Saturday, January 17, 2009

Learning

It’s the end of my first week at the Peabody Museum, which has mostly been spent writing down numbers. AMNH is a moderately large organization, which meant that there was a lot to learn about the nuts and bolts of doing business there, but Peabody is part of a really large organization, which provides a whole extra level of complexity. Granted, there are advantages to a system that lets you use any photocopier in Yale and have it bill to your departmental account, but it seems to require a degree in astrophysics to actually operate it. I have to type a six digit PIN into my phone to make a long distance call and 11 digits to access my voicemail. And I’m still trying to get my head around 22 digit budget codes. Of which I already have five, with more to come. Hopefully there’s actually some money attached to them. My trusty orange notebook is beginning to look like a cryptographer’s handbook. Then there are the procedures. All museum departments have them; they determine how visitors are granted access to the collections, how specimens are loaned, and how things are documented. Mostly the general principles are the same regardless of the collection, but the (as ever) the devil is in the details. By the end of the week I was more than ready to start getting to grips with the collection itself.

You can, in principle, teach the basics of managing a museum collection in a classroom, and there are plenty of museum studies courses that try, but ultimately your success or failure as a collection manager depends on how well you know the material in your care. Not all of it - I know plenty of fantastically knowledgeable individuals who are derailed by a semi-autistic inability to relate to other people (for some reason, they invariably seem to end up working in museums). But it is true that knowledge of the collection is the bedrock on which you build the rest of your job. After 10 years working in one institution, it can be extremely disorientating to walk into an entirely new collection. One way to tackle this is to break the process of learning into a series of steps. First, you look at the collection rooms. How big are they? Where are the doors? Do they lock? Are they fire rated? Is there air handling? Does it work – is the room too hot or too cold for the material in it? Is there fire suppression? Where are the fire extinguishers? What pipes cross the space? Do they pass over the collection (raising the possibility of water raining down on your specimens when they leak, as they invariably do)? From these first observations you can move on to the collection itself. How is it stored? Is it secure? Is it overcrowded? Is there space for expansion? And finally, you get down to looking at the specimens themselves. Are they cataloged? Is there a lot of unprocessed material? Is there a lot of damaged material? Does it seem like specimens are absent without an obvious reason (e.g. a slip saying that they’ve been removed for study)? There are around 74,000 specimens or specimen lots (groups of specimens cataloged together under the same number) in the YPM VP collections (you can explore them yourself by following this link) so clearly you can’t look at all of them in detail – which is where those collection assessment techniques I discussed a couple of posts back will come in handy.

Follow this sort of stepwise process and you will at least have an overview of the physical reality of your collection. However, it’s painfully obvious that you’re only scratching the surface. Beyond the specimens themselves there is an ocean of associated information – about specimen provenance and history, collectors and curators, research, exhibition, and fossil preparation. Some of this is accessible via databases, but most exists only as paper records – a forest (yeah, I know – too many natural world metaphors) of letters, labels, ledger books, card catalogs, invoices, scientific publications… It’s hard work, and I’m easily distracted. Open up a cabinet and you might find a host of massive brontothere skulls grinning back at you. The skeleton of a 20 million year old alligator, so perfectly preserved that it looks like it was bought from a biological supply house. The twisted body of a tapir-like herbivore, still encased in the mud that trapped and drowned it 10 million years ago. Or maybe a thousand tiny teeth, each mounted on a pin head, which are the last remains of a shrew-like mammal that scurried around beneath the feet of dinosaurs. The sort of stuff that made you become a paleontologist in the first place.

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