NEH CARES: Rehousing the World Ethnology Collection

Re-exploring the Latin American, South American and African Collections

On June 15, 2020, the National Endowment for the Humanities notified the Museum that it received $150,000 in a Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) grant. That grant partially offset the salaries of eleven Science Division staff members during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Under the terms of the grant, we focused on inventorying, rehousing, photographing and researching the Museum’s World Ethnology Collection, which includes objects from Central and South America, Africa, and other parts of the world. It also includes a small but significant collection of paintings, prints, and sketches from ethnographic cultures around the world.

From July 1 through December 31, Department of Anthropology and Integrative Collections staff worked furiously in the World Ethnology storage room, tucked away behind Ricketson Auditorium in the northwest corner of the Museum’s first floor. There, collections managers Dominque Alhambra and Jeff Phegley unwrapped and measured each object, created digital photographs of each, and noted any special attention that they might need. Once measured and photographed, the objects were transported to the Museum’s state-of-the-art Avenir Collections Center in the Morgridge Family Exploration Center on the southside of the Museum. There, in a task that would ordinarily have been conducted by Museum volunteers, Alhambra and Phegley made custom storage mounts out of archive quality materials for each object, which then got placed in our wonderful preservation facility. Museum photographer Rick Wicker took beautiful images of the most important and beautiful objects, and conservation assistant Kathryn Reusch tackled problematic objects that needed more detailed attention to mend breaks, engage in specialize cleaning, and propose more extensive treatment options that will be conducted in the future.

Learn more

This grant created a unique opportunity for the humanities staff at DMNS to focus on a shared, single goal. How do you decide what to focus on and prioritize in six months? What did we learn? This presentation will cover: adapting the rehousing process with limited staff on-site in a pandemic; a detailed breakdown of each 5-day move cycle; conservation assessments, photography, and data cleanup; collections research by curators; before and after photos; and takeaways, lessons, and future directions.


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