For just over a year I’ve been proudly calling myself ‘Museum Wiesbaden’s Natural History Collections storeroom manager’. Hardly anyone seems to know what that means, though. I’m always being asked: ‘So what exactly do you do?’
Well, in this blog entry, let me take you behind the scenes and show you what I get up to at work.
The storerooms are the heart of the Natural History Collections. Around 1.2 million objects in total are kept there, categorized under General Geology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology, Botany, Zoology, and Ethnology. I have to oversee them all, making sure they are stored safely, and allocating space for new objects.
However, when I once tried to explain my job to outsiders, the response was: ‘Oh, so you run around with a feather duster keeping cobwebs off dead animals?’
Of course, the exhibits must be kept in perfect condition. Any speck of dust or smudge of dirt could hide, say, an insect infestation. Obviously, though, this is not the place for feather dusters; the items in the collections must be handled with the greatest care and respect. They also need optimum climatic conditions to ensure their preservation. Temperature, humidity, and exposure to light must all be constantly monitored.
My job, then, is all about keeping fragile, irreplaceable specimens under close inspection. Pest control is an important aspect of ensuring their longevity. I’m proud to say we’ve never used poisonous insecticides. Even in the days when Lindane and DDT were still permitted. Instead we use, for example, lavender oil, or natural pest controls like parasitic wasps. Managing without poison is only possible, though, because I regularly go round with a strong light and a magnifying glass, inspecting every insect box, drawer, and other storage unit, so that skin beetles, museum beetles, moths, and silverfish don’t stand a chance. It’s laborious, but since I studied insect pests in my previous job as a biological-technical assistant, I’m happy to take on the challenge.
One possible source of pests are loaned objects or specimens which have been on open display in one of our exhibitions. Even if they show no signs of damage, for safety’s sake exhibits are quarantined before being allowed back into the storeroom. That means my work only really begins after a special exhibition has been dismantled, when you visitors may already be enjoying the next one. Small and medium-sized objects are put into our freezer cabinets – they have to be frozen twice to ensure that every harmful insect is destroyed. Large objects and objects made of wood, on the other hand, are fumigated. To do this, we transport them to the Hessenpark open-air museum at Neu-Anspach, where they have an anoxic fumigation chamber. Last year, for example, our black bear had to go in for treatment; he got moths. Of course, this sort of transportation needs to be well planned and everything must be carefully isolated and packed. We can’t afford to have anything go wrong; after all, the aim is to have our animal back on show looking just as handsome as before the infestation.
Transport and loans are also part of my remit. Every loan must be discussed and documented, dates must be agreed, and transport there and back organized. For example, the Natural History Museum in Mainz recently sent us some ethnological objects from Rwanda to supplement our Ethnology Collection. The whole of this area of the collection is currently being rebuilt and reorganized.
But it’s not just about specimens. All sorts of stands, display cases and other equipment have to be dismantled and stored behind the scenes. We have a special external storage facility for this purpose. I must confess I was initially a bit surprised when I was told to: ‘Go and learn how to drive a forklift!’ In retrospect, given the height of our shelves, it makes perfect sense.
I always share in the excitement of an exhibition being set up or dismantled. And that’s not just because I’m in charge of the technical side of things. As well as the above-mentioned quarantining of exhibits, preparing new specimens, storing away or making available other exhibition paraphernalia, I take care of all the tools and get stuck in with the practical tasks. That means I not only know where every specimen in our collections is at any given moment, I also know almost everything about every piece of equipment as well.
Something I particularly enjoy is being included in the planning of special exhibitions. For our current exhibition Butterfly Expedition, for example, I was allowed to design one of the display cases myself and give short talks about it now and then. At the moment, I’m also enjoying supplying and taking care of our live caterpillars.
In all our tasks at the museum we are supported by volunteers, without whose help many things would not be possible. I’m their contact point if they need to source materials, arrange transport, or make other internal arrangements – there to ensure that everything goes smoothly.
Last but not least, we have our 3D printer and scanner project. We’re still at the stage of trialling two different printers. We hope we can soon start printing some of our own models for exhibitions.
Of course, you have to bring a certain passion and interest to my job. It isn’t’, after all, just a matter of ‘sweeping cobwebs off dead animals’. It’s about confronting the extinct Javanese tiger, Cape lion, or quagga eyeball to eyeball. It’s about the special feeling you get when you hold Maria Sibylla Merian’s little box, full of butterflies she caught around 320 years ago. It’s about the stories behind the objects, about preserving cultural heritage from the realm of natural history, about my share of responsibility in all of that. Last but not least, it’s about passing on knowledge about nature to our visitors. For me, at any rate, it’s a job like no other.