Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The evils that beset mineral collections: 9. Moving

Moving a collection does not have to be a disaster. Ideally, you should have the destination already prepared, with enough space for your collection; everything is well-organized, and the move goes smoothly. In real life, however, many obstacles can arise.

1. Scheduling: A scientist friend once told me to expect everything to take three times as long as you expect. The need to move a collection is often due to outside forces: a reorganized academic department, a new home, etc. One very common reason is the sale or donation of the collection; work with the former owner (or estate) to make sure you have the time you need. If you are shipping specimens from one place to another, make sure there is an appropriate place for the containers at the receiving end.

2. Help, and the lack thereof: A quote often seen in fiction goes, "Friends will help you move; good friends will help you move bodies." You are likelier to need help packing than transporting. Such help should be experienced with minerals (or else you should keep the delicate specimens away from most assistants), enthusiastic, and above all trustworthy. They should be able to follow your orders rather than deciding to improve those orders without telling you. You may need friends or volunteers to help if you have a tight schedule; on a very tight schedule you may have to rely on paid professional movers.

3. Packing: Two considerations are the distance the collection must travel and the elapsed time that it will stay packed. When I moved about 80 boxes of specimens from Massachusetts to California in the 1980s, I shipped some through the mail in cardboard boxes, some in wooden crates (and cardboard boxes) that went in a moving van, and one flat of delicate this-end-up mineral specimens stayed in our car as we drove across the country. I packed individual specimens with their labels in paper (especially toilet paper), plastic dry-cleaning bags, and sometimes cotton box liners; better materials are probably available now. Field collected specimens were often wrapped in newsprint. The collection stayed in their boxes for about a year before unpacking.

4. The dropsies: The rule of thumb I heard years ago about packing boxes was that you should plan for the contents of your package to survive a fall from a six-foot height onto concrete. If you have visited a post office at Christmas-time, imagine those other boxes being dropped onto yours. A specimen unable to survive such treatment should be shipped another way. There are stick-on detectors that measure the amount of force that your package has been subjected to.
     A famous mesolite specimen of my acquaintance was supposedly shipped from India while sewn into a wooden box and packed in soap flakes; it had its own first-class airline seat. Which brings us to...

5. Transportation: How will your collection move? Is your carrier secure against theft and damage? Is your collection safe at the temperatures (and possibly pressures) it is likely to be exposed to? Will it be detoured or derailed by hurricanes, snowstorms, or floods? You may wish to divide the collection into separate units to be transported in different ways.

6. The destination: Is the destination ready to receive your collection?  Sometimes this is not possible, as when an old museum is renovated. In that case, where will the collection be stored until its destination is ready? What are its conditions like, in terms of environmental control and security?
     How will your collection be delivered? Is access adequate? Is there a risk of items disappearing from the loading dock, or of dropsies as boxes are carried upstairs?

7. Unpacking: should be done with at least as much care as packing. Have a plan and a place set aside for dealing with broken specimens. Listen for crunching sounds and feel for unexpected softness as you unpack.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    The evils that beset mineral collections: 8. Large-Scale Disasters

    In light of recent events in Japan, this entry may be timely. The original title (back in August 2010) was "natural disasters," but human-caused events such as nuclear meltdowns should also be considered.

    So which disasters are relatively likely?
    • Fires
    • Floods, including tsunamis and hurricanes
    • Wind damage, including tornadoes
    • Earthquakes
    • Building settling and collapse
    • War
    • Volcanoes, nuclear power disasters, and other things requiring rapid mass evacuation
    • World-destructive scenarios: asteroids, all-out nuclear war, etc.
    First, your collection is not the most important thing in case of emergencies. Take care of yourself, your family and your pets before you worry about your collection.

    Second, prepare in advance for likely hazards. Consider collection insurance. Have off-site backup of your collection information. Consider storing your least replaceable/most valuable specimens in a fire safe or off-site safe deposit box. Take pictures of your most important pieces and store these off-site.

    The likeliest disaster anywhere in the country is a fire. Mineral specimens are more susceptible to fire damage than one might think. Many will melt or shatter. Labels and associated information can be destroyed. Smoke damage may take a competent professional to remove. Consider fire-proof cabinets for your most important specimens. Have a plan for local (in-home) fires, and follow your city, county and state guidelines for regional fires. (If you live in a fire-prone area, you may want to pack some of your favorites in a bag to go.) Fire extinguishers and water can also damage specimens, so consider extinguisher types if you have an extensive collection. A final thought is that specimens-plus-fire can pose a hazard to firefighters, especially if they decompose to create poisonous fumes.

    Floods occur along seacoasts, along riversides, and inside buildings with sprinkler systems. Water damage causes specimen dissolution, label disintegration, and mold hazards. Often agitation and unplanned movement accompanies water damage, so labels may be separated from their specimens, or even reduced to unreadable pulp. Labels and soluble specimens can be protected by keeping them in sealed waterproof envelopes and containers. Regional flooding may cause everything to be swept away, so consider solid rust-proof cabinets.

    Wind, earthquakes, and building collapse are all primarily movement problems. Storage and display cases should be chosen with these factors in mind. Heavy cabinetry helps against windstorms, although roofs and nearby trees are more important factors in overall safety. In earthquakes, however, the ground moves out from under you; so unsecured heavy cabinets become "loose cannons." And don't make your cabinets too heavy for your floors! Additional considerations are drawer slides that "catch"; safety glass for display cases; raised shelf edges in earthquake country; and museum wax to secure specimens.

    In a war, volcano eruption, or other event when you may have to evacuate for an indefinite period, there is no guarantee your collection will survive if you leave it behind. Consider an evacuation plan for your collection in advance if your circumstances warrant it, and the collection is that important to you.

    If the world ends, your collection is on its own.

    Monday, April 4, 2011

    The evils that beset mineral collections 7: The Sun

    What's so bad about the Sun? Two things: light and heat.

    Light fades labels, which is its commonest problem. However, some minerals are themselves light sensitive, such as the ruby silvers proustite and pyrargyrite. In the presence of light, these deep red sulfosalts react with air to form silver surface layers, which in turn oxidize to black silver oxide. Proustites kept in the dark, even after many years, can be as red and lustrous as the finest cinnabars.

    Some sunlight effects are due to its ultraviolet component, so UV-blocking film may be helpful if you want to show your collection in a sunny room. However, UV-blocking film can also shift an object's apparent color; and items can possibly fade in visible light. In general, to preserve collections and labels, use the least illumination necessary, and keep collection display rooms dark when they are not in use.

    As anyone who has a car with a black interior knows, the Sun's warmth can be concentrated to an unpleasant level. Some minerals are especially susceptible to quick warming, including sulfur and sphalerite. (In the case of sulfur, even the warmth from holding a crystal in your hand may be enough to crack it.) Keep these out of direct sunlight.