Archive | Museum Collection Management RSS for this section

Movin’ Out

If you see Chris, Allison or I walking around campus this week, ask us to flex for you. It’s safe to say that we are all a little stronger than we were this time two weeks ago, not to mention a lot more relieved! Last week, with the help of some awesome museum and facilities staff, the IMLS team accomplished mission impossible and finished  moving thousands of pounds of natural science objects from one offsite storage area into a new offsite storage facility.
Our off-site storage facility fully stocked and ready to go.

Our off-site storage facility fully stocked and ready to go.

Off-site storage... post move! Sometimes, less is more.

Off-site storage… post move! Sometimes less is more.

Over the past year the IMLS team has been working towards inventorying everything in our off-site storage facility so we would  be able to take stock of our collections and move them into a new home. Since summer 2013 members of the team have inventoried and repacked over 300 boxes and moved the majority of them from our old facility into McKissick for storage or conservation work.
Starting bright and early last Tuesday morning, May 13, the team started moving almost 150 boxes out of McKissick into our new building, and successfully completed the job. Wednesday brought some more heavy lifting as the team ventured to move out some of our bigger items. How many of you can say that you’ve safely transported a fossilized whale jaw and some dinosaur foot prints on the same day? Thanks to some incredible facilities workers, we were able to get every piece of petrified wood, fossil, and lapidary equipment safely and successfully moved down the street into our new facility.

Willie, Chris, Austin and Charles carefully moving a fossilized whale jaw into the moving truck. It's as heavy as it looks!

Willie, Chris, Austin and Charles carefully moving a fossilized whale jaw into the moving truck. It’s as heavy as it looks!

It’s been a long and heavy road, but we can finally say we’re all moved in! Over the remaining months of the grant the IMLS team will be working to catalog the rest of our “rediscovered” collections, and eventually move them over into the new facility. But for today, this has been one small step for museums, and one giant leap for the IMLS team!
Make sure you stop by the third floor of McKissick to check out all of the hard work we’ve done. “Hidden Treasures,” an exhibit displaying some of incredible things the IMLS team has found over the last two years, will be on display until August 30th.
Mission accomplished!

Mission accomplished!

by Alyssa Constad
Curatorial Assistant
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Adventures with NORM

Just as the patrons of Cheers all welcome the daily entrance of “Norm” to the bar, all collection managers have their favorite specimens.  They probably enjoy checking in on a particular object and inwardly smile when reminded of it.  For us that is not the case with NORM, or Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials.  Any naturally radioactive material that is found in nature that was formed by natural processes is considered NORM.  Most people are routinely exposed to NORM and other sources of background radiation, though at very low levels that are typically not dangerous (this would include things like dental x-rays and cosmic radiation during airplane travel).  Those who work with natural history museum collections may come in contact with additional sources of NORM through handling naturally radioactive rock and mineral samples – these are what we refer to as the HOT ROCKS.

Although working with radioactive specimens may sound daunting, before handling any radioactive specimens we take the time to plan a workflow and follow standard safety procedures.  When working with any radioactive materials, the University of South Carolina uses the ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) principle, meaning we make every reasonable effort to maintain exposures to ionizing radiation as far below the dose limits as practical.  The Department of Radiation Safety has worked very closely with us to provide guidance and training, exposure badges, lead barriers, and caution tape to label materials.

There are three main forms of radiation emitted by NORM: alpha, beta and gamma radiation.  Safe interaction will depend on what type of radiation is emitted, in addition to materials used for shielding, the distance from the source and the amount of exposure time.  Our primary concerns are limiting exposure, and preventing inhalation or ingestion of radioactive material.  Naturally nobody would intentionally inhale or ingest (eat) a rock, however small airborne powdery particles could be easy to overlook.  As a standard safety precaution, we always wear nitrile gloves and particle masks when working with radioactive materials.  A final concern with this collection is limiting the concentration of radon gas generated by the specimens as a natural byproduct of the radioactive decay process.  Constant air circulation and ventilation help to reduce radon concentrations.

Chris performing a geiger sweep

Project manager Christian Cicimurri performs a sweep of a storage drawer with the Geiger counter.

