To box or not to box?

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Katy Barrett, Collections Assistant at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science writes:

I commented in my last post about how a first impression of the Whipple Museum stores is just how many boxes there are. Firstly, there are the archival boxes, made of specially inert cardboard, which house smaller and more fragile objects wrapped carefully in acid-free tissue. Secondly there are some big heavy-duty plastic boxes to make the heavy objects easier to carry (of which more in a future post). But most interestingly, and lets face it most attractive, are the boxes that many of the objects came with.

The kind of scientific instruments that are designed to be used in the field usually come with their own historic wooden boxes. These are often beautifully shaped and fitted-out to hold the unique instrument and its accessories in place. They often also have leather straps, metal keys, historic labels and luxurious linings of velvet or marbled paper. This makes them an intrinsic part of the object, and also of the accession record on the database. When it comes to re-organising the stores, however, these boxes present us with some logistical questions.

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Previously, many objects have been removed from their boxes and stored separately. It is difficult to know why this occurs in all cases. Sometimes it happens when the object has been displayed in a public gallery and the two are then not immediately reunited when the object is removed from display. ­The dilemma for the museum staff is whether to reunite them or not. Ideally we would like to have all parts of an object with the same accession number stored in the same location. However, being designed for travel, some objects need to be dismantled in order to fit into their boxes. This requires unscrewing fragile and complicated parts, which may damage these delicate mechanisms.

As museum collections expand into a limited storage space, questions over how best make use of the available space become more and more pressing…


4 responses to “To box or not to box?

  • nickyreeves

    Currently on display in the Whipple are two cabinets that I’ve curated on navigational and astronomical instruments. Amongst other things, the display aims to be suggestive of the multitude of boxes that Katy describes, that one sees backstage in the stores, but not always front stage, in the galleries. It also aims to emphasise the limits of what we often know about objects and their boxes. Hence I included labels such as “box for unknown instrument”, “mahogany box with steel key, date unknown”, and my favourite, “locked box, contents unknown”…

    As Katy notes, packaging can often be a significant part of the museum object, and when we are dealing with objects which are scientific instruments, packaging can often be essential to the functioning of the instrument. For example, on display in the Whipple is a small sextant manufactured by Jesse Ramsden in the 1790s, which has a box which rather niftily turns into a stand for the sextant, probably for making land-based observations. Where does the scientific instrument end and the packaging begin? It’s not at all obvious! Chronometers for determining longitude at sea often came in boxes with sturdy locks, sometimes needing several keys to open them. This was not just to prevent theft of the object, but rather also to regulate the use of the instrument. When timekeepers were first trialled at sea in the 1760s to see if they could indeed hold time sufficiently to determine longitude, there were multiple locks on boxes, only openable in the presence of multiple keyholders. This ensured that no individual could tamper with the timekeeper, preventing fraud and helping to secure something like a fair trial. Do the keys count as part of the instrument?

  • Katy Barrett

    Thanks for this comment Nicky. It’s interesting to think about this from an academic as well as a practical angle. I remember there was a History of Science conference on boxes and boxing a while back.
    If blog readers want to get an idea for how the stores feel, they should take a look at Nicky’s case in the Whipple main gallery!

  • Rich Paselk

    Katy, do you recall anything else about the box meeting? I seem to have missed it. As a maker of boxes as well as a “museum person” I have had an interest in the wonderful boxes objects often come in as well as the instruments themselves.

  • Katy Barrett

    This was the conference I couldn’t go sadly, but it sounded fascinating.

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