The BackBlog: Shining a Spotlight on the Warren Anatomical Museum Backlog

By , January 21, 2020

My name is Theodora Burbank, and I’m the Collections Assistant for the Warren Anatomical Museum. In the fall of 2018, the museum created a plan to address our catalog’s backlog of medical instruments. A backlog is something that many museums have, and that can be difficult to get through on top of day-to-day museum work. I have had the pleasure of working on this plan and sorting through the backlog, and now I’m excited to share some of that work with you.

Photo of a row of shelves containing cardboard boxes

Boxes containing medical instruments from the backlog

The Warren Anatomical Museum’s backlog consisted of 104 boxes of historical medical instruments. The majority of these boxes contained objects that were previously housed in an off-site storage facility. Some contained items from a former gallery space. There were also a few boxes of unknown origins. With such a large number of boxes to get through, we realized that we would need to do something different from our usual cataloging process. We looked at all of the data that we would normally take when completing inventory for an object and decided which fields were “essential”—information that a researcher would need to have to find objects or conduct their work. We hoped that by focusing on these essential fields we could get items from the backlog available to researchers as quickly as possible without compromising necessary data.

Before the sorting process began, we didn’t know too much about what we would find. Outside of generalized labels like “Microscopes” and “Plaster Casts”, along with a few peeks into the boxes, the backlog was dark. After 250 hours of sorting through these dark boxes, we learned that the backlog contained almost 4000 individual objects. Some boxes only contained a few objects. Others contained over a hundred. The vast majority of the instruments were from the 19th century, with some as recent as the 1970s and a few dating back to the early 1700s. There were instruments that had been donated by some of the founding members of the Warren’s collection, including Henry Jacob Bigelow and John Collins Warren, as well as many other notable Boston-area physicians. The objects span a wide range of medical fields, with a large concentration of OBGYN and Ear, Nose, and Throat instruments.

In this series of blog posts, I plan to shine a spotlight on some of my favorite finds from the backlog. Some are exciting because of the stories that are connected to them. Others represent major moments in the history of medicine. Still others involved mysteries that needed to be solved. And, of course, some are simply interesting medical devices. Altogether, these objects can teach us not only about the history of medicine but also about the history of the Warren Anatomical Museum and its collections.

I hope that you enjoy this journey through the backlog as much as I have.

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