Have Pottery, Will Travel


Beckwith Collection Being Prepared for Move to River Campus

Photo of a worker packing a piece of pottery.

Amy Roadarmel prepares another piece of the Beckwith pottery collection for its move to the new River Campus.


May 23, 2007 – Slow but steady is the mantra these days at the Southeast Missouri Regional Museum.

That’s because Museum employees are in the process of judiciously packing about 900 pieces of Mississippian pottery dating back some 1,000 years in preparation for the Museum’s move to River Campus.

The whole ceramic vessels are part of the Museum’s Thomas Beckwith Collection excavated by Beckwith at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries from mounds on his property in southeast Missouri. In 1913, Beckwith donated his collection to the Third District Normal School, the predecessor to Southeast Missouri State University. Since 1976, the collection has been housed in the Southeast Missouri Regional Museum. The collection provides unique insights into the culture and lives of prehistoric Native peoples of this region and will continue to do so in its new home at River Campus.

That is, once it arrives there.

But for now, the focus is on getting the collection boxed in preparation for the move a mile and half across town to the new Rosemary Berkel and Harry L. Crisp II Southeast Missouri Regional Museum.  And it’s a process that has not been taken lightly.

Amy Roadarmel, registrar, exhibit preparator and assistant curator of the Museum, said she came to Southeast a year and a half ago to lead this charge. Over the past 18 months, she’s visited with collections management staff at the Missouri Historical Society and the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University, both in St. Louis, seeking recommendations and advice on best practices for moving such a collection. The Kemper recently relocated to a new facility so their staff had ready advice to offer, Roadarmel said, adding she also picked up some good, practical hands-on tips from the Historical Society.

Armed with that knowledge, Roadarmel now is spending her days at a table at the east end of the Museum in Memorial Hall, surrounded by packing boxes, Ethafoam, Volora, a hot knife and twill tape.

She begins by taking a piece of pre-cut, three-inch deep black Ethafoam – a polyethylene resilient foam packaging — matching the dimensions of the bottom of an archival packing box. Using a hot knife, she slices a beveled hole in the foam to accommodate the circumference of the base of the vessel she is packing. The knife is smaller, but similar to an electric meat knife.

“It’s like slicing a turkey,” she said.

She then lines each hole with a sheet of Volora, a smooth-surfaced, fine, paper-like thin packing foam that prevents the pottery from being scratched. Next, she cuts approximately two-inch cubes of Ethafoam, placing them around the perimeter of the hole to act as a barrier, to protect the sides of each piece.

Roadarmel then uses a knife to cut minute openings through the Ethafoam base and foam