So… How do we do it?  Well, first we had to find the hot rocks.  At first we thought this would be pretty easy, since there was a secure cabinet in a remote location labeled ‘Radioactive Materials.’  On occasion a hot rock was discovered in an unexpected location, so we used a Geiger meter to survey all areas where rocks and minerals are stored (Natural History exhibits and three separate collection storage rooms).  We used a Geiger-Muller survey meter (aka a Geiger counter or GM meter) to detect radioactive sources and isolated them on a designated Hot Cart.  After ALL the hot rocks were discovered, we could then begin the process of identifying and cataloging.

Radiation technician, Allen Boyd handles a 'hot rock,' while Christian Cicimurri identifies it from behind a lead shield.

Radiation technician, Allen Boyd handles a ‘hot rock,’ while Christian Cicimurri identifies it from behind a lead shield.

But how could we measure the specimens if we can’t handle them? The trick is to designate separate hot zones and clean workspaces, prepare all your supplies, and wear your personal safety equipment (mask, lab coat, gloves, whole body dosimeter, and ring badge).  We set up a HOT CART (essentially a holding area for specimens to be cataloged) behind a block wall where no radiation exposure could reach the team (shielding).  A “clean workstation” was set up, where I entered descriptive information into the collection database.  A viewing station consisted of several lead bricks around a leaded glass barrier.  One specimen at a time was set here while I identified it, an assistant measured approximate dimensions and wrote a specimen label, and USC’s Radiation Safety Officer used an ion chamber to measure the level of radioactivity emitted by the specimen.  A third team member would take a digital picture, and then bag the specimen and apply the label.  Finally, once a specimen was identified, labeled, cataloged, and properly contained in a plastic zipper bag, it was ready for storage in a secure area, far from everyday traffic.  All the while the team from Radiation Safety handled most of the specimens prior to bagging and storage.  All waste items including gloves, paper, packing, etc were disposed as radioactive waste.  The last step in the process will be to transfer the specimens to a permanent storage cabinet that we can outfit with an on-demand vent to limit radon concentrations, if necessary.

Through the above process, we cataloged 590 radioactive specimens that ended up filling 18 bankers boxes!!!  That’s quite a lot of NORM, which we are glad to see safely stored.

Christian M. Cicimurri
Natural Science Project Manager

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Mineral Detective Work… or How do we know what that mineral is?

The answer to this question is one that applies to most professions – through years of education, study, and research.  But it’s not always that simple.  With over 4000 different minerals identified and many minerals having multiple crystal forms (for example, calcite has more than 800!) the task can be quite daunting.  Luckily there are some basic groupings and tests that greatly narrow the field. There are a few very different techniques one can use to identify a mystery object.  For the purposes of this grant we must focus on cataloging the greatest number of specimens in our 2-year funding period, while keeping costs down and preserving the mineral specimens for future generations.  Think COST, TIME, and CARE.

Visual inspection and observation of physical characteristics is the most common method.   It is relatively inexpensive (just a few hand tools are needed), quick, and allows for complete preservation of the specimen; however it is only as good as the inspector (person) and is therefore not as accurate as other methods.

Optical properties of minerals can also be used, and this technique is commonly taught as an advanced university course.  A glass slide is glued to a mineral and then ground to a thickness of less than 0.2 mm.  The thin section is then examined using a light polarizing microscope.  I can only imagine the time involved in preparing thin sections for thousands of minerals.  Additionally, grinding away part of a specimen runs counter to preserving it in perpetuity.

Finally, there are various element measuring technologies that can be used to analyze a specimen’s elemental make up, and thus determine its identity from its parts.  Again these techniques involve the use of expensive equipment (things like a scanning electron microscope or SEM, a Microprobe analysis, and X-ray Diffraction), and require destruction of a portion of the specimen.  We do use SEM analysis on a few select objects; however it is not cost or time effective to test thousands of samples.

Physical characteristics that help identify minerals are commonly outlined in most rock and mineral field guides.  Crystal habit or shape, streak, luster, cleavage, hardness, specific gravity, magnetism and fluorescence are all properties than can easily be measured with some simple, inexpensive tools.  Luckily we don’t have to start from scratch with every mineral, as most have been identified at some point, so I just need to verify the identification, and identify accessory minerals in the specimen.  The challenge lies in the history of this collection (more on this in an upcoming post), when occasionally a specimen loses its label.  Then we need to figure out what it is using the characteristics listed above.

