Exploring the Heritage Health Information Survey: 13 Billion Items

By Katelin Lee posted 05-12-2019 07:39


This post is the first in a series of articles about the recently released Heritage Health Information Survey, which will discuss the findings of the survey and provide context for the state of collections in the United States. Our first post was written by Julia Sybalsky and Fran Ritchie, focusing on the statistic that "Our nation's collecting institutions hold more than 13 billion items from furniture to photos and sheet music to soil samples. All are cataloged, shelved, stored, and protected to varying degrees."

Challenges of Scale

Among the findings of the recently-released Heritage Health Information Survey (HHIS) is a statistic that is perhaps difficult for most people to fathom. That important datapoint is the sheer number of items held in our collecting institutions: 13 billion. BILLION. These items are distributed throughout only 31,000 collecting institutions and range from furniture to photos, from sheet music to soil samples. What does it mean to protect collections on this scale?

The magnitude of these challenges and the strategies used to meet them are well-illustrated by natural history museums. Since these collections preserve and contextualize the biological and geological diversity found on Earth (and beyond), they are vast by nature. The American Museum of Natural History (AMMH) in New York is a case in point. Founded in 1869 the mission of the museum has been “to discover, interpret, and disseminate - through scientific research and education - knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe.”

AMNH Collections by Department:

  • Invertebrate Zoology: over 24 million specimens
  • Vertebrate Zoology: over 3.5 million specimens
  • Paleontology: over 5.5 million specimens
  • Earth and Planetary Science: over 200,000 specimens
  • Anthropology: over 500,000 objects
  • Total: roughly 34 million specimens


(And this list does not even include the Museum’s library and special collections!)

Presently, the AMNH employs three full-time staff conservators in the Anthropology Objects Conservation Lab, and two full-time staff conservators in the Natural Science Collections Conservation Lab. That’s a staggering 6.8 MILLION specimens per conservator!

A Preventive Approach to Managing Risk

Stewards of large-scale collections generally prioritize a preventive approach to conservation to ensure that their efforts have as far-reaching impact as possible. Partnerships between conservators and collections staff are critical in identifying and investigating preservation concerns institution-wide.

Risk assessment is one collaborative strategy for better understanding where vulnerabilities lie within a collection and prioritizing the expenditure of resources intended to mitigate them. The risk assessment process aims to draw a complete picture of risks across an entire collection through a systematic analysis of materials and their susceptibility to different agents of deterioration like pests, chemical contaminants, light exposure, etc.

Recently, the AMNH carried out a three-phase risk assessment with funds from Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) using to a methodology based on the Cultural Property Risk Analysis Model (CPRAM) developed by Robert Waller and colleagues at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Phase one considered specimens in over 400 different storage areas. In phase two, objects on display in 46 exhibit halls were evaluated. Departmental libraries and archives were assessed in phase three.

The methodology involved dividing the collection into smaller units and considering a series of risks to determine:

  • What percentage of the unit is susceptible to that risk
  • The loss in value expected in a susceptible object that is affected by the risk
  • The probability that the risk will be realized
  • The extent to which the threat would impact specimens, given existing mitigating factors (e.g. sealed cabinetry, security procedures, handling guidelines, etc.)

Conservators could not answer these questions alone. Instead they relied on internal partnerships with over 50 staff members museum-wide, including staff in Facilities, Security, and other departments. By the end of phase three, the team had collected more than 131,000 data elements including details about specimen locations, levels of security, pest control, fire detection etc.

Risk assessment data can then be sliced and diced to answer questions about what specific risks pose the greatest threat to the collection, or what parts of the collection are most vulnerable. It becomes a tool to help stakeholders make more informed long-term strategy and policy decisions and to allocate funds for measures such as rehousing efforts, HVAC upgrades, an IPM program with maximum impact.

Case Study: Moving the Mammal Hides Collection

Hides in hanging storage prior to the collection move. Photo: AMNH/J. Sybalsky

The Problem: Until very recently the “hanging skins rooms” were among the more visually interesting storage spaces at the AMNH. Inside these two rooms in the Mammalogy Department, preserved skins of larger mammals were stored for decades, each hung on a rack by a cord laced through the nostrils or other holes in the hide. Although it’s striking to see a room filled to the brim with hides of all colors, shapes, and sizes, the preservation issues associated with this arrangement were obvious. Issues with climate control in these spaces were causing the specimens to become weak and stiffen in their hanging configuration. Hanging storage did not provide enough support for the heavy hides. Fragments that became detached under their own weight could easily become disassociated. Overcrowding complicated access to staff and researchers, inhibiting use of the hides, and negating their scientific value. Fully addressing these problems with a complete storage upgrade would be a complicated endeavor at great cost.

