Hidden Treasures

No museum can display all of its collection–not even most of its collection. To see the most valuable items, one must venture into seldom seen storage areas. What’s there is often a surprise and a mystery–even to staff.




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Danielle Rice, executive director of the Delaware Art Museum, oversees the museum’s 12,000 items, most of which reside in storage. Paintings are rotated between exhibition and storage spaces to prevent damage from light.Ê Photograph by Tom Nutter

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It’s just like a scene from the Bible: lion side-by-side with lamb, leopard at peace with gazelle, creatures of the sea living with those of the air. But the prophet Isaiah didn’t say anything about a polar bear hiding behind a row of green cabinets.

Such is everlasting life, sort of, at the Delaware Museum of Natural History, whose storage facility is inhabited by beings of the earth, sky and sea.

The cause for this unnatural cohabitation?

“It’s simple: Space is expensive,” says Jean Woods, the museum’s curator of birds.

Though the Museum of Natural History’s collection continues to grow, display space in the museum remains constant, which leads to cramped quarters in storage. The result is a back catalog of more than 300,000 items rarely seen by the public, to be held in metal cabinets for the foreseeable future. But this museum is not alone.

In Wilmington, the new and improved Delaware Art Museum is having similar problems. Fresh off renovations that increased exhibit space, the museum is still only able to display about 300 of its 12,000 items at a time—and that does not include the 120 touring Pre-Raphaelite paintings that will return in September. During the construction last year, the museum’s library was expanded, an electronic, moveable storage system was installed, and hydro-thermographs were put in place to monitor humidity and temperature, all of which allow safe management of the collection.

“A good storage facility like this gives people access,” says Danielle Rice, executive director of the museum. “But if your storage facility is really, really cramped, it’s difficult.”

The staff at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford knows all too well how a crowded storage facility can create a difficult workspace. In order to continue collecting local art, including works by Howard Pyle and the Wyeth family, the staff began its 2003 remodeling of the 19th-century gristmill it occupies by focusing on maximizing storage space in two large rooms on the second and third floors.

Before the renovation, it was difficult for the museum to store unusual works, such as Andrew Wyeth’s charcoal drawings on paper, due to their fragility and size. (Some are larger than life.) The renovation has made organization and, more importantly, preservation manageable tasks. It is the quality of work in the entire collection that defines the museum, not just what is on display.

“Museums are set up primarily to collect, preserve and study,” says Virginia O’Hara, curator of collections at the Brandywine River Museum. “The exhibition part of it is to teach and to help people understand this information.”

Museums are the iceberg of the collecting world. People are usually impressed by what they see in the galleries, but the real power is hidden under the surface. Even the world’s most popular museums, buildings large enough to house small armies, are unable to display most of their collections. National art galleries such as the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg were all once homes to their country’s royal families, but curators today can’t find enough room to display even 5 percent of the collections now housed there.

In theory, historic estates, such as Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur, should be different, because the buildings should be able to display their original contents. Yet the du Ponts were always ones for disproving theories. Even Winterthur Museum’s nearly 35,000 square feet of galleries, 60-acre garden and 175 period rooms are not enough to display everything du Pont owned.

Du Pont’s obsession with decorating led to a large collection, from furniture to ceramics, but it was his fascination with textiles, most of which he would rotate with the season—or whenever else he felt the need for change—that is the largest part of the collection, says Linda Eaton, curator of textiles at Winterthur.

“Most of this beautiful stuff is in boxes,” she says. “So many beautiful things and there is just no room.”

Cramped quarters force tough decisions. At this point the issue is not what will be displayed but why it should be displayed. And each museum’s reasons are as individual as their collections.

For a research-based institution like the Museum of Natural History, the purpose of the collection drives many decisions. Most of what is archived there is studied extensively for scientific purposes, not just by the scientists on staff, but also by visitors. As one of the top institutions in the country for the study of both birds and mollusks, the museum’s collections are full of information.

