Meet the Collection
By Alison Seeberger, Museum Registrar ~
The job of a registrar is weird, and often confusing. What is this? Where did it come from? Essentially, my job is to make sure we know what is in the collection – what it’s made of, where it is, and whether or not it’s being stored correctly. I’m the one who files all the information about our objects, like who donated them, what they were used for, and so on. But unfortunately – and this happens in every museum – over time, things get shuffled around, or the administration changes hands, and you end up with a lot of objects that you don’t understand.
Many things end up being given temporary inventory numbers, labeled “Found in Collection,” and it’s my job to figure out where they came from, if I can. In some cases it’s just a matter of doing file-sleuthing. For example, if an item’s tag has gotten lost, I can still look in our database and our physical files for something that matches the object’s description, and retrace its path to our museum from there. It’s really rewarding to succeed at that.
What I’ve been doing recently in order to move this process along is a physical inventory of the collection – what objects are actually here, in the building, right now. This has been an adventure! We have a lot of interesting stuff. In a lot of cases, things don’t have tags, so we have just been writing down what the object is and where it is: “Doll w/blonde hair, shelf M3” etc. But recently, we came across an object donated by someone who had worked at the Great Western Sugar Factory, and… we couldn’t figure out what it was.
“Is it a telescope?” No.
“That thing on the end looks like a birdhouse, kind of.” Kind of.
“Does this move?” No…Oops.
“Is it a microscope? This part looks like an eye-hole.” Maybe.
“I feel like this part looks like there should be a laser.”
We got second opinions: volunteers, interns. I even took a picture of it with that Google app that tells you what the thing you’ve taken a picture of is, and it told me it was a pair of Nikes. Thanks, Google.
Eventually, one of our volunteers, Allison (not me), saw that there was a patent number on a more modern version of the same machine. I wrote it down, went to the US Patent Office’s website, and downloaded the list of all the patents they have ever issued. The product was made by Bausch and Lomb, and when I finally found it, I’m pretty sure I yelled out loud.
The machine is called a refractometer, and it’s used to measure the refractive index of a substance. Meaning, essentially, is measures how light travels through it. These machines are used today in making beer, in medical facilities, and in the study of gemstones. We’re still not sure how exactly the machine was used at GW, but now we have a starting point – we know what it is.
Have you used a refractometer? Do you have any idea what GW was doing with this one? Send us a message, and we’ll share your knowledge!