Conserving Yale’s Collections

Diverse holdings with similar needs

Yale University is internationally renowned for its contributions to the arts and invaluable collections. The recent acquisition of West Campus, located just a few miles from downtown New Haven, presents an opportunity to extend this influence. With more than 600,000 square feet of warehouse and manufacturing space, the new 136-acre complex is a veritable blank slate for innovation and has inspired grand plans from the University’s libraries, art schools, and museums.

Yale boasts the world’s seventh largest library system, with over 10 million volumes in 21 libraries, including Sterling Memorial Library and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It has outstanding collections in the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale Center for British Art, Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the Collection of Musical Instruments. These holdings are diverse, yet they all share common needs in terms of preservation, storage, and access.

Storing and caring for Yale’s collections

The West Campus opens a world of possibilities. As a whole, the site houses twenty buildings, with ample room for development, and Bayer’s former manufacturing and warehouse space will be the focus of Yale’s highest aspirations for the arts. These hangar-like structures are ideal for centralizing the care and storage of Yale’s collections, including books, maps, art, artifacts, and specimens from the natural world.

The work of protecting Yale’s collections will pivot around two new core institutes in conservation and digitization. The conservation core will provide technology, analysis, and research to reduce threats common to many objects, including pests and mold, and provide access to tools, such as x-ray fluorescence, for object research. Because the conservation core will be close to the West Campus science institutes, with their capacities in imaging, informatics, and chemistry, Yale hopes to break new ground with the latest advances in conservation science, while exploring areas of research and analytical techniques that are at present unknown to the world of conservation.

The new digitization core will offer access to equipment and technical expertise to transfer materials, books, artistic objects, and sound recordings onto digital media. Like their counterparts in science, both of these core facilities will support work at the West Campus and across the University.

Browsable storage opens access

The West Campus also provides an opportunity to pursue new ways to access Yale’s collections. At present, less than 5 percent of Yale’s holdings are on display and readily accessible for teaching or research. Refitting the West Campus facilities for “browsable storage” will provide students, faculty, and staff constant access to objects, paintings, books, maps, and manuscripts.

“Bringing Yale’s collections to West Campus will ensure they are accessible in a unique way that has a lot of value,” Donoghue said. “And storing them together will allow them to be studied side by side, fostering collaborating and demonstrating the strength of Yale’s collections as an aggregate whole.” Although plans for this new model are still under development, the West Campus is already meeting some of Yale’s storage needs. The Peabody Museum is currently moving parts of its collection to the site, as is the Yale University Art Gallery.

Space to create and interact with the arts

The potential for West Campus extends to performance art and display as well. Yale offers students, faculty, and the community many opportunities to engage with art, but the large and flexible nature of the West Campus spaces has already inspired new ideas.

Facility members and curators are exploring ways that West Campus can accommodate large installations for sculpture, natural history, and architecture, as well as dramatic art. Among other ideas, the Yale University Art Gallery has begun work on the first of several period rooms and buildings it hopes to install on the site. The Peabody Museum plans to reconstruct its dinosaur collection with the participation of students, staff, and members of the community. And the School of Drama dreams of space for experimental theater and film productions.

Mirroring the collaborative nature of West Campus’s science programs, new initiatives in the arts will bring together faculty from across Yale’s schools, libraries, museums, and collections like never before. “The depth of Yale’s existing programs in the arts and the size of the space at West Campus necessitate both careful consideration and big thinking,” Donoghue said. “Undoubtedly, this will be a transformative opportunity for Yale arts and collections.”

September 15, 2007