Then there are those specimens that present a special challenge, and Object 11357 is one of them.  I found it in a drawer labeled Oxides, and its catalog card listed an ID of Cassiterite from Germany.  Another specimen in the drawer with the same number looks very different.  The historic SC Catalog of the Cabinet (a book used to catalog the first 2400 museum specimens in 1902) described the specimen as “Cassiterite, small veins in granular quartz,” and that description is accurate for the other sample.  Our mystery object is pictured here and is most definitely NOT veins of cassiterite in quartz; it’s a sandy, iron cemented concretion.

Mystery specimen 11357

Mystery specimen 11357

What to do?  Well, I mentioned to a colleague “I wish we had tools like they have on CSI… we could just wave a light over the specimen and find out what it is.”  Well, it was almost that easy.  The mystery object has a handwritten label that is almost completely faded.

Faded label of specimen 11357

Faded label of specimen 11357

But under short wave ultraviolet (UV) light we were able to decipher the label: “Argill. Oxide of [illegible word] / a globular concretion / Bedfordshire, England” – Hurray!

Specimen 11357 under UV light

Specimen 11357 under UV light

I was able to cross reference the word Bedfordshire with our transcription of the historic Catalog and find the following record on page 114:  Siderite, argill. concretion, Bedfordsh., Eng.  Upon closer inspection I noted a layer tiny dark gray rounded siderite lining the inside of the cavity you see in the first image (above).  (The illegible word on the label is probably ‘carbon’ as siderite is an iron carbonate.)  It sure was hard work, but so exciting when we successfully solved the mystery.

Christian M. Cicimurri
Natural Science Project Manager

Acknowledgements – special thanks to the colleague mentioned above, Dave Cicimurri, Curator of Natural History at the South Carolina State Museum.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

“Three of these groups are kind of the same
One of these groups just doesn’t belong here
Now it’s time to play a game.”
                ~Mr. Hooper, Sesame Street
The video you have just seen should stir pleasant memories from childhood.  Mr. Hooper, Gordon, Big Bird and the Sesame Street crew were responsible for teaching countless children how to categorize and count.  It’s been a lifetime since I played along with the crew and almost as long since I actively played with rocks.  For the last month I have been working at McKissick Museum as a curatorial assistant on an IMLS grant to re-catalogue the mineral collection – essentially playing with and counting rocks.
I’m an artist and a contemporary art curator, and to say that I’m slightly out of my element is, true… however, hidden among the rocks, bones, sand and crystals are some interesting, if misplaced items.  Should carved stones be a part of a mineral collection?  Are they cataloged as rocks/minerals or as art?  The answer for Christian Cicimurri, Project Manager, is “art object made of stone” (in a voice sounding like a prehistoric Grover)!
Soapstone/talc carving of monkeys

Soapstone/talc carving of monkeys

Puzzling curiosities found among the thousands of excellent specimens include what has now been affectionately titled “Monkey Pot,” a red orange mottled carving of a small rounded pot surrounded by three monkeys (the three wise monkeys or mystic apes)and a round rock or stool, carved out of soapstone (talc) with waxy luster and soapy feel.  Its origin is unknown.  In a collection with historic associations that make you shutter, did the ghosts of Thomas Cooper, Lardner Vanuxem, or Lewis R. Gibbes see no, hear no and speak no evil when this object was added to the collection?

The small sculpture measuring only 5.104 cm x 4.818 cm is a playful scene of the traditional story of the three wise monkeys illustrating the life cycle of man from a code of conduct developed in the Analects of Confucius. The stone is a rich red tone, it is a sweetly detailed carving of the monkeys who have made recurring appearances in popular culture for centuries, and is a fine example of what can be done with soapstone.  Additionally it represents an opportunity to explore the visual narrative first born in the writings of Confucius between 475 BCE and most famously carved above a Shinto temple in the 16th century but just as easily referenced in images of the Three StoogesAll fine reasons for an art object in the collection, but should it be cataloged as a mineral specimen?  Just sayin’…
Michaela Pilar Brown
Curatorial Assistant
Michaela Pilar Brown is a SC based interdisciplinary artist working in photography/video, installation, sculpture & performance.  She joined the McKissick Museum staff in May 2012 and began assisting with the IMLS grant in July 2012.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Tools of the Trade

Working with McKissick’s natural science collections has taught me a lot, about different specimens and also about how geologists work with them. We use a lot of tools in the cataloging process, so I thought I would share a few that I’ve learned to use through this project:

Dial calipers

Dial calipers

Calipers: We use calipers to measure each specimen’s length, width, and height (or sometimes diameter). The tool’s movable prongs are gently squeezed around two points on the specimen, causing the sliding scale and dial to give us a reading up to three decimal places. Accurate measurements are important for the museum’s catalog records; since many specimens may have very similar textual descriptions, sometimes measurements are the only way to tell them apart.

