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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Doing the dirty … work

Written by Amy Sciutto, Collections Management Intermittent

I realized today that 5 a.m. is way too early for anybody to be awake. I came to this realization when the alarm clock, the courtesy wake-up call from the hotel and Michele’s cell phone alarm all went off at 5 a.m. Awesome. I then realized that 6 a.m. is way too early for anybody to try to work. I came to this realization when I tried to pee in the field, and happened to pee all over myself. Awesome. It was at this point in the day that I also realized that I was in for one dirty day. Little did I know just how dirty I was going to get. After I peed on myself, Michele laughed at me, and on we went, excavating away.

The first thing we did was try to figure out how to use a ladder. You would think that two highly-educated people would easily be able to figure out a ladder, well think again. It was like the blind leading the deaf. The darn ladder was folded in half and then once unfolded it continued to extend from every angle. Once the ladder could no longer be unfolded, and folded and extended and retracted, we haphazardly placed the ladder against the cliff that we were working on, said our prayers, and repelled to our destiny.

Around 7:30 a.m., the Field School from IU got to the site and began their work. By this time Michele had already began to excavate her feature while I was on water screening duty. If you want a fun task on a dig, water screening is perfect for you. I was responsible for dumping buckets of dirt onto a screen, then dumping water on the dirt, in the hopes of finding artifacts. What I discovered, however, was that when you mix dirt with water, you get a mess. Now I do want some things to be a surprise for when you go on a dig and get to do some water screening for yourself, but I will tell you that a sunburn, soaking wet shoes and socks, and bending over until you forget how to stand lead to an immense hatred for your life. But believe it or not, there are rewards for doing such a labor intensive job.

After lunch I found myself peeing all over myself again, but this time I was covered with Michele’s boots, so the joke is on her! That’s what she gets for laughing so hard, and not teaching me proper techniques for keeping dry when nature calls. After I laughed to myself, we went back to work. By this point we had finished excavating the feature on the cliff, and we had bagged all the artifacts to take with us. The next task was simple: to cut back the bank. If you thought water screening sounded fun, oh boy are you in for a treat. I stood on a 6-inch ledge with a pick-ax and had to pick away the face of the cliff. I was nervous at first because our rickety ladder was attached to the cliff I was ordered to pick at, but Michele reassured me that in the worst case scenario we could swim across the Ohio River to the Kentucky side, and easily make our way back to civilization. We picked away until our hands were calloused and bleeding, then called it a day. If I am able to walk tomorrow, I assume we will continue picking away at the face, in order to take samples, and all that jazz.

We gathered up our tools, ascended the stairway to heaven, also known as our trusty ladder, and went home for the night.

Now, I have to go wrestle the alarms out of Michele’s hands before she does something crazy again!

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