Tag Archives: Whipple Museum of the History of Science

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…

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Space, the final frontier…

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

Working in museums, you soon learn that space is at a premium. It might all look beautifully displayed on airy glass shelves with matching labels in the galleries, but in the stores, every object shares its shelf with many companions. Any good museum also acquires objects on a regular basis. The Whipple Museum is just such a treasure trove, with its storage areas packed with weird and wonderful scientific instruments. The point of the ‘Store Stories’ project in our museum is to make some of these incredible objects more visible and accessible to the public, by updating the storage facilities.

The project will take place in several stages, moving around the stores one by one, to enable us to use the limited spare space that we have to install shiny new cases. The Whipple is in an old building, posing its own problems of oddly shaped stores with challenging environmental conditions. Each store needs to be emptied systematically, the old shelving systems removed, and the new cases installed. While we do this we will also inventory each store, allowing us to find ‘lost’ objects and reunite parts of objects that have previously been stored separately.

Unlike MAA and Zoology, our stores aren’t organised by collection, so we won’t be focusing on a particular area, although we do have sections separated out by material or fragility, like the radioactive objects! Instead, in these blogs, I’m going to focus on objects that catch my fancy as we organise the stores. I’m a PhD Student in the History and Philosophy of Science Department, of which the Whipple is part, and have helped out in the museum off and on for a couple of years. Yet, it’s still extraordinary to stumble across the Whipple’s treasures as I inventory and re-pack them with the Museum’s collections staff. So far my overwhelming impression is of the sheer number of historic boxes for instruments that the museum contains; something I’ll discuss in a future blogpost.