Assessing the Museum’s Collection

The Museum is bigger than you probably think it is. Behind the scenes, there are over 50,000 artifacts in our care – some very special and some quite mysterious. Looking through that Collection can make you feel kind of like a detective as you find yourself looking for connections between one object and another, wondering about the twisting trail these objects followed to get here, and the many people the objects encountered along the way.

The Museum is now conducting an assessment, a renewed look at our Collection, and at present our Art and Collection Manager Kevin Arrow is working with Dr. Traci Ardren, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Miami, to review the over 1000 pre-Columbian Collection items. Normally, an assessment takes place behind closed doors, but the Museum has decided to fully share it with visitors so we can also learn more about visitors’ interests and generate questions and new conversations. This year, when you visit the Museum, you may encounter an open room where (nearly) every one of these 50,000 objects have been brought out in turn for the official assessment, and you can see it all happen.

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A portion of the Pre-Columbian Collection on display at the Museum during the assessment

Why are we doing this assessment? Think about your house or apartment. You have accumulated things over time. Maybe some of it is in a closet, a garage, or an attic. Now imagine you are moving. You may think about “assessing” what you have, and what your priorities are. Now imagine in your closet or garage that you have 50,000 objects that have come from around the world, dating back many centuries. You may have to be systematic in that kind of assessment.

That is what the Museum is doing, on a grand scale. The Museum is going through this process for a few reasons: Housekeeping, digital documenting, and sharing. It’s important that we confirm just what we have, and ensure that artifacts’ paperwork is in order and that the historical or scientific value is recognized. Then we need to make sure everything is digitally photographed, checked in the computer database, and then packed up for the big move. And what fun would that be if we couldn’t share with everyone all the amazing things we have?

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Write your own questions and comments about the objects on display

Dr. Ardren is carefully reviewing the Museum’s own Collections database, using her own eyes, knowledge, and practical experience, to authenticate and “place” some lesser considered objects in a given time and place in history. We also have a blacklight set up to use ultraviolet light to test the authenticity of objects (we are a science museum after all). If an object fluoresces, that is an indication of paint, glue, or other substances that would suggest an object was repaired or perhaps not authentic.

Every so often in our assessment we find something so special that it surprises everyone. Dr. Ardren noticed a unique bowl with glyphs (ancient symbols or writings) that she needed to verify. She contacted a colleague, who immediately and excitedly translated the symbols. What she discovered indicated that this bowl belonged to a Mayan king living in the 6th century. It was his primary drinking bowl for chocolate. Think for a minute about how amazing that is. That’s something that not many of us would find in our garage or attic.

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Drinking vessel of 6th Century Mayan King Wak Chan K’awiil, used for the ceremonial consumption of chocolate

Come see what other curious things we have at the Museum in our Collections! You are invited to write your thoughts about collection items on chalkboards, create your own interpretive labels for objects, and maybe even meet an anthropologist working in the room!

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Museum visitors are encouraged to take a crack at writing an object label for the artifacts on display

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