Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why I'm an archivist, not a natural history curator

Like a lot of archivists, I've got a few war stories. I've processed records that were housed in a rat- and roach-infested basement, moved moldy records out of a psychiatric center building slated for demolition, and helped to transfer vast quantities of red-rotted volumes from one storage location to another. However, few of the materials with which I've worked smell. I'm familiar with the musty aroma of records that have endured decades of damp conditions, the charred odor of records that were singed in a fire, and the vinegar/plastic smell of decaying electronic storage media, but I have yet to run into any records that really offend.

In contrast, some of my colleagues at the New York State Museum work with materials that, put it mildly, stink. At the moment, the museum's Curator of Mammals and several other staffers are, um, processing the remains of a 50-foot fin whale and a 40-foot humpback whale that were ensnared in fishing nets and washed ashore last winter.

After they were found, the bodies of the whales were cut up, moved to a rural area in western Massachusetts, and allowed to decompose under a tarp for several months. Now, my State Museum colleagues have moved the remains -- which are still maggoty -- to the Albany area so that they can prepare to accession the whales' skeletons. Their work is far from done:
State Museum staffers still have labor left, cutting away tissue, power-washing the bones and scrubbing them with a weak ammonia solution. They may end up burying some of the bones in horse manure, as recommended, to speed up decomposition. Finally, the bones will require a good, long airing out of six months or longer.
The museum currently holds an Atlantic right whale skeleton, and these new acquisitions will complement its existing holdings quite nicely. Moreover, they have research value:
Scientists will be able to study the whales' inner ears and the pathology of their bones for signs of decompression sickness, known as "the bends." There is a theory posited by some researchers that powerful sonar used by Navy vessels may disturb and disorient whales so that they surface too quickly and contract the bends -- a formation of nitrogen bubbles in the blood and tissues when ascending rapidly from a drive. The bends are marked by severe pains in the joints, cramps, paralysis and even death.
I understand why the museum wants to acquire these specimens. At the same time, I can't help but think: eeeeeeeeewwwwww! I have boundless respect for the strong-willed, strong-stomached museum staffers who are processing these skeletons, and I hope that these skeletons impress and educate museum visitors and help scientists figure out how to save the lives of other whales. However, I think I'll continue to work with records.

Skeleton of Atlantic right whale, New York State Museum, 22 September 2010. The flipper bones are currently being rearticulated and will be reattached to the skeleton in a few weeks.

1 comment:

Matt said...

When I was visiting Newport, RI many summers ago, there was a dead and rotting whale on the beach just outside of the Breakers Mansion during my tour. It was the worst smell I've ever experienced, so bad that I physically couldn't force myself to inhale. So your insight on smelly archival records vs. other profession's smelly records is humbling.