After waiting decades for the opportunity to improve the hides’ storage conditions, an impending construction project provided the impetus for change in 2017-2018.


The primary goals of the storage upgrade were to:

  • Transition the large collection of preserved skins and hides from the two “hanging skin rooms” into a newer storage area with better climate control and horizontal storage in compactor units.
  • Complete the move of in accordance with the construction timeline.

Important secondary goals were to:

  • Take inventory of the contents of each room and improve specimen labeling.
  • Clean the hides to reduce dirt and residual pesticides applied in previous decades, enabling safer transport and use in research.
  • Stabilize minor damages so that they could be more easily and safely handled.
  • Prevent the spread of any pests from the original storage location to the new one.

The first phase of the risk assessment had demonstrated that these activities would significantly reduce the vulnerability of the collection to future damage.

Tyler Berrier in PPE while cleaning a hide. Photo: AMNH/J. Sybalsky

Number of Specimens: 3,000+ skins/hides in two small, overcrowded rooms

Staff: 4 temporary staff members were hired for seven months to move the collection. The Mammalogy Department collection manager and natural science conservators dedicated approximately 100 additional hours to planning and training.


  • In addition to moving the hides from one storage location to another, the preferred workflow included reconciling the collection with database records, vacuuming hides, simple skin repairs, encapsulating historic tags, packing hides, and freezing them. The team was unsure how much of this they could realistically accomplish in the short timeframe available.
  • The presence of residual pesticides prohibited staff from spending extended time in the old storage rooms without PPE.
  • Moving the large skins and hides from hanging to flat storage in compactors created the need for double the storage space, if not more.


  • Barcoding was used to track the hides as they moved from one location to the next.
  • In the event that the preferred workflow could not be executed, a back-up workflow was devised that included cleaning and bagging (i.e. isolating) specimens but limited repairs provided for freezing only in the event of an active infestation.
  • Large boxes were used to pack and move multiple skins/hides between locations efficiently but were not filled beyond a weight that could be handled safely.
  • The crew wore Tyvek suits and powered air purifying respirators (PAPR); air quality was measured and controlled.
  • Vacuums, bags, boxes, encapsulation and repair supplies, PPE, and other materials used in the project were costly, but could be funded through the construction budget.

Eric Freyer, Tyler Berrier, & Peter Gat wrapping a box of hides in preparation for freezing & transport.
Photo: AMNH/J. Sybalsky

Although a back-up workflow was established to meet time constraints if needed, the team was ultimately able to meet primary and secondary goals to the fullest extent.

Key to Success:

Proper planning was essential to the success of the project. Natural science conservators brought forth ideas to address needs that observed by the collection manager. Together they worked to plan proper cleaning, repair, and freezing procedures, identify and source equipment and supplies, and optimize the workflow.

The team staffing the project brought different but complimentary skill sets and backgrounds to the project, enabling them to work together efficiency as a frictionless team.

One might think that colossal collections are supported by proportionally colossal budgets. But institutions with millions of specimens are often implementing preservation initiatives on tight budgets with short turnaround times just like their smaller counterparts. Successful outcomes when confronting large-scale preservation challenges depend on conservators cultivating co-operative relationships with collection managers, scientific assistants, facilities staff, and sometimes short-term employees.

Personal Introductions:

JULIA SYBALSKY is a Senior Associate Conservator in the Natural Science Conservation lab at the American Museum of Natural History where she is responsible for day-to-day conservation of the natural science collections. She also conducts ongoing research into materials and techniques benefitting these materials. Previous to her time at AMNH, Julia worked at the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis in Turkey, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and interned at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, MA.

FRAN RITCHIE is an Objects Conservator for the National Park Service at Harpers Ferry Center, tasked with providing conservation treatment of and preservation guidance for cultural heritage collections own by the 419 park units. Prior to this role she worked as an Assistant Conservator in Anthropology Objects Conservation, and Project Conservator in the Natural Science Collections Conservation lab at the American Museum of Natural History. Fran is currently serving on the AIC Nominating Committee, is OSG Program Chair, co-Chair of the Conservation Committee of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), and is a SPNHC Member-At-Large. She is a Professional Associate of AIC.

Follow-up Resources:

For further information on Risk Assessments and how to perform one on your collection (including worksheets, checklists, steps for getting started, etc.), visit the RISK EVALUATION AND PLANNING PROGRAM (REPP) page on the AIC website. For examples from institutions on performing an assessment, visit the Natural Science Collections Conservation Lab webpage.

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