Home to over 500,000 artifacts, the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology preserves pieces of pottery, stone tools, and photographs that are used by students and researchers alike. The fluctuation of humidity and temperature in the building, however, has threatened to degrade thousands of relics.
In 2016, the Peabody began planning a renovation to correct this problem. Currently, staff members are working on moving the collection to the basement, an area where they can control the environment in an attempt to preserve the remnants of history for future generations.
Ryan Wheeler, Director of the Peabody, said, “We have really no control over the temperature and the humidity [in the current storage locations]. It’s really the humidity that’s the challenge. It can become a low eight percent and there are other days where it ranges over 70 percent. That’s a big switch. Environmentally, that’s bad for all these collections. It can degrade them to the point where they are sort of deteriorating and falling apart.”
In the past, the archeological and photographic archives have been stored all over the building in wooden shelves; however, many of the wooden shelves are also contributing to the deterioration of artifacts.
Wheeler said, “I really hate the wooden cabinets as their wood [has] rotted, which means that microscopic organisms are actively eating them and dropping dust down onto the objects.”
Will Zinterhofer ’19, who helps in the Peabody for his work duty, wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “The renovation is necessary because there are so many fragile artifacts in the Peabody that need to be stored in a safe area so that the [Peabody] can continue studying and displaying the objects.”
The archives will be transitioned to new shelves in the basement, which will be able to move in order to take advantage of the space, operating similarly to shelves in a large university library. The floor and ceiling of the basement will also be sealed to keep out moisture, according to Wheeler.
“We spent a lot of time with vendors working out what we wanted it to look like. We need to keep it so that regardless what’s happening outside — cold days, hot days, humid days, dry days — it stays pretty much within a narrow range so that we don’t have crazy bounces,” said Wheeler.
According to Wheeler, the project will cost $1.5 million as a whole.
Marla Taylor, Curator of Collections at the Peabody, said, “We used [part of ] the money to buy archival boxes that are custom sized. One drawer turns into two boxes. We have over 2,100 drawers total in the institute and we have 1,489 left to [move].”
One issue in moving the artifacts is that the Peabody does not have a coherent list of all of their inventory, due to diverging cataloging styles that have developed throughout the years, according to Mitchell Duerr ’19, who helps in the Peabody for his work duty.
Although the lack of records will make it more difficult for staff members to keep track of the items during transit, one of the institute’s other main
goals in the renovation is to compose one complete catalogue.
In the past, the various catalogues were all handwritten, but after the renovation, the catalogues will be available in an online database, according to Taylor.
Some students, such as Duerr, are helping to catalog the artifacts in the Peabody Institute as their work duty. The students write down the names and reference number of each artifact on an online spreadsheet, and after marking them down, students and staff organize each artifact into cardboard boxes.
Duerr said, “We’re just uploading [the content from the old catalogues] into a spreadsheet so that you’ll be able to search for them without having to flip through a 100-year book all written in cursive.”
This process of the digitization of the archives will lead to a smoother and more organized transition into the basement. And although students are helping with the cataloging, the institute will hire more employees in order to catalogue and reshelf the entire collection, according to Wheeler.
The staff is excited for the change to come and will continue their efforts to save the work that the institute has compiled over the past 100 years, according to Taylor.
Taylor said, “We will take these things that are hundreds of thousands of years old and finally put them into a space where people can utilize them. What’s the point of having all of this if you never see it, if nobody knows that it exists, if researchers can’t access it, if teachers can’t access it? What is the point of continuing to keep it?”