University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Registrars in Action: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Sledgehammer

January 29, 2013

If you have been to our Museum, odds are you’ve seen people carting around objects or rolling large crates through galleries and mysteriously disappearing behind locked doors.  Most likely, those people were Registrars.  When I’m asked what Museum Registrars do, I usually say we deal with record keeping and moving objects in, out, and around the Museum—object donations, loans, exhibitions, and the like.  In the course of all that moving we sometimes run into obstacles–it’s not hard since our building is over 100 years old!

Here’s the story of how we got a 10-foot tall replica stela into the exhibition MAYA 2012: Lords of Time and back out again when the exhibit closed.

We began installing MAYA 2012 a month before the exhibition was set to open in May.  To save our backs and our time, we were lucky enough to have a crane haul several of the largest crates over the wall outside our main entrance.

crane crate
Lifting the crated stela over the Museum wall

Here’s the 10-foot tall stela inside a 13-foot crate being lifted from a flatbed truck and placed inside Warden Garden.  From there we put the crate onto dollies and rolled it into the gallery just inside the main entrance.  No problem.

The exhibition is now closed.  Most of the objects have either returned to storage or have been shipped back to their lenders.  One of the last objects to leave was this rather large stela.  Cue obstacles.

This weekend we are installing the Lod Mosaic a nearly 2,000 year old mosaic that is over 300 square feet.  To get the enormous mosaic into the building we have constructed a scaffolding platform projecting from the main entrance.  With the scaffolding in the way, the 13-ft stela crate cannot leave out the main entrance from which it came.  Instead it must exit via our loading dock.

Loading dock, you say? Then it’s equipped to handle really large objects, right?  Yes, in theory.  In reality, the space between our loading dock and the building behind the Museum prevents larger trucks from docking.  To combat this, we built a ramp from the lower-loading dock to the driveway–when the truck is too large we roll the crate from the dock to the truck.  It’s usually that simple.

Did I mention this stela crate is not only long, but also wide?  Too wide for our ramp–luckily the side rails of the ramp are removable. (Or so we thought.)  One rail comes off easily, the other refuses to budge.  As the shipping handlers watch, wait, and tap their wristwatches, we quickly gather tools and muscle-power.

Loans Registrar, Anne Brancati, tries to raise the rail, while Collections Assistant, Stephanie Mach wields a sledgehammer

Borrowing a sledgehammer from Facilities we bang the rail hoping it will loosen.  It doesn’t of course, not even an inch.  Fast forward 20 minutes:  Someone has the bright idea that the socket in which the rail sits has fused to the rail with ice.  Mind you, it’s January and about 20 degrees outside. Ah ha.

We find a heat gun (basically a really hot blow dryer) and blast the base of the rail with hot air.  In less than a minute the ice melts, the rail loosens, and we pull it off effortlessly.  Finally, we are able to roll the crate up the ramp, to the truck, and watch that lovely stela as she drives off into the January sunset.

In the end, Paper beats Rock, Scissors beat Paper, and Heat Gun beats all for the win.  So next time you wander through our Museum, take a second to think about how some of those oversized, extremely heavy, or otherwise odd-shaped objects got there.  Chances are there’s a pretty good story behind it, and perhaps at that very moment there’s a Registrar wielding a sledgehammer somewhere behind the scenes.

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