Influencing Exhibition Design through Preventive Conservation: Maximizing Scientific Utility of Natural Science Collections


The goal of exhibition planning through the lens of a preventive conservator is to identify and mitigate risks to long-term preservation of the collection on exhibit. Within the realm of natural science collections, that goal is further complicated by the need for preservation to address not only the aesthetic and structural stability routinely considered in art and history collections, but also the scientific utility of the specimens to answer contemporary and future questions about the natural world. Natural science collections are vast, diverse, and heavily altered from their natural state for long-term preservation within the museum context; often their preparation and preservation materials and methods were employed with research rather than aesthetic goals in mind. To exhibit such materials in a manner that satisfies education and public engagement needs without sacrificing scientific utility, a collaborative process with an equally diverse team of colleagues is required. Various forms of formal and informal communication are also required for this effort, including (but not limited to): team meetings, collections tours, review of construction and design drawings and schedules, and even ad hoc calls and emails. At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, a temporary exhibit of some of its most treasured collections entitled “Objects of Wonder” stands as a case study in influencing exhibition design from the preventive conservation perspective through the various forms of communication.

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