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Story 06: The Big Move

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Renovation Survey (1978) Keeping People & Stuff Happy

Written by Mike Spock

We loved the idea that visitors and staff would be wowed and informed by the same view of all the merging transportation routes that first wowed David Burnham and Stewart Pratt on that snowy December afternoon when they pushed open the rusty doors to view the panorama of downtown and the harbor with planes taking off and landing at Logan Airport, tracks of the Fan Pier loaded with freight cars, Central Artery traffic diving under South Station, commuter ferries arriving from the South Shore, container ships and tankers heading into their East Boston terminals, the small fleet of lobster boats, at that moment still tied up to our dock, and the now unmanned Fort Point Channel bridges. Dunc pointed out, in his effort to bring those bridges back to life, that in our quarter-mile of the channel we had examples of each of the three types of operating bridges: lift, swing, bascule—a gallery of all of the 19th century bridge designs.

But all the traffic, exhaust, dust, and salt spray meant we were about to enter into an intense pollution hot spot well before EPA got ahead of cleaning up the atmosphere of downtown and the harbor.

As real museum people taking care of real museum artifacts knew, exposing collections to light and other environmental challenges was a no-no, especially in the renovation of the old warehouse building that was about to become a real and modern museum building! The fact that both The Children's Museum (and more recently the Museum of Transportation) were becoming famous for their hands-on exhibits and programs didn't get us off the hook. We thought the conflict between preserving the windows, with their splendid views, and taking care of our wonderful collections could not be avoided. And the windows were only one of the collections housing issues that had to be addressed. A 1970 report of the American Association of Museums' Accreditation Visiting Committee reported that "the collections of the institution [TCM] are extremely fine; the scope of the collection in terms of potential program contributions is outstanding; the recordkeeping is of a very high order."

Under a National Endowment of the Arts Utilization of Collections grant, C7A's John Stebbins organized a study of the criteria and strategies we might adopt and the costs we might bear in housing our treasures at Museum Wharf.

In an effort to preserve these extraordinary resources and make them available for exhibition, educational programs, and scholarly research, The Children's Museum invested four years in the late '60s and early '70s and more than $70,000 in a major analysis and recataloguing of its cultural collections, some 30,000 objects.

The Museum of Transportation has only begun the task of accessioning, cataloging and documenting it collections since 1970.

The objective of this study is to provide the museums [TCM & MOT] the necessary planning guidelines and technical criteria for developing a collections conservation program at their new building headquarters, the Congress Street Wharf. The renovation of the building, the housing and usage of collections, and the operational procedures for program/exhibit development will be studied, and recommendations will be generated to provide a conservation policy that maximizes the interface between these three key areas.

Heating and ventilating engineers R. G. Vanderweil, working on the designs for the Wharf's mechanical systems, came up with a solution for keeping the interior environment of the building and the visitors, collections, and staff happy while saving energy. Recognizing that there would be wide variations in the climatic demands of each museum's activities: sweaty kids clambering down the City Slice Manhole would be a net source of heat, staff at their desks overlooking the Channel but hoping to feel comfortable on winter days, would be calling for more heat, while curators, watching out for their collections would have to pay attention that the seasonal swings in humidity were gentle enough to not damage the cells of wood and leather artifacts. So they suggested we capitalize on the fact that the building was already divided into thirty-six modular bays and explore equally modular solutions for energy conservation. The decision was to give each bay its own heat pump to handle these varying demands and use the building-wide water circulating system to distribute and deliver—or get rid of—heat where it was or was not needed. If one of the heat pumps failed there was enough buffering from the other thirty-five bays to keep a failed bay within our targeted range of humidity and temperature until is was repaired. Distributing air from the heat pump throughout each bay was a simple matter of using two parallel ducts hung along the beams from the ceiling.

Next: Putting Up Signs