The Work Behind the Artifacts

Author: Stephen Dadio

Walking into the Anthropology department of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History I was confronted with an endless array of cabinets, filled to the brim with artifacts from around the world. I was surrounded by drawers holding carved ivories from Japan, pots from the Mayan empire, and statues from New Guinea, the kind of precious objects that could be the spoils in an Indiana Jones movie. When I was a kid, I loved those kinds of movies, they filled me with a sense of wonder and excitement about the world, and ever since I have wanted to work at a museum. However, the work is far less glamourous than the movies make it out to be, if anything is. I knew that museum work would not be an adventure, but something that did surprise me was how much of my work was making up for past mistakes.

I focused on the maintenance of the South American pottery collection. I spent much of my time documenting and building supports for pottery. Earlier supports were built using brittle materials and easily broke. The foam and other materials contained chemicals that could lead to the degradation of the pottery and instability in the supports. It is important to note that these materials were the best available at the time, but as technologies advance, so should museums. I created new supports for each pot using high quality and non-toxic materials that will last for potentially hundreds of years and keep pots from breaking.

In addition to making new supports, I photographed and documented the pots, updating previous documentation. Of course, when the pots entered into the museum collection in the early twentieth-century modern computer technology did not exist, so I spent a lot of time transferring old documents into new digital databases. Despite this not being the action-packed work people might associate with an intrepid anthropologist, I loved every second of it. I was afforded the opportunity to work with pots that were hundreds of years old and ensure their safety for future generations. The documentation and photographs now make numerous artifacts available for study by archeologists from around the world. I learned about the inner workings of museums and proper artifact care, giving me a whole new perspective on my potential career. Maintenance of objects and their records is big part of museum work and I am happy to know that my actions will have a tangible impact in the museum community. While I was not Indiana Jones, I helped bring long-forgotten objects to light.

 Stephen Dadio, Museum Studies Intern at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropolgy, Spring 2020

Constellations Group