Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The research nature of museums

I was asked a question not too long ago about what kind of labs a museum could need and why, and I was pleased enough with my explanation that I thought I'd put it here. The question was a reminder that most people see museums very differently from those of us who work in them on a regular basis.

When I'm visiting museums I often forget that they have exhibits, for me museum trips are typically behind-the-scenes and I rarely make it into galleries for any appreciable amount of time. Most big museums are research institutions whose primary duties are the care and storage of historical or art objects. Many of them are associated with universities, like the Texas Memorial Museum (UT) which has public exhibits, and specimen collections are spread out through several buildings across campus. Others, like the University of California Museum of Paleontology (Berkeley) have limited exhibit space and exist predominantly for research and educational purposes. Curators in large private museums are often faculty members or otherwise associated with local universities and advise graduate students (e.g. American Museum/Columbia University, The Field Museum/University of Chicago), using the museum resources to train scientists. In most museums, the exhibited specimens represent only 1-2% of the institutional holdings. UT, for example, has hundreds of thousands of vertebrate fossils in our collections, and 20,000 recent animal skeletons. All of these objects require varying levels of work to make them available for study or display, to prevent deterioration, or to repair damage, and that takes place in a wide variety of labs and workshops. So, an art museum will have conservation labs dedicated to cleaning and restoration of paintings, or analysis equipment for determining authenticity of artifacts. A natural history museum will have labs dedicated to CT scanning fossils or mummies, labs for fixing and pinning insects and plants, or slicing up and analyzing meteorites to figure out how old the solar system is. Researchers from all over the world come to visit these collections and sometimes borrow these kinds of objects, so collections managers act as a sort of reference librarian to keep track of, care for, and make available the specimens. These resources are the foundation for how we understand past cultures and the natural world, and the public exhibits are intended to give visitors a window into the knowledge we've gained as a result of that research.

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