The museum behind the museum

by Jeff Tenuth, Science and Technology Collection Manager

I give a lot of tours at the Indiana State Museum. These are mostly “behind-the-scenes” tours, not gallery tours. Visitors can take themselves through the galleries, but behind-the-scenes tours offer much more.

When visitors come into the museum, they see galleries, attend programs, eat at the restaurants or shop at the museum store. They tend to think that’s all there is to a museum. But in reality, what they see is the end product. Most of the work for the galleries (and programs) is done behind the scenes and the public rarely sees any of it. Nor does the public see the actual size of our collection. The artifacts they see in galleries represent only one or two percent of our total collection. The larger the collection, the more of it is in storage. This is true in most museums. Take the Smithsonian for example. Their collection numbers well over 250 million artifacts. Imagine how big their galleries would have to be to show all of their collections. For a large museum like the Indiana State Museum, we show a few thousand artifacts at one time, but we have hundreds of thousands of artifacts in our collection. It’s simply impossible to put everything on exhibit — we would need galleries the size of football fields! That’s why it’s so important to show visitors and other guests what lies behind-the-scenes. I’ve never had a tour participant who didn’t walk away astonished at the size and breadth of our collection. Only then can the public see what a daunting task it is to care for the largest publicly held collection in the state. With a greater understanding of what the casual visitor doesn’t see, a tour guest usually comes away with a greater appreciation for the collection and what it takes to care for it.

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Another reason the public doesn’t see and doesn’t know about the size, diversity or location of the collection is intentional. We do that to maintain the security and environmental integrity of the collection. The collection is actually hidden in eight storage rooms in the Administration building, not the building where the galleries, restaurants and other public facilities are located. The eight storage rooms allow us to store the collection by type of material. Continue reading

Do you like puzzles?

by Elizabeth M. Scott, Natural History and Archaeology Preparator at the Indiana State Museum

When archaeologists and paleontologists excavate bones, sometimes they are found in several pieces or are so fragile that they break into pieces during excavation or processing. So, how are these finds identified, tracked and pieced back together? Why bother to mend bones back together? What do we learn from this process? It’s a giant 3-D puzzle!

Let’s follow a group of bones from the Bothwell mastodont site, a site in northern Indiana that yielded material representing seven individual mastodonts.

Pieces of jaw oriented and laid out prior to mending.

Paleontologists in the field found a group of bones. The characteristics of the bones and the presence of teeth led scientists to identify this clustering to be a jaw. They gave this grouping of bones a field identification number and marked its location on the excavation’s site map. Back at the museum, the material was washed, dried, catalogued and consolidated (saturated with a resin for preservation). After this, the preparator —me! — began the process of mending the material back together.

Many things can make it difficult to piece a bone back together. Material can be damaged or lost at the time of the animal’s death; or as the carcass deteriorates, pieces may be moved during a site’s development over time; damage can happen during excavation or laboratory processing. Also, non-fossilized bone material acts similar to wood in that it can warp and distort as it takes in and gives off moisture. This can dramatically affect the bone’s shape and preservation during a site’s formation, excavation and laboratory processing.

During the mending process, there are several ways to deal with distortion and lost or damaged fragments. The piece may be placed at an angle during mending, and there’s the addition of fill material to replace missing pieces and to strengthen weak areas. This takes a complementary blending of biology knowledge and art skill.

This fully mended jaw contains 80 pieces.

But why bother with mending these bone fragments? Well, mending bone fragments is important for several reasons. First, it can assist in better specimen identification. One group of small fragments originally listed simply as “vertebra?” can now more accurately be identified as “third or fourth cervical vertebra.” Second, it can reveal better biological information. Only after mending was it possible to determine that one of the five jaws recovered from the site was from a fully mature older adult. Third, it means fewer fragments to track in storage. The jaw in our example is now one large item and not 80 individual ones. Finally, it can give us clues about site formation processes and the relationships between different bones and individuals found across the site. The jaw in our example was constructed of fragments from two different areas of the site.

Check out this video from the Bothwell site.

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Looking for a good home: Bobcats, Bear and Deer

Written by Mike Linderman, Sectional Archaeology Manager at Angel Mounds State Historic Site

It’s not everyday that someone calls and offers up a collection of bobcats, bear and deer. But Charlotte Skelton did just that when she decided to retire from her taxidermy business. Skelton had been working in her taxidermy shop for nearly 20 years, all starting with a dare from her husband. Years ago he had a goose mounted, and she claimed that she could do better than the shoddy job they received with the bird. That started her career. Skelton came by Angel Mounds State Historic Site one day and spoke with me about whether or not we would want some animal mounts. Thinking she was talking about a couple of ducks and maybe a squirrel, I was amazed to find out she was talking about over 60 mounts, ranging from bobcats to black bears to mountain lions to deer in a full run.

I quickly called Damon Lowe, curator of biology at the Indiana State Museum, and we agreed that this was not a collection to let slip through our fingers. With the help of the New Harmony State Historic Site staff, over 10 loads of animal mounts were delivered to Angel Mounds.

We initially kept them in a secure room out of view of the public, but every time we opened the door, the prying eyes of the visitors caught a glimpse of this great collection and they were wowed. So, with that in mind, we decided to create an exhibit with the mounts for the winter and it has been one of most popular exhibits.

We plan to have the exhibit up for sometime until it gets shipped to the Indiana State Museum for processing. Our goal is to incorporate some of the mounts into a more permanent situation with our Mississippian exhibit at the site, with hopefully a rotating showing of them periodically through the years.

              Animals of North America: The Charlotte Skelton Collection
              Dec. 21, 2009 – Jan. 25, 2010
              Tues. – Sat., 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sun., 1 – 5 p.m.
              For one month only, an impressive collection of animal mounts originating from Texas all the way to Alaska is on display. Highlights include deer, black bears, birds, coyotes, pheasants, a badger, a wolverine, rattlesnakes and much more.

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A Blinking Black-eyed Susan

I’m a big sports fan, but only in the biological sense. In biology, a ‘sport’ is a mutation. Red Delicious apples may be the most famous sport — they all originated from one tree with a tasty (and profitable) mutation.

black-eyed_susansA lone Black-eyed Susan planted itself amidst a row of Peonies at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. Now that the Peony blooms have faded, the Black-eyed Susan’s yellow-orange blossoms really stand out. As I went to take a closer look I got a surprise. Two of the flowers were definitely different. Both were ‘wide-eyed’ and one had a wide, flattened stem as well.

If only I were a plant propagator, and could turn this weird wildflower into the next  All-America Selections® winner. Our financial worries would be over — assuming that gardeners would want to grow Blinking Black-eyed Susans. I’ve seen stranger looking plants in the seed catalogs each year though, so there might be a market for them.

This native wildflower is a biennial, so guess I’ll have to wait two years to see if the mutation carries over to the next generation. I don’t know much about how mutations work — perhaps a knowledgeable plant biologist could spare me the suspense of waiting to find out.

More likely, in two years time some other natural wonder will have caught my interest and I’ll have forgotten all about that wide-eyed Black-eyed Susan. Watching wildlife is a sport I’ll likely never tire of, and it doesn’t really take extreme examples to make nature interesting. Just a plain old (and pretty) Black-eyed Susan will do.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

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