March 30, 2007

What goes on in collections?

Posted by: Rina Luzius

Burke specialist Rina Luzius takes you through the major steps of processing and caring for museum objects behind the scenes…

Hello, my name is Rina and I am a preservation and museum specialist in the ethnology division here at the Burke Museum. The ethnology division collects, researches, and takes care of objects from living peoples around the Pacific Rim. Right now, I am working on processing a collection of Melanesian objects from the 1930s. The collection was recently donated by two brothers. Their grandfather, Walter Eyerdam, was a member of the Whitney South Seas Expedition, led by the American Museum of Natural History from 1920 to 1921. The purpose of the expedition was to collect shells, plant and animal specimens, and Eyerdam made his own collection of ethnographic objects during his journey. Although the majority of objects are from the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, the collection also includes objects from Australia, Alaska, Paraguay, and Samoa. It includes spears, clothing, shields, and jewelry along with religious items, such as ceremonial bowls.

The process of researching a collection of this size is long and involved, taking several months to complete. The first step is to freeze any objects containing organic material. We do this to kill any pests that might be infesting the objects. Each object is then cleaned and assigned a unique catalog number. This allows us to keep track of both the object and the research connected to it. The cataloging process then takes place: we look for information about where the object is from, who made it, what materials it is made out of, what it was used for, and when it was made. We then record the condition it is in. This allows us to identify the specific conservation and storage needs of each object. The object then gets photographed and becomes available in our online database for everyone to use. After the object is photographed, we store it.

You can find the detailed records for this newest collection through the Burke’s online ethnology collections database.

Use the search field at the bottom right of the page titled “Object # Search” and type in the accession number as follows: 2006-159%.

Digital photos are coming soon. This cataloguing work will continue over the next several months, so check back for updates! And be sure to browse around the database webpage to discover more from our collection. You can experiment with the “Basic Search” function and explore objects by type, material, culture, motif, and more using keywords. Try searching for “spear,” “baleen,” or “bear” to see the different kinds of objects you’ll find.

- Rina

1 comment:

Your local arachnologist said...

If the subject is "what goes on in collections," let's remember that ethnology isn't the only one. We other curators deserve equal time!

So what happens when someone brings in a spider? The first question is, does the specimen have good data? If I can't pinpoint the collection locallity within 100 meters, date to the nearest day, macrohabitat (old growth forest? urban residential?), microhabitat (web in rotten stump? running across kitchen floor?), and collector's name (as a check on the accuracy of the rest), then the specimen isn't worth much, no matter how cool it may look. Second, is the specimen identifiable? This usually means an adult in reasonable condition (not stepped on!). Third, do I already have 50 specimens of that species from nearby localities? If all the answers are right, I (and my hardworking volunteers) preserve the specimen in alcohol, then as time allows, transfer it to a permanent vial with a permanent label, catalogue it, and install it in the collection.

Specimens that I and my helpers collect ourselves are even better because they can give a general picture of the fauna of a new localilty, something a single specimen can never do. The Spider Collector's Journal site will tell you all about what spider field trips are like.

Fortunately, spiders don't have to be pinned and spread like butterflies or skinned like birds. Since this streamlines the process somewhat, we were able to curate over 7,000 spiders last year (including some backlog from previous years). Anyone curious about the fine details of how it's done can download our curation procedure (PDF).

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