"Lowell Observatory begins to move astronomy collectibles to new archival building."
April 3rd, 2014
Arizona Daily Sun
A box of Invincible White Owl Cigars sits on the shelf in a basement at Lowell Observatory’s campus on Mars Hill. It’s marked “Mars 1922.”
Inside are glass plates containing images of the Red Planet more than 90 years ago.
Directly beneath it is another cigar box marked “Moon 1970,” with photographs from NASA’s Apollo Program.
“Cigar boxes were a really popular way of storing glass plates,” said Lauren Amundson, Lowell librarian and archivist. “We’ve got cigar boxes full of glass plates.”
It’s moving week at Lowell Observatory.
Staff began moving into the new archival building on Tuesday and will eventually fill it with treasures from more than a century of scientific research and eccentric personalities.
By this summer, the Putnam Collection Center will also be open for visitors to see rotating exhibits of artifacts like the photographic plate used to discover Pluto, as well as the one on which the expansion of the universe was first detected, and letters from famous scientists such as Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble.
There are also about a dozen hand-drawn globes that Percival Lowell would use to illustrate his nightly observations of canals, oases and Martian vegetation.
Pretty much anything with a “wow factor” is likely to be displayed, Amundson said.
The centerpiece is to be “Big Red,” the 1911 Stevens Duryea Model Y car that Percival Lowell used to drive around Flagstaff — surely drawing the attention of locals.
The building, which cost about $3 million, will also house some staff offices and a library for researchers.
Mildew and mysteries
The archives have long been stored in non-climate-controlled locations across the observatory, including leaky basements. Some have mildewed, molded and been eaten by insects over the decades.
The observatory underwent a large-scale fundraising effort to build the new center and preserve their history. The building includes a massive freezer installed to kill anything living on the archival collections before they get filed away.
But Mars Hill isn’t just home to a scientific institution. It also houses many of the observatory’s staff. And over years of living there, the artifacts build up, like Lowell’s fancy straw hat. There’s also a sizeable quantity of furniture.
And as the artifacts have been pulled from various corners and boxes, new mysteries have emerged. It’s not clear what a lot of the old scientific instruments were used for.
“Some have notes. Some we have absolutely no idea what it was used for,” Amundson said. “For a long time, a lot of this was just sitting in the attic in a jumbled pile, so now we can take some of it and do conservation work.”
Lowell has developed a program promoting partnership between amateurs and professionals and it plans to tap into that to figure out how many of the estimated 600 scientific artifacts would have been used. One partner group will be the Antique Telescope Society.
Fortunately, only a fraction of the 32,000 glass plates are currently stored in cigar boxes. The remainder are neatly filed on shelves in paper sleeves, awaiting an eventual and monumental effort to digitize each and every one. Only a few institutions have larger collections of glass plates.
“If somebody discovers an asteroid, you can go back and determine its orbit,” said Lowell Communication Manager Kevin Schindler.
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