This interview is part of the Collection Care Network's (CCN) blog series, which features interviews with conservators and collection care professionals. The stories and insights shared in these interviews highlight the many aspects of collection care and its cross-disciplinary nature. If you have a project or story you'd like to share or know someone we should feature in this series, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This edition of the blog is an interview CCN Editor Wendi Field Murray conducted with Dr. Elizabeth Shea, Director of Collections and Curator of Mollusks at the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science (DelMNS). DelMNS just underwent a major renovation of their spaces to freshen their exhibit galleries and address facilities issues.
Dr. Elizabeth Shea
Hello Liz, and congrats on the completion of renovations at the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science! We know that the renovations included public spaces like galleries, but we are hoping you can speak a bit about the renovations that were implemented for the purposes of collections care. Prior to the renovation project, what challenges were your collections staff facing regarding your building, space, or facility infrastructure?
Prior to the renovation, we had no fire suppression, lights that were turned on/off at a breaker box (!), not enough server space for our growing digital collection footprint, not enough space for our taxidermy, and randomly distributed chest freezers for storage and pest treatment.
Each thing in that list sounds very stressful! Were there particular collections you most concerned about?
Our collections are focused mostly on birds and mollusks, but we have smaller collections of mammals, insects, invertebrate paleontology, and plants. We are concerned with all of them (of course!) but especially with the possibility of pests in the skins and taxidermy as well as the overall condition of the type collection.
To what extent were collections staff involved in the planning for this construction project?
Collections staff were involved in all aspects of planning for the gallery renovation starting at the very beginning. Activities included recommending and selecting concepts & content to present to the public; specimen selection in support of concepts/content; oversight of image and video procurement; and oversight of model development where appropriate. Curators were involved in exhibit design and development, oversaw text writing, and were integral to all AV development. In advance of the renovation, Collections staff orchestrated the de-installation of exhibits and pest treatment of specimens coming off exhibit prior to re-integration into collections space. We found and interacted with conservators who improved several iconic mounts, and made sure that new enclosures were developed with conservation in mind (e.g., Marvelseal barriers where appropriate). At the time of construction, collections staff was involved in overseeing scenic work including specimen placement. Overall, we were involved from start to finish!
This elephant bird egg once rested in the opening of an acrylic cylinder (left). As part of the renovation, the object was fitted to a more stable and discreet mount (center) that makes the egg (not the mount!) the center of attention.
From a collections care perspective, what are some of the most exciting improvements to your spaces?
The planning and implementation of the renovation addressed a couple of large issues for us. First and foremost, we now have a wet-pipe fire suppression system in the entire collections space, including the library and archives. Installation was complicated because it took several months and we had to keep moving people and errant taxidermy mounts out of the way for the installers to have access to the ceiling. Happily, we got through with only minor damage to the floors.
We also now have automatic, LED lights in the collection. We are still working out some glitches with them turning off, but the upside is greater than the downside. We no longer have to throw a breaker (!) to turn lights on and off, and we are protecting collection objects from light damage.
We now have a walk-in freezer for dedicated pest-treatment for research and exhibits study skins and taxidermy mounts. The new freezer will allow us to immediately care for any infestations that we see, and will assist us in onboarding new collections of all different taxa.
One final intangible that I’m excited about - the renovations provided an opportunity to start more conversations about integrated pest management, environmental monitoring, and condition reporting in the gallery spaces as well as the collection spaces. The more we can talk about these preventative measures, the safer the collections will be.
Did the construction create any unexpected issues that you are now troubleshooting?
Overall, we were able to minimize the unexpected outcomes. I attribute this to a couple of factors. First, we stayed within our original footprint so the main systems were already in place and working. Second, the entire renovation was planned and executed by a relatively small group of DelMNS staff who met regularly to discuss all issues. Finally, we worked with very experienced outside contractors who had a keen eye for details.
Two things that were revealed (not caused) by the construction are kind of interesting. The first was the potential for dampness in an in-ground exhibit space focused on coral reefs. When we opened the glass up and started moving specimens around, we found buckets of commercial moisture absorbers hidden behind the scenic work. This discovery made us question the environment that was created under the glass, and got us thinking about how the water moves from our roof, down our pipes and out into the yard. The outside wall where the in-ground coral reef exhibit was located was set up as a demonstration rain garden. So, we took steps to re-route the water away from the building and we are hopeful that the humidity will be lowered.
The second problem revealed by the project is that the air conditioning system is apparently quite noisy! On days when the AC is running hard, we hear a high-pitched squeal in the new global gallery that competes with our new audioscape. We are now thinking about ways to insulate the gallery space from the sound.
As Director of Collections, how do these improvements change your plans for the future? What will this mean for the public?
These improvements mean a few different things to me as Director of Collections. First, we are excited that the public can see new taxidermies from behind the scenes that are interpreted in a way that provides context and meaning beyond just an identification. We are also happy to have an updateable space called the Research Headquarters where we can tell short stories from the collection in video format. Finally, having a more protected and secure collections environment will allow us to explore new ways to preserve specimens, making our collections available for more types of research.
If you enjoyed this post, check out CCN's other most recent blog, an interview with Nancy Lev-Alexander on Preventive Conservation at the Library of Congress.