11270 Calcite

Specimen of calcite with white albite feldspar and small pinkish willemite. Under short wave UV light the calcite fluoresces bright orange red, the willemite fluoresces bright green, and the feldspar does not fluoresce.

UV light: Would you guess that some minerals that look white or gray under normal lighting will fluoresce to a bright red, green, orange, or yellow under UV lights? In the geology storage area, we have a short-wave UV light which we can turn on as needed to inspect specimens for fluorescence. This technique can help in our identification of minerals. Some of our fluorescent minerals include calcite, willemite, scheelite, and fluorite. You can see some of these on display any time in our permanent exhibition, “Natural Curiosity.”

Carat scale

Using the carat scale to weigh gemstones.

Carat scale: In cataloging gemstones, using a carat scale was a must to accurately determine each stone’s unique ID number from a prior inventory list. Since the stones are so small (and so beautiful!) their ID numbers are not written on them. Using the carat scale involves placing the stone in the basket on one side, and tiny weights in the other, adding and removing weights while waiting (ha!) for the baskets to balance. Once weighed, we could then find the stone’s ID number from our list and proceed with cataloging.

Chris performing a geiger sweep

Project manager Christian Cicimurri performs a sweep of a storage drawer with the Geiger counter.

Geiger counter: Through this project, we found in the collection a variety of geologic specimens (some mineralogical—minerals or rocks, and some paleontological—fossils) that are known to possess some amount of radioactivity. To ensure we handle and store these properly, the University’s department of radiation safety provided us with training in understanding and working with radioactive material, and made site visits to inspect our facility and determine the best course of action. They also gave us a Geiger counter and instructed us in its usage, so we can locate any specimens that are emitting radioactive energy, and decide our safest storage options. Our counter has a wand which is held near a specimen, or waved slowly through a general area (such as a storage cabinet drawer), while the unit is set to one of several degrees of sensitivity, producing a chirping sound when it signals radioactive energy. Once signaled, we can then inspect the specimen or area more closely and decide on any necessary action.

Mindat.org: This is not a “tool” as much as it is a resource, but as much as we use it, I felt it deserved a mention! The website http://www.mindat.org/ has been an essential reference tool for us in cataloging geologic specimens. It can be used to look up a mineral by name, which helps us find the physical properties of a mineral, see pictures of that mineral to ensure ours “matches,” and learn important health and safety information. Mindat even helps us to determine the appropriate modern name for a mineral using a historic name we may find on 19th century labels or in the 19th century catalog of the collection. If you want to learn more about minerals, check out their “photo of the day” on the homepage!

Melanie Neil
Curatorial Assistant

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

The Evolution of a Project

Wow!  Our recataloging project has definitely taken some strange turns in the last two months.  As this project is happening, McKissick Museum is also having some major renovation work done consisting of HVAC system installation, and the refurbishment of most of the windows in this historic building.  These challenges (and others) have required that this team be incredibly flexible and sometimes even mobile!  What I mean is that we constantly respond to the conditions in the building and adapt our process to continue the project.

Mobile cataloging station

Our mobile cataloging station set up in “Natural Curiosity.”

In February, when the natural history gallery needed to temporarily close for HVAC work, we gathered all of our tools, books, and a laptop computer, loaded up two rolling carts, and set up a mobile cataloging station right in the gallery. This was actually a great time to work on the exhibited items, since we wouldn’t disturb any visitors; however lighting quickly became an issue, but nothing that a few directed spot lights and a decent flashlight couldn’t overcome.  After about six weeks of work in the gallery, the HVAC work was complete and we still had three more cabinets of material to catalog.  Time to adapt again!  We decided the best option was to continue with the gallery specimens, but we loaded them on a cart and took them to a secure area for cataloging.  This proved to be a great compromise and we are now finished cataloging over 700 specimens exhibited in Natural Curiosity.

