Cleaning Up The Animals And Artifacts: Burpee Museum Recovers From Flood

Feb 7, 2014

It has been more than a month since a frozen water pipe rained down on some of the Burpee Museum of Natural History’s most important collections. The recovery continues… and there may even be a few silver linings for the Rockford museum. 

You probably won’t even see any signs of the Christmas-time flooding while you’re rushing through the lobby and past the dinosaurs to get to the new exhibit.

The only water in sight in the Megalodon exhibit is some shimmering blue light to make you feel like you’re swimming with the sharks. The exhibit created by a Gainesville, Florida museum features the massive prehistoric shark, as well as its relatives. It’s making its first appearance in the Midwest.  This area now displaying 17 million years worth of sharks stayed dry as a fossil while fragile animal skins and delicate artifacts soaked up water, then humidity, on the floor below.

Scott Williams is the director of science and exhibits at Burpee. Back near the museum’s front entrance, Williams shows the hole in the wall where the trouble began. A water pipe froze and broke. The museum is closed just five days per year…and frigid temperatures just happened to strike on two of those days. No one was there to notice the broken pipe, the five inches of pooling water, the water draining through the floor, right onto the biology and anthropology collections in the basement.

The area hit hardest isn’t the public part of Burpee Museum. Williams points out that in general, museums only display about 5% of what they own. The rest is in storage, for future exhibits or research.

We enter a big work room in the basement. This is where the most-damaged specimens have been moved for evaluation and hopefully, repairs. It’s like a zoo…a very quiet, sad zoo. Taxidermied animals are stacked on tables, crowded on the floors. Now it’s clear why humidity control is so important to museums. Some of these stuffed animals were waterlogged: others suffered from drying out after absorbing so much humid air. Their hides shrunk like an improperly washed and dried wool sweater. For example, the head of an African antelope, the hartebeest, has pretty much lost its jaw.

Restoration on the animal collection will range from some touch-up paint to hide split seams to taking the skin off and remounting it. The Burpee disaster was like a bat-signal to the museum community. Experts from all over the region have jumped into action since the news broke. Nicolette Meister is with the Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College. She says when she heard about the flooding, her first thought was whether the people were okay. They were. Her second thought: the collections.

“The Burpee has amazing collections. Most people think of paleontology when they think of Burpee. Coming from an anthropology museum,  my first thought is anthropology. So I was excited to hear from Scott that he was interested in bringing in regional museum professionals to assess and respond to the flooding.”

Burpee’s native American collection took a hit in the flooding. A painted buffalo hide may have to be rehydrated and stretched. Water stains need to be lifted from rare baskets. Meister is working to make sure a ceremonial bow won’t be damaged further by handling. She built a special box to hold the bow to protect the rich paints and red cloth, which are now much more fragile and at risk of flaking off.

Meister says she’s recommending the museum brings in an objects conservator if they want to restore the bow to its original appearance. But she’s also helping Burpee move ahead with some of the simpler restorations: she brought along recent Beloit College grad Julia Lacher. She’s able to get hands-on experience in her field of study as she carefully removes dust and other potential threats from native American artifacts, such as baskets and small bark canoes.

Meanwhile, those who work at the Burpee Museum of Natural History are taking a good long look at what’s in storage. It’s easy to get excited about future exhibits when you look around the roomful of animals awaiting restoration. Scott Williams’ favorite, the leopard, will look great relaxing on a tree trunk in an exhibit about habitat conservation. But the stars will be the lions. The split seams will be repaired, and they’ll be able to tell their urgent story of a nose-diving sub-Saharan population.

Insurance is expected to cover a lot of the flood damage.   But Williams says as a not for profit museum, Burpee is always looking for public support. And one way people can help the museum recover from the December flood is by “adopting a specimen.” Or go see the sharks. They’re there through April.