Researcher Aided Acquisition

by Thomas Baione on

Library News

As librarians and archivists at an institution with vast and varied collections, we often don’t learn about an important volume, drawing or archival object until a researcher asks about it and we are privileged to go down the path of discovery with them, each of us learning about the topic and its context in the history of science or in the history of our institution. Often a researcher’s question enlightens us about our history and the people and activities that predate us.

Earlier this year, I corresponded with a researcher from abroad who had visited the prior year to explore the topic of invertebrate models and the exhibitions they inhabited and the craftspeople who made them. The Museum has a long history of employing artists and preparators to this day and for decades glassblowers were kept busy creating plants and detailed glass masterpieces showing microscopic life at an easy to inspect (ie visible) scale. Herman O. Mueller was the best known of these glass artists, spending 40 years at the Museum, and my researcher expressed an interest in his work.

Herman O. Mueller, glassblower, working on an invertebrate model in the Department of Installation and Preparation, 1910
Herman O. Mueller, glassblower, working on an invertebrate model in the Department of Installation and Preparation, 1910. Note the hose that “taps” into the gas light fixture and provides Mueller with the means to melt small pieces of glass. AMNH Library - Image no. 33027
Lunt, Thomas (photographer)

Thanks to the extensive, collection of digitized images and Museum publications – including Annual ReportsHall Guides and issues of Natural History Magazine and its predecessor American Museum Journal – a great deal of research can be conducted on the Museum’s history online from anywhere: an important factor all the more so during 2020 when our physical collections are difficult to access. My researcher had found numerous references to Mueller which included images of dioramas he had contributed to for the Invertebrate Zoology Hall, later rededicated as the Darwin Hall, and they asked if any of these century old exhibits still existed.

The next day, I was randomly invited to view some items that had been stored in a classroom at the Museum that was about to renovated. The Library’s Memorabilia Collection grows largely from the discovery of objects from around the Museum. This classroom space contained some large items on a high shelf that needed to removed – did the Library wish to add any to its Memorabilia Collection?

The diorama fragment as rediscovered in a Museum classroom, far right.
The diorama fragment as rediscovered in a Museum classroom, far right.
Baione, Tom (photographer)

One of the items looked oddly familiar, though I know I hadn’t seen it before. I made a date to return to that classroom with a ladder to make a closer inspection. Before I could return, I reread my researcher’s query and there it was – they had included an image of the Gay Head Sound Bottom diorama from the Darwin Hall and this was the diorama fragment that I saw on the high shelf in the classroom! Mueller is credited with work on this diorama, creating the glass parts and possibly having a hand in other components. Without the researcher’s email, I would not have been able to identify the fragment so easily.

Gay Head Sound Bottom Group, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts from the Darwin Hall, photographed in 1922. AMNH Library - Image no. 39796
Gay Head Sound Bottom Group, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts from the Darwin Hall, photographed in 1922. AMNH Library - Image no. 39796
Kirschner, Julius (photographer)

Closer inspection revealed several important facts about the diorama. It was only part of the original diorama: sadly, the painted background and the right side of the group – with a horseshoe crab and vegetation – was missing. The remainder of the installation was largely intact and showed two lobsters, one caught in mid-hunt grabbing a blue crab as it tries to swim away, while another blue crab observes the scene, mostly buried in the sand below. These crustaceans are actual specimens, painted to look alive and supported by hidden wires. Above them, strands of sugar kelp made of wax and wire and other more delicate marine plants made of glass appear to wave in the current.

The rescued diorama fragment in a temporary location in Library storage.
The rescued diorama fragment in a temporary location in Library storage.
Baione, Tom (photographer)

What also became immediately apparent was that while only a fragment, this artifact was heavy and large wouldn’t be easy to remove (it was also extremely dusty). Our Exhibition Department colleagues were asked to help and with a forklift were able to move the fragment down and safely transfer it to a cart for transport to Library storage.

The Gay Head Sound Bottom diorama fragment as seen from the rear revealing its significant superstructure of wood, steel and plaster.
The Gay Head Sound Bottom diorama fragment as seen from the rear revealing its significant superstructure of wood, steel and plaster.
Baione, Tom (photographer)

While the subject matter itself is beautifully executed, the most fascinating aspect might be the back of the diorama, the side not intended for viewing. From the rear, one can see how the diorama model was constructed, with a sturdy wood frame and plaster covering (mixed with hay for added strength) that created the cantilevered mass to which the plants are attached. You can see the wires that support the models secured to the wood frame after they pass through the plaster on the back. The large seaweeds that appear to be moving in the ocean current are made of wax with a heavy wire core that extends through the plaster and are attached to large bolts on the back of the wood frame. The formidable wood support is further reinforced with a steel framework that extends along the edge from the top to a wide steel base in the lower corner. No wonder it’s so heavy!

The diorama fragment will be cleaned and an enclosure made to protect it. We’ll create a record for the item as part of our Leon Levy Foundation-funded Shelby White and Leon Levy Archive Initiative whose Memorabilia Collection project will begin work in 2021. Ultimately the fragment will be stored in a refurbished Library Memorabilia Room, transformative work also supported by the Levy Initiative.

In the future, researchers interested in the Museum’s Invertebrate Hall, Herman O. Mueller, invertebrate models or early Museum exhibition construction will be able to study this fragment and learn more about the context under which it was created and the artisans responsible for its execution. Who knows where the next researcher question will lead?

This is the fifteenth post in a series about how the Library's staff is working remotely and enriching its digital collections to enhance access to researchers and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. This entry was written by Tom Baione, Harold Boeschenstein Director.