While working on the gallery specimens, we came across a number of faceted gemstones, which posed a different set of challenges.  Because the stones are small and have been cut and polished, the usual characteristics we use to identify them are not always obvious.  We have an inventory list of the more than 2500 gemstones in the collection; however there are numerous examples of different stones.  For example, a faceted stone that is colorless and transparent could be topaz, diamond, sapphire, or something else – how can we tell them apart?

Ruby gemstone

Round brilliant cut gemstone of corundum (ruby).

First we look at the shape of the cut.  Is it a brilliant cut (round with many triangular facets), an emerald cut (rectangular with a large table, or top), princess cut, marquise, or something else?  Next we measure the dimensions of the stone, and weigh it using a carat scale.  All these characteristics help us to identify one stone from another.  And when we’re lucky, the stone has some sort of imperfection, like an internal fracture or inclusion that becomes a unique identifier.  After all this information is entered into the museum’s database, I add a written description that will easily distinguish each specimen.  The final challenge is applying the museum’s catalog number (or object ID).  Because it is impractical to write a tiny number directly on the actual specimen, as we would with other objects, we write the object ID on a small plastic bag and put the stone inside.

Our current total number of cataloged specimens is 2852 (in about six months), with just 25 gemstones included in that number.  So we have 2523 more gemstones to work on, and approximately 7000-8000 other minerals, too.  So now we’re back to working in the Geology Storage room, enjoying the natural light offered to us for a couple weeks while our windows are replaced, and moving right along.

Christian Maloney Cicimurri
Project Manager

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Ready for your close-up?

As a non-geologist working on a geology-based project, my role at McKissick is pretty special. At times, I wish my background could have been different (not that I would ever want to leave my beloved field of art history), so that I would be more adept at identifying or describing specimens. But on the other hand, I get the best of both worlds. I get to work with natural scientists from different disciplines (geology! paleontology! botany!), learning from them and having them point out to me the best of the best of our collections. And at the same time, I get to find my own unique place in this project, taking collections management skills I’ve developed on prior assignments and adapting them to fit new circumstances.

Shooting specimens inside an exhibit case to avoid unnecessary handling.

One skill in my bag of tricks is photographing museum collections. For the first year I worked at McKissick, I was in charge of digitizing our traditional arts collections; this required taking high-resolution studio-style photos of every object from our pottery, basket, and quilt collections. (You can see samples in the photo albums on our Facebook page.) This project really pushed my existing photography training to a new level, teaching me digital photography, image manipulation, studio lighting, and much more.

So, the rocks. The purpose of the natural science project is not the same as with the traditional arts project; we are cataloging, not digitizing, so taking high-resolution photos of every specimen is not feasible, when we consider the quantity of specimens that need attention in only 2 years. Still, taking object photos is an important part of good collections management, and having our database filled with images makes it a more effective research tool. To this end I have been able to add “specimen photographer” to my list of responsibilities, taking images of our best specimens (of great display or mineralogical significance), our historic specimens (those that can be traced back to the 19th century origins of the collections), and those specimens which are displayed in our permanent exhibition, Natural Curiosity.

Using the gray card to set the camera for exhibit case lighting.

As a photographer, the biggest change in working with the natural science collections is in the amount of flexibility I have to bring to the task. Small storage rooms and mobile “cataloging carts” (moving around the museum to catalog specimens on display), have resulted in a downsized, mobile photographer, working without the fancy studio lights and pristine white paper backdrop. My most prized tool is a $3 gray card, which I use on a minute-by-minute basis to set the white balance of the camera for whatever wacky exhibit or storage lighting is present. (In a sad story, there was a brief time when I had been lent a special, expensive “diamond dazzler” light bulb, which fit inside a regular desk lamp and was designed to highlight the cuts of gemstones and crystals. Unfortunately, after taking just one photo with the special bulb, there was an accident involving an unsteady lamp and the diamond dazzler is no longer with me.) Simplicity is key.

A partial quartz termination from NC, shot using the “diamond dazzler” lightbulb.

I’m not a geologist, but I find that photographing these specimens helps me test my mineral identification skills, which I’m learning through the cataloging process. After all, I have to know what’s important on a specimen in order to photograph it correctly. Stay tuned here on the blog to see photos of our specimens and the cataloging team in action as time goes on!

Melanie Neil
Curatorial Assistant

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.