When I begin to tell friends and family what it is I do at the Peabody, it usually goes the same way: As soon as I’m finished saying “...a project restoring a collection of plaster fish molds,” there’s a silence, a polite yet confused smile, and an expectant wait for a better explanation. So here’s my attempt to provide that!
In February of this year, I began work on what I’ve been calling the Migdalski Fish Project, the recasting of 58 molds of fish specimens from around the world. Despite the difficulty of concisely explaining this project, it’s been quite the learning experience and a wonderful way for me to learn more about the Peabody, its legacy, and its mission.
I found out about the fish molds while volunteering with Michael Anderson, the Peabody’s preparator-in-residence. I came by the museum one morning and happened upon Michael and a group of others hosing down what appeared to be large, dirty chunks of plaster. Turns out these were molds of fish collected by Ed Migdalski, a past Peabody ichthyologist and preparator. The idea with the molds is that once a fish specimen has been collected, it is cleaned and prepped to be cast into plaster. This keeps the original form of the fish and gives museum model makers something to recreate the fish for museum exhibits (since displaying the real fish isn’t really feasible). Ed Migdalski, on his over 20 trips around the globe, collected countless fish species, rare and common, big and small, with hopes of creating a “Fish of the World” exhibit at the Peabody. Unfortunately, the plan for a hall of fishes never panned out, and the molds were moved to a storage room on Peabody grounds. Now they were being moved again, this time to a much more plaster-friendly facility at West Campus where they’d be safer, if still falling apart.
This is where I came in. Michael told me the story of Mr. Migdalski, his contributions to the Peabody, and the story of these fish. I read “Lure of the Wild,” a book written by Ed that outlined some of his collecting expeditions, and I was instantly hooked. Michael told me the molds from these expeditions were significant museum objects, and, although they were being relocated, still needed a bit of extra care. Being a recent graduate who’d been volunteering at the Peabody for quite a while, I found myself in the perfect position to provide this care. With the help of many others at the Peabody and beyond, I was able to do so.
For the past four months, I’ve been going through the molds, casting each half in polyester resin, reinforcing it with fiberglass, then grouping the halves together and labelling them. These resin casts allow us to save the functionality of the plaster fish molds, while giving us something lighter, longer lasting, and less finicky than plaster itself. The resin casts can be used to make new molds (probably silicone this time) which can then be used to cast model-quality fish. Because of this project, the Peabody now has a collection of 58+ fish that otherwise would have been lost due to years of wear and tear, moisture and mold. It may seem like an unusual way to have spent the past few months, but I’m glad I was able to do it. I’m glad that, because of this project, the hard work and effort made by Migdalski gets to last that much longer.