinking in collections. I was discussing the purchase of some new storage racks with one of my colleagues at Peabody and it had come down to a debate over the depths of the beams that support the shelves. The beefy, heavy-duty racks that I wanted had beams that were 3 inches deep while my colleague wanted one with 2 inch deep beams. I pointed out to her that we would still be able to fit everything that we needed onto the racks, have ample headroom between the shelves, and have room for growth. After a long silence she sighed and said “yeah, but I can’t bear to think of losing that extra inch.”


  1. Interesting thought--in these awful times of downsizing, can collections storage creep back into the empty offices? I can see them heaving a big sigh, like an ample woman who has just loosened her corset...

  2. I saw a rather gung-ho letter in Museums Journal from a museum marketing guy in the UK who thought that museums should welcome the economic downturn because of all the jobless people that will now have time to come visit. I'm as keen as anyway to look for the silver lining, but....