Dinosaur Illustration Collection "Saved" by Archivist "Angels"

Paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, under the auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey and Yale University, was responsible for discovering and naming many of the dinosaurs that are household names today. The immense collection that he amassed in the late 1800's now forms the core of the dinosaur collection in the Department of Paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), Smithsonian Institution (SI). In the mid 1980's, the original 19th century drawings and tracings of the specimens, prepared under the direction of Marsh and ranging in size from approximately 2 by 3 inches to 5 by 6 feet, were discovered by a museum specialist who was investigating some water damaged objects that were stored on the tops of cabinets in the department's type specimen room.

Over the past ten years, the museum specialist who discovered the drawings used his free time to move the collection into a "safe area". At the same time, he has worked to find individuals sympathetic to his cause of saving the dinosaur drawings. A department illustrator, due to their appreciation for the information inherent to the originals, was among the first to support the effort to preserve this and other historic illustration collections. A 1996 Smithsonian Institution Sesquicentennial Exhibit tentatively entitled "The Illustrated Smithsonian: When Science Meets Art" is being planned for late June and will feature scientific illustrations from the Smithsonian's collections.

The Smithsonian Institution's Research, Library, and Archive Collections Conservation Task Force (RELACT) spearheaded by the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research & Education (SCMRE) Senior Paper Conservator Dianne van der Reyden, in coordination with representatives from the Department of Paleobiology, NMNH, the Office of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (OSIA), the National Park Service, the National Archive and Records Administration, and the Library of Congress recently came to the aid of the collection by sponsoring an "Angels Project" for the Society of American Archivist's (SAA) 1995 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. A two hour seminar entitled "Saving the Dinosaurs", held at the NMNH, demonstrated to visiting archivists and Smithsonian staff members (who included Dr. Robert Hoffmann , Smithsonian Institution Provost) the ease by which activities required for the preservation of core holdings (including the use of various types of surveys, folder lists, prototypical housing materials and techniques for storage and display, and duplicating procedures to facilitate access to the images) can be integrated into processing and collections maintenance to minimize handling of the object and promote greater efficiency.

Originally conceived by the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) several years ago, "Angels Projects", which are traditionally held in conjunction with AIC annual meetings, provide local collections in need of conservation services with exposure to conservators interested in contributing their expertise. The SAA project, a modified version of the AIC projects, targeted a collection in need of archival processing and preservation consultation.

The "Angels Project", which focused on a collection of dinosaur drawings prepared under the direction of Othniel Charles Marsh, started with the use of a preservation priority survey tool (developed by the SAA in October, 1993) which uses matrices to plot risk, exposure, and value, allowing for unbiased comparison among collections. The survey was demonstrated by Dianne van der Reyden and Mary Parrish, Scientific Illustrator for the Department of Paleobiology, NMNH. Once a collection has been targeted as being a "preservation priority", staff time and energy may be allocated to prepare for future preventative conservation initiatives. One such preparatory step is the execution of a random sampling survey. By surveying ten percent of the collection (noting size, condition, medium, etc.) using a randomly generated numerical system to designate specific objects within the collection, approximations as to the housing and possible treatment needs of the collection can be quantified and supplies ordered.

Paul Theerman, Associate Archivist, OSIA, discussed the special needs of the collection in terms of attaining intellectual control and creating folder lists. Since the collection is utilized at an item level, problems arise in attempts to designate series, which could increase the accessibility (and consequently the value) of the collection. Mr. Theerman emphasized to the group, however, that preservation of the object is paramount to the attainment of intellectual control.

Two integral components in the preservation of a collection, housing and reformatting (which aid in the stabilization of a collection), were addressed next. After presenting to the group a wide range of encapsulation, folder, and storage box options, Heather Tennison, Pre-program Paper Conservation Lab Intern, SCMRE, discussed the prototype housing that was selected for the collection, which included customized polyester L-welds and flush folders. The importance of minimal handling of the object was addressed by Photographs Conservation Fellow Andrew Robb, SCMRE, who discussed the pro's and con's of the different reformatting options that are available and presented a brief demonstration of digital imaging.

RELACT course

Since some items from this collection have been selected for use in the upcoming illustration exhibition, the project also dealt with issues pertaining to the individual object. Elaine Hodges, Scientific Illustrator of the Department of Entomology, NMNH, who is also one of the organizers of the exhibition, and Dianne van der Reyden discussed ideal display conditions and options for the sensitive illustrations including mating and hinging techniques. Fei Wen Tsai, Preservation Liaison to Research Collections, SCMRE, demonstrated how an item level survey is completed for an object that may require conservation treatment before being handled or exhibited. The condition of the object was recorded and treatment recommendations were made.

Increased efforts must be made to insure that original materials are stabilized by proper care and storage, rather than allowed to languish into oblivion. This is especially critical since the original materials contain a plethora of inherent information that can in no way be fully reproduced. However, this inherent information can be diminished or lost if the original is allowed to deteriorate. Through collaborative efforts like the "Angels Project", solutions can be advocated and implemented to save the original materials and the artifactual evidence that can only be preserved in them.