An ornithological forensic squad might be thrilled to study skeleton No. 078688, a Bubo virginianus that was found dead at the Pot-Nets Trailer Park in April 1992, but most visitors aren’t too concerned about an owl that’s been dead for 15 years. Likewise, a lot of cone snails stored in alcohol would not cause most to change their spring break plans, but that was the case for a University of Washington professor who visited the museum earlier this year.

Instead, most people go there to see a walrus, with tusks as big as a human leg, that was killed in 1965. Museums realize this, so they usually present exhibits that provoke plenty of ooohs and aaahs among visitors. So the popular large mounted animals remain on display. “They aren’t very useful for scientific purposes, but they’re great for exhibits,” curator Jean Woods says. The remaining, less glamorous specimens stay safely stored upstairs.

A great exhibit at one museum might not make a great one at another, and just because things are big and flashy don’t mean they always go on display. Many pieces at the Delaware Art Museum have the bright colors and appealing images that capture one’s gaze, but when dealing with fragile materials such as paper, watercolors and linen, it is important to keep the health of the piece in mind.

“That’s why museums have such large collections,” says Rice. “We have to keep it fresh. Otherwise, all this stuff would turn completely pale in less than a year.”

The results of ongoing preservation are rooms full of works on paper, usually kept in boxes to avoid any exposure, and aisles of large and fragile works that hang in a storage room.

“You can see that the colors on the watercolors are so fresh and so beautiful, but we couldn’t keep them out forever,” Rice says.

Even non-artists know a faded piece of art does not add to the collection. The best scenario would result in an expensive conservation bill that wouldn’t even return the work to its original form. Worst-case scenario? An empty frame.

Light is the biggest threat to the health of these fragile works, doing its damage when ultraviolet rays help catalyze a chemical reaction between oxygen and any water in the fabrics. The reaction creates hydrogen peroxide, better known as bleach, and even small amounts can cause serious scarring.

To avoid fading, the pieces must be cycled: Display for less than eight weeks, then rest for about a year, says Ryan Grover, who spent a year at Winterthur before becoming curator at the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover.

Rest is very important to the health of the collection, much like it is to a living creature. Unfortunately, the relationship doesn’t work the other way around. Living creatures, including humans, are unhealthy for collections. Aside from errors that can cause millions of dollars in damages, human skin secretes oils that can damage fragile material. Humans can also expose the objects to humid or bright environments and introduce unwanted specimen to the catalog. Those specimen can create a lot of trouble.

Small bugs can cause amazing amounts of damage, with silverfish, dermestid beetles and clothes moths posing the biggest threats. The beetles are so efficient at stripping an animal’s flesh from bone that the Museum of Natural History keeps a small colony in a room near the loading dock for help in preparing skeletons. But having the bugs near also can cause problems.

When creepy-crawlies do find their way into the collection, there are ways to deal with them. For individual items that may be exposed, a weeklong trip into the freezer ensures that no unwanted creature survives.

When Winterthur noticed it had silverfish in a storage room for linens, tassels, fringes and silks, it took a different approach. At one week per item, it would have taken 10 years to place each of the nearly 1,000 items in the room into a deep-freeze. So the museum has been placing box after box of century-old textiles into its carbon dioxide chamber, which fills an airtight chamber with the gas, starving the bugs of oxygen. After two weeks, the goods are deemed bug-free and returned to the comforts of their old home.

“There are no chemicals safe for the textiles and people that will kill the bugs,” Eaton says. “As much as we love this stuff, we won’t risk our health, so we just gas it.”

As one of the top bird and mollusk institutions in the United States, the Delaware Museum of Natural History gears its exhibits to the public. It recently presented an interactive exhibit on the giant squid, as well as a display of rare eggs, including one from an extinct species known as the elephant bird; its eggs are the size of a rugby ball.

As much fun as the galleries are, it would be an insult to the museum to ignore what is just up the stairs. It might not be as glamorous as the large display animals downstairs, but the rows of green and white metal cabinets that stretch the length of the building create a showcase of some of the most important examples of mollusks and birds in the world today. Some, like the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet and ivory-billed woodpecker, are no longer with us.

In fine art museums, an original piece is more valuable than a reprint in the museum store, but it would be impossible for scientists to find the original of a particular animal. So for a natural history museum, the strength of a collection doesn’t lie only in quantity, but also in quality.

When J.G. Walls came across a new species of cone snails in the Philippines in 1977, he did what any scientist in his situation would do: He submitted type specimens to a reputable collection, which would guarantee that what he found was acknowledged as the example of that species. Such type specimen add value to a collection. With 200 bird type specimen and more than 1,000 mollusks, the Museum of Natural History has a solid grip on the prime examples of many species.

The meat of the museum’s collection is not as flashy as the type specimen, but no less important. With 117,000 examples of birds, from skins to skeletons to eggs, and more than 2 million individual shells hidden in the nondescript cabinets, it would seem the collection would occupy any scientist for years, but that is not the case.

“Every thing here is individually different,” Woods says. “They come from different places during different times of the year. You need to have representations of each of those sexes or ages to understand the variation of the species. Cardinals in 1910 might be different than cardinals in 2007. So the collection is never finished because the natural world is always changing.”

Not everything is stashed in metal cabinets. Which is where the old stereotype of scientists using formaldehyde and alcohol to preserve things comes into play.

“For some items, this is the only way to store them,” says Liz Shea, curator of mollusks, motioning toward a long-dead squid. “A dried cephalopod is of no use to anyone.”

The benefit of storing items this way is that their tissue, especially internal organs, skin and muscles, can be studied in the growing field of biological tissue sampling.

Even items with little to no scientific value find their way into the collection. No one has the heart to throw away a sea urchin replica made with thousands of tiny shells and a hot glue gun. Shell art can be beautiful, but it has little scientific value.

“We like shells dirty and we like them with things growing on them, because you can learn more about them,” Shea says. “It’s a snapshot of biodiversity at that time and place.”

In terms of research, the Delaware Art Museum and the Brandywine River Museum function like the natural history museum. Though many of the primary artists represented in their collections have been dead for some time, their influence on artists in the area is still prevalent, which means a collection will never be complete.

“The art history of the area seems to be constantly unfolding,” says Halsey Spruance, director of public relations for the Brandywine River Museum. “So this is hardly a stagnant collection.”

Over the past few years, a popular new exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum has highlighted Jamie Wyeth’s association with Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. The exhibit has drawn good reviews, but it has also overshadowed a more important, albeit less publicized, addition.

When Ann Wyeth McCoy, last living sibling of Andrew Wyeth, died in November 2005, the museum knew it had lost a close friend. What the curators didn’t know was that the McCoy family had a sizable gift in mind. Books, photographs, letters, even paint palettes that once belonged to the Wyeths or Ann’s husband, John McCoy, a student of N.C. Wyeth, were donated. Though the public will see none of them in the near future, their historical significance is immeasurable.

“It’s wonderful to have all of that material, but it’s way more than the average person would be interested in,” says curator Virginia O’Hara. “It would just be more interesting to researchers.”

With so many pieces in its catalog, the Delaware Art Museum is in a similar situation with each of its big three collections: works by Howard Pyle and other early American illustrators, the Pre-Raphaelites and John Sloan. Some works are just more important for historical purposes than for exhibitions.

Many of Pyle’s original books, including his famous “Book of Pirates,” rest in the museum’s rare book room, where they sleep, untouched in the darkness. While aficionados may wish to get their hands on them, the fragile yellowed pages would be easily damaged by even the most delicate finger, so for the sake of preservation, the works remain tucked away.

A few turns through an underground labyrinth from the library, a heavy metal door guards more of the museum’s treasures.

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