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World Class Collections Make a World Class Museum

For decades, the Alf Museum has hosted stellar exhibits, students, staff, lab spaces, and fossils—yet, the collections storage space for priceless documents of past life did not match our aspirations to be a truly world class facility. The fossil collection is the heart of our museum. Cabinets and shelves were bursting at the seams with specimens, limiting the museum’s ability to collect new fossils and safely house historical ones. We needed additional space, and we needed it soon! Constructing a new building or expanding into existing rooms wasn’t an option. Fortunately, storage technology offered a creative solution.

Collections space, prior to renovation

If you can’t make new space, the best alternative is to make existing space more flexible. Sliding rows of cabinets offered a perfect solution! McMurray-Stern, a local company that specializes in storage for museums, archives, government facilities, and businesses, worked with Alf Museum staff to create a new vision for the old collection space. The final plans provided a 60 percent increase in storage capacity. The previous cabinets, along with many newly purchased ones, would be placed onto a carriage system. Each bank of cabinets sits atop a metal frame housing an internal motor—with the touch of a button, the whole bundle of cabinets slides along rails set into the floor. Aisles open and close to permit access to each row of storage.

Removing cabinets from the collection space.

In order to install the system, the previous configuration had to be removed first. But, it wasn’t as simple as just removing old cabinets and shelving. All of the fossils had to be moved, too. The downstairs exhibit hall was closed off and used as a temporary storage space for everything. In mid-May 2017, after the last school tour of the year, a crew of museum staff, volunteers, and Webb students sprang into action. Seventy new cabinets, ultimately slated for the collection, were moved off a truck and into the Hall of Footprints. Drawers of fossils from the collection were moved into each cabinet, with the location of every drawer and cabinet carefully marked and recorded for later reference. Every single drawer was also photographed, to provide a complete visual record of our collection—the first time it has ever been done! Once the old cabinets in the collection were emptied, they moved into the temporary storage space. For the first time in decades, the collection room was completely empty!

Next, a construction crew poured a new layer of concrete to support the compactor system, followed by carriage and cabinet installation. Once each bank was in place, museum staff and volunteers moved the fossils back. It took long hours and late nights, but finally every cabinet and every fossil was back where it belonged. The careful organizational efforts of collections manager Gabe Santos, working with the whole museum team, ensured that each specimen was where it belonged—not a small task when moving 231 cabinets and more than 175,000 fossils!

But, sliding rows of cabinets are only the most visible part of the renovation. We also needed to upgrade the work space to match. Curation practices have advanced considerably since the founding of the museum. In the “old days,” it was sufficient to record data on an index card and paint a permanent label on each specimen. Today, every specimen also is entered into a computer database and photographed digitally. Particularly delicate fossils get custom foam mounts made using advanced archival materials. Each of these steps requires special materials and workspaces. So, the final portion of the project included the installation of new computers, photographic equipment, and tables for volunteers and staff to process fossils and their associated data.

The collections upgrade provides space not just for the acquisition of new fossils, but also for the proper storage of “old” ones. Prior to the renovation, many of the fossils were crowded into drawers, sometimes with bones sitting on top of other bones. This is not a good way to store fragile fossils—overcrowding contributes to fossil damage. The next big task is to “uncrowd” many of our fossils (particularly those from the early years of the museum) and place them into appropriate containers. Many fossils also remain uncataloged, and have not been fully identified, studied, or entered into the museum database. There is lots to do yet!

The renovated collection space.

“Completion of this project means our collections are now more fully accessible, thus increasing our global footprint in the paleontological research and museum education communities. Also, we now have space to house all the fossils that will be found by Webb students on peccary trips over the next few decades,” said museum director Don Lofgren.

The Alf Museum extends special thanks to key donors of this project, including Blake and Andrea Brown ‘68, Yanji Luo and Li Jiang P‘20, the Zemurray Foundation, Sam Zemurray ‘61, Dodd Fischer ‘61, Ronald Quon ‘55, the McMahan Family Fund at the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation, James Wang ‘51, Hugh Pitcher ‘68, Richard Kron ‘68, Jason Pasley ‘96, Monica Atiyeh Whitaker ‘96, Brian Zipser ‘96, Christopher Cord ‘60, William Marshall ‘96, Daniel Dexeus ‘96, and Heidi Marti ‘06.