On the Conservation of Champions

Every once in a while, a curve ball gets thrown across conservation's home plate. In preparation for their exhibit, Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics, my colleagues at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) asked if I could step in as a pinch hitter to assist on the extraction of the contents of a box . . . of Wheaties.  This familiar iconic object of material culture, which features the equally iconic Jim Thorpe and autographs of his direct descendents, elicited so much interest that the Smithsonian Magazine chose it as a "National Treasure" and produced a conservation-focused video to accompany their story about the champion athlete's Olympian legacy.  Because the short feature tells a great story, I'll expand below with some extra behind-the-scenes discussion that may be of interest to conservators and sports fans alike. Watch and see!

Ok, now that you’re back, I’ll get into the nitty-gritty. Like any athlete, a conservator practices and analyzes their efforts so they can make that game-winning touchdown when they really need to. In the video, I mentioned the "stunt boxes" that we used for trials, and photographed to communicate quickly our process with our NMAI colleagues (the handy notes feature on Flickr helps a picture speak 1,000 words with less! Be sure to mouseover them on the full Flickr site). Now that we're done, we thought it would make a neat show-and-tell.

Jim Thorpe Wheaties Intervention

Since the video went up, I've received lots of questions – here are some with responses:

Q: A little concerned that […] the replacement for the cereal would not have the same center of gravity as the original, thus imparting to the box an artificial slab-like appearance…

A: While we did contact General Mills to inquire about packaging technology (the closest one can get is the PR dept who will relay technical inquiries), information from the manufacturer is extremely closely guarded! Interestingly, one of the reasons for intervention is that due to the box having been carefully stored flat on its back, the cereal had shifted, settled and blocked up a bit and no longer had the same center of gravity that it did at origin, and so was toppling off its footing of its own accord. Happily I spoke with someone who indicated that center of gravity is VERY important to the manufacturer for a variety of reasons, and our solution of inserting an inert rigid block to fill the inside of the box more accurately reflects manufacturer's intent for the original presentation than the condition of the object as we observed it after ten years of natural aging. Also, the solid insert prevents further risk for dings to the box, some which are observed from its handling prior to its accession.

Q: So what happens to the cereal? Did you hold on to it? Will the cereal be preserved as well?

A: The decision was made to discard the cereal itself (after a few humorous "Guess which is the old Wheaties" blind taste tests). Generally, we try to limit easily available food sources as part of Integrated Pest Management practice. The internal packaging was also yellowed and oily, a sign of problematic plastics decay. While sometimes it is suitable to retain samples of historic food for analysis, it was deemed unnecessary in this case, and surely General Mills would be a better resource for preserved samples in the future. When asked if it is more important to save food packaging or the food itself (in a separate discussion about space food with my colleague Jennifer Levasseur), I replied that indeed sometimes we do save food. Think of the excitement when some ancient pot is discovered with intact residue of some food or drink. Analysis of those can tell us a lot about a people’s culture and their environment; saving a representative sample in smaller inert vial is a potential option, while that may introduce an additional item to catalog and track. This also comes up in intentional collections of realia such as food or cosmetics in packaging which may not be stable, although, interfering with the packaging to get a small sample may introduce another mechanism of decay.

Do you have any further questions that I didn’t touch on?  Please step up to the starting line and ask away in the comments!

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