[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index][Subject Index][Author Index]

Re: To have and to hold, not much more though

Re pyrite oxidation: it is very much an oxidative reaction,
accelerated by high relative humidity conditions, and
specimens in plaster jackets are not isolated from the
atmosphere. It is not unheard at all of for a neglected
specimen to deteriorate in such storage. Not all pyrite or
marcasite undergoes this reaction: finely disseminated
framboidal pyrite with a lot of surface area per volume is
most vulnerable, big honking cubes least so. It is not
prevented by any surface applications of anything. The only
control is low-RH storage (<50-55% for potential problems,
<30% for actively oxidizing specimens) and anoxic
microenvironmental storage for the most severe but
salvageable cases. Unsalvageable specimens are, well, just
that. There is a lot of misinformation via oral history and
ancestor worship on this subject: I'm passing along the
results of the real research on pyrite breakdown. Yes, any
vulnerable specimen left unchecked and untended in poor
environmental conditions can be damaged or destroyed by the
oxidation. The plaster jackets won't slow this down much if
at all. (And it ain't a disease and it don't spread from
specimen to specimen. Adjacent specimens can be damaged by
the production of sulfuric acid as a terminal breakdown
product, but call it a disease and you have to stay after
school and get the whole boring lecture from me all over

Re museum collections: systematics collections are
different in philosophy, scope and use from one's personal
collections, Victorian museums or other Wunderkammerers. The
size of systematics collections is part of ensuring a valid
statistical sample and enough evidence for tested and (one
hopes) valid conclusions. The (VERY) old idea of piling
everything out in dusty heaps on exhibit has been supplanted
by the preference for a storyline illustrated by a few
selected specimens. I'm not going to defend or reject either
approach. Exhibition potential is almost never a
consideration for collection, and most specimens will never
be exhibited (lack of space, lack of photogenic exhibition
potential, and the reality that exhibition is the most
dangerous form of storage for museum specimens in terms of
theft, vandalism, environmental conditions, and other

The inner and outer faces of the museum are very different
enterprises. That does not mean that collections are being
squirreled away by sociopathic little researchers.
Collections can rapidly outstrip available resources (staff,
money, space, time, storage, expertise, supplies, equipment,
and more money), but there may not be an option other than
adding to the backlog. Some sites are endangered and allow
for a now-or-never collecting event; some museums are
required to be repositories for agency, orphaned or
abandoned (not the same thing) collections; some places have
had paleo funds diverted to other purposes. Finally,
materials in the public trust are supposed to stay there,
and that precludes sale or any other transfer to the private
or for-profit sectors, except in the rare event of approved
deaccessioning outside the public sector with restrictions
to prevent a conflict of interest in subsequent ownership.
To do otherwise is to risk losing IRS nonprofit status. 

Yes, amateurs and other volunteers can make a huge
difference in reducing preparation backlogs and in a wide
range of other collections management tasks, given the right
training and staff support. Your time and expertise can mean
more to a museum than money. Some places have excellent
training and support programs; other are just getting
started. But "bringing them to light" in the sense of
completing preparation and curation is by no means the same
thing as exhibiting collections. Most research material
stays behind the scenes to ensure security of and approved
access to public trust holdings. We are responsible to you,
the people you like, the people you hate, the little
ingrates who haven't even been born yet, and everyone else
in the public to maintain these collections in perpetuity,
and that means balancing access (more risk, more reward) and
protection (less risk, less reward). It's a fine line

Sally Shelton
Collections Officer
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution