Eau de old stuff

 by Gaby Kienitz, Conservator

I have a secret to tell — historic artifacts smell. They often smell bad. When you get close and personal with historic artifacts like I do in the Conservation Lab, you realize they have odor issues. It’s not their fault. Dust, mold, bird droppings, mouse pee and, shall we delicately say, various “debris” from human use contribute to a potent olfactory cocktail. If I could bottle it to sell at the perfume counter it would be called “eau de old stuff.” But, I don’t mind, I’m used to the smell.

I’ve been lucky; I hear stories from friends at other museums about a collection of artifacts that smell of old cigarette smoke and even worse, a contemporary art object that smells of rotten flesh. I’ve never had to deal with objects that smell so bad they make you feel sick. This year, I hit the jackpot with artifact smells. Not because it was terrible, but because it was so very good. Enter the bee skep …

What is a bee skep exactly? Well, other than a hollow in a tree trunk (à la Winnie the Pooh), this is the traditional home of the honeybee. Those efficiently square bee boxes we’re familiar with today weren’t invented until the middle of the 19th century. For hundreds of years before, humans provided the humble, hardworking honeybee with a home that’s basically an upside-down coiled basket made of straw, held together with strips of tree saplings. After the bees move in, they create their own honeycomb, by building directly onto the inner walls of the skep.

Our bee skep is an exile from the Odd Indiana exhibit. It was intended to be part of the display of torturous farm tools, but was cut from the show several months before installation. It didn’t look like anything special when it was brought to the Conservation Lab. Heck, I didn’t even know what it was. But, when I leaned in to take a closer look at the interior, that’s when it hit me – the smell, that fabulous smell. The inside is glossy from a thin coating of wax and high on the inner dome of the skep are small hexagonal remnants of honeycomb. There is still a faint, warm smell of beeswax mingled with the sweet earthy smell of straw.

For the first time ever, I found myself wanting the smell from an object to linger. I’d love to spend my days with my nose up against the inside of the skep, making myself giddy with the smell, but then who would do the work? Although the skep was rejected from exhibition, I wanted to give it another chance. I’m hoping to have it placed on exhibit in the second floor main gallery in the summer of 2011. But, before it’s ready for exhibition it needs to be treated in the Conservation Lab; part of the lower coil on the skep has detached and there’s some straw missing.

Look for an update in the coming months on the treatment and installation of the bee skep. Until then, I’ll be keeping my nose to the skep … er …grindstone.

All photos by Anna Yu.

3 Responses

  1. I have a artifact of Indiana manufacturing history you might be interested in, It ia a spool of magnet wire made by Inca Manufacturing a division of Phelps Dodge Manufacturing co. The steel spool is made by Hubbard Spool co. The wire is .003: in diameter. The spool is 2-1/2″ in dia. and 3-1/4″ tall. The spool weighs 1.1 lbs. The wire has Formvar enamel insulation on it and the two patent numbers were filed in 1937 and 1938. Most of the origianl wraping around the wire is intact and the logos of Phelps Dodge and Inca are still there. I discovered that all the companies and the inventer of Formvar Enamel insulation are from Indiana. There is a lot of information about this on the internet.

    Are you interested in having this artifact? I could e-mail photos.

    Dennis Lagutaris

  2. Hello Dennis – We will have to pass on this donation offer as we do already have a number of similar examples of spools of wire made in Indiana by other manufacturers. At this time we do not have a foreseeable use for additional examples of wire spools. With time and space always limited we have to be very conservative about acquiring additional examples of similar products unless there is a unique individual story associated with a particular object.

    Todd Stockwell
    Curator of Agriculture, Industry and Technology
    Indiana State Museum

  3. Are you interested in having this artifact? I could e-mail photos and additional commentary please

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