Explosive fun with the Scientific Instrument Collections…

Louise Wilkie, Curatorial Assistant (collections), has been working hard at the Museums Collections Centre on a Recognition project focusing on improving the documentation, care and use of the museum’s historic science collections. Here she tells us more about the dangers of collections work! 

It is not just children and visitors that can learn from objects. From working with the scientific instruments collection of the University of Aberdeen, the Museums Galleries Scotland Intern Hannah and I have certainly learned a thing or two! The first is that museum objects can be dangerous…


The scientific instruments collection was in desperate need of some attention from museum staff, with 100 transport boxes filled with objects that had not been accessioned or cared for. Our Recognition funding allowed us to carry out a collections review. This meant that the c.900 objects which came from the transport boxes would be inventoried by staff and then someone with expertise in science history would review the inventory and advise the museum staff on what we should and should not be accessioning into the collection.

From this review we have now accessioned our first 500 objects into the collection and the horrible transport boxes are gone forever. The store is now accessible and all the objects are now fully accessioned. This is a massive improvement and will now allow our collections to be accessible to researchers and available for exhibition displays. The objects that were not chosen to go into the collection will either become a handling collection or be offered to other museums.

We also did an inventory of the accessioned scientific instrument collection that was on shelves in the museum store. This was to make sure everything was labelled, in the right place, in good condition and had a good catalogue entry. However this then led to another c.400 unaccessioned objects being uncovered, which will now have to go through the collections review process to decide which should be accessioned and go back into the store.

This 1900s' Edison standard phonograph for recording and playing of wax records was rediscovered during the project

This 1900’s Edison standard phonograph for recording and playing of wax records was rediscovered during the project

Whilst all of the above work was going on we had some interesting things to learn? Two  items leaked mercury, which are cleared up using a mercury spill kit whilst being dressed in full Tyvek suit and donning a mask and goggles! Our mercury collections are now all labelled and safely behind cabinet doors to prevent future spillages. We found some ‘safety’ film which is made from cellulose nitrate which can be very dangerous when it deteriorates, so we are storing it carefully and keeping a close eye on it until it can be digitised and safely disposed.

We have also learned that we have some radioactive objects in our collection and how to look after them properly. We have some Uranium glass which is a lovely green colour, and a ring made out of radium! These are all now safely stored away in our radiation cabinet. They are safe enough to be displayed so should not present a danger to staff or researchers, as long as we follow the safety rules and regulations surrounding radiation. We also now have the knowledge to identify other potentially radioactive material and what to do if we discover more.

Probably the most astonishing thing for me was finding a box of interesting pear shaped glass objects often called Prince Rupert’s Drops. These are made by placing molten glass in very cold water. The way in which the glass cools means that the object is shaped like a pear drop with a thick piece of glass at one end which is strong enough to be hit with a hammer but an incredibly thin and fragile piece of glass at the top. If the thin piece at the top is damaged in any way the internal pressure causes the glass to explode. These objects are currently being reviewed as they are dangerous to have around in the store and to dispose of them will be tricky!

We will keep you posted on the outcomes…

To conclude the Recognition project the Museums will be holding a two day seminar on the 23rd and 24th June, to find out how to attend visit: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/museums/events/5590/

About uoamuseums

The University of Aberdeen's Museums include King’s Museum and the University's Zoology Museum. The museums can claim to be Scotland's oldest, with records of museums and collections as far back as the late 17th century. Thanks to their status as a Recognised Collection of national significance, the Zoology Museum’s displays are currently being improved, while King's Museum hosts changing exhibitions drawn from across the collections, particularly those formerly in Marischal Museum. Visitors are warmly welcomed to the museums, and there are no charges for admission. Marischal College now houses the Museums Collections Centre, caring for and conserving many of the collections.
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