Preserving History (and a Lot of Fish)
September 20, 2019
Killian Taylor, Curatorial Associate
Working in the museum industry, you find yourself handling projects that you would never expect. As a member of the curatorial department here at the Vanderbilt, I have found that the unique combination of natural history, fine art, and historical collections has led to a wide variety of challenges each day. Some days I found myself looking into the history of a painting in the mansion, others I found myself researching the science of how to keep an 85-year-old bird taxidermy from falling apart, and some I’ve even found myself having to work with a film crew that’s using the space for the next season of “Gotham.” It’s a strange job, but it’s always exciting and always a pleasure. However, if there is one project that stands out to me as a prime example of the sort of work that we do in this field, it would have to be the Hall of Fishes restoration.
The Hall of Fishes is a fascinating piece of local history here at the Vanderbilt. Built during the early 1920s, the Hall of Fishes was designed to house the marine animals and artifacts from Mr. Vanderbilt’s worldwide expeditions and was used as a public natural history museum for local residents. Mr. Vanderbilt was incredibly proud of his museum and took pains to have it arranged to his satisfaction; he even went so far as to have the tee zone for his golf course placed on the roof of the museum, to ensure that his visitors would have to see it one way or another. Like with any piece of history though, time took its toll on the Hall of Fishes. Mr. Vanderbilt’s marine specimens were preserved in an alcohol solution that kept them from deteriorating, but over time that solution lost its potency and exposed the collection to dangerous bacteria. Not only that, but the outdated lighting and rearrangement of the collection pieces had the Hall of Fishes look more like a set from Stranger Things rather than a museum showcasing the wonders of the natural world. In short, it was time for a face lift.
The first step in breathing new life into the Hall of Fishes was to find the funding for it. When I first started in this field, one of the first things that shocked me was just how expensive it is to maintain historic objects. Fortunately for us, we had help through through the Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation, a Long Island-based organization dedicated to the education of New York state’s history. With their funding, we were able to purchase the supplies that made the rest of the project possible. With our supplies in hand, our first order of business was to protect the marine specimens. Over 1,200 in number and ranging from a few centimeters in length to over three feet long, these marine animals literally line the walls of the gallery.
The process for protecting the marine collections was a lengthy one; first we had to inspect the fish for “infections” or small black dots that are the calling cards of bacteria. Then we had to open the jars and clean both the fish and the jars, which surprisingly enough was done with toothbrushes and clean water. If there were infections though, we would treat the specimen with a solution called copper sulfate, which effectively killed the bacteria. We Would then place our newly cleaned specimen back into its newly-cleaned jar and cover it with a new alcohol solution, where we would cover it and let it sit to monitor it for a few days (to make sure that all of the bacteria was gone) before finally sealing it again, and placing it on its respective shelf. In total, each specimen took about three days to clean and seal.
After the final specimen (a common octopus that nobody wanted to handle until it was unavoidable) was cleaned and sealed, my team worked to have all of the fish placed on the shelves in taxonomic order. We also had new energy-efficient lighting installed in the cases, which were brighter, safer for the fish, and quiet compared to the old lights. Then it was time to focus our attention onto the cultural artifacts in the gallery. That was more in my wheelhouse as a history major, and I spent a considerable time researching the specimens in the gallery, which ranged from ancient Roman amphorae to Mr. Vanderbilt’s own diving suit. I created some new interpretive signage for the objects, and then went about arranging them throughout the gallery in a sensible manner.
By the end of the project, we were able to completely transform the Hall of Fishes. When we started, the gallery looked dark, uninviting, and almost sinister. With the work we were able to do, the Hall of Fishes now looks like a prime example of an early 20th Century natural history museum! Of course, I did gloss over a few details in this process (there was A LOT of cleaning involved) and of course even after “completing” the Hall of Fishes project there is still more work to be done. Nonetheless, I find that this project really demonstrates how exciting and multifaceted working in a museum setting can be!
— Killian Taylor is a Curatorial Associate at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum. In addition to the Gardiner Grant project, Killian is currently updating the museum’s listing in the National Register of Historic Places and is spearheading the creation of new interpretive and wayfinding signage. Killian attends Queens College, where he is pursuing an MLIS/MA in Library Science and History with a concentration in Archival Studies.