Moving house is one thing. Try moving 4 billion years of natural history.
Unless you work at, say, Yale, you’ve probably never seen anything like KGL 27. The sub-basement in the Kline Geology Laboratory (KGL) is packed floor-to-ceiling with masks, sculptures, and other objects from the South Pacific — materials belonging to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History’s anthropological collections.
Sixteen wooden birds are perched proudly in a line near the entrance. A makeshift village of thatched-roof model dwellings from New Guinea, Philippines, and Indonesia stands atop tables and cabinets. Rows of colorful carved statues and masks observe the scene from high on the walls. Life-size model canoes hang from the ceiling. This is not your average basement.
To the museum’s staff, the eclectic room presents a logistical challenge: By next April, KGL 27 must be completely emptied and its hundreds of objects — some tiny, some towering — cleaned, packaged, and shipped to a new 19,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art collections facility at Yale’s West Campus. It’s part of massive project to prepare one of Yale’s landmark museums for a major renovation slated to begin in December 2020.
“KGL 27 is challenging,” said Tim White, the museum’s director of collections and research. “Some of those materials have been there for half a century. There are objects stored above the ductwork. And that’s just one room. There are at least seven other storage rooms we’ve got to clear.”
The Peabody Museum was founded in 1866 with a collection of mineral specimens mostly. Its current holdings consist of more than 13 million objects covering about 4 billion years of geological, biological, and human history. Only a fraction of its collection is exhibited in the museum galleries, which will close in June 2020. (The museum’s Great Hall, home to its dinosaur skeletons, closes in January.)
The rest of the collection is housed in storage rooms throughout the museum complex, which includes the adjoining KGL and Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center (ESC).
The collections at ESC will stay in place while those stored in the other two buildings will be transported to West Campus or shifted to different locations within the complex as construction progresses.
A team of 10 museum staff, assisted by six Yale undergraduates, is doing the work. All told, they will move an estimated 1 million objects.
“Three moves is as bad as a fire,” White said, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin. “That’s how we think of moving museum collections. Unless you enforce order on the process, there’s a chance you’ll lose things or objects will be broken. Fortunately, we’ve gotten really good at this.”
There’s an upside: The project offers a chance to reorganize the collections, assess their condition, and make them more accessible, said Erin Gredell, the museum’s registrar.
“Once it’s completed, this project will benefit both the collections and the people who use them,” Gredell said.
PM7A, a long and slender room in the museum’s basement, houses North American archaeological artifacts. Museum assistants Becky DeAngleo, Lea Sellon and Brooke Mealey work on opposite sides of an island running along the room’s center. Packing materials — foam matting, tape, glue guns — cover their work surface. The wall behind Mealey once held hundreds of wooden drawers containing artifacts, such as potsherds, arrowheads, clay pipes, and ceramic mugs from ancient Pueblo sites in Arizona and Colorado. More than half the drawers are gone, prepared to be shipped to West Campus along with their contents.
Sellon, who has become an ace box maker, fashions housing for ceramic potsherds. Drawers set on the island to her right contain artifacts from southern Colorado. Yucca cord, a piece of stone jar, and a stone-grinding tool await Sellon and Mealey’s attention. Packing a large cracked jar next to the drawers could be tricky.
“The larger pieces that have been broken are the most challenging,” Mealey said. “You have to make sure that you get the pressure just right so nothing breaks in transit.”
Objects made of natural materials, like grasses or leaves, are another challenge, said Sellon: “They are old and friable, and if you touch them the wrong way, they could break.”
Down the hall from PM7A, museum assistants Susan Hochgraf and Samantha Murphy are inventorying fossils from the vertebrate paleontology collection — the delicate impression of a feather in stone, the muzzle of an eporeodon (a distant relative of hogs and hippos), the partial skull of a ground sloth.
“A lot of the specimens are unprocessed,” Murphy said. “Some were loaned out and haven’t been checked in since they were returned. Others are gifts that haven’t been processed, yet. We identify and inventory everything we can.”
Hochgraf and Murphy identify the fossils using their knowledge of the paleontology collections and through clues, such as handwritten notes accompanying a specimen.
“Sue and Sam are our dinosaur detectives,” Gredell quipped.
Hochgraf points to a box of orange blobs.
“These are problems,” she said.
The blobs are endocasts of dinosaurs’ brain cavities. The box contained little identifying information when Hochgraf first found it. Fortunately, a packet of papers discovered in a separate drawer provided more information.
“This one is from the stegosaurus on display in the Great Hall,” she said, holding one of the latex endocasts. “It’s true that they had tiny brains.”
After Murphy and Hochgraf identify a specimen, they enter it into the museum’s database and assign it a barcode to facilitate tracking and retrieval. This is important because the vertebrate paleontology collection will remain open to researchers throughout the renovation.
Most of the vertebrate paleontology collection will stay in the Peabody’s basement for now, but it will move to KGL at some point during construction. Once the renovation is done, the vertebrate and invertebrate collections will move to a new facility in the museum complex.
The cataloged specimens are placed in customized mounts, stabilizing them for easy transport. Michael Napoletano, a museum technician, builds the mounts. A set of mastodon ribs, once jumbled together in a drawer, are now smartly mounted in vertical racks of four thanks to his ingenuity.
Making the corner
Back in KGL, four staff members place a model house with an imposing thatched roof into a wooden frame, which they cover with plastic sheeting.
The model, topped by two carved bulls’ heads, depicts a clubhouse in Sumatra, Indonesia. Lizard figures adorn shades screening the dwelling’s sides. Recently removed from KGL 27, the model will spend 72 hours in the museum’s walk-in freezer before leaving for West Haven. Most of the objects in KGL 27 are made of organic materials — wood, hide, grass — and are frozen to kill pests, such as beetles, silverfish, and cockroaches.
A week into clearing KGL 27, the team has established a foothold amid the mass of masks and statues. A row of intricately carved poles roped together against a cinderblock wall present a looming challenge. The tallest stretches more than 17 feet and might not make the corner outside the room’s door.
But there’s always a solution.
“We might have to take down this wall,” Gredell said, pointing to a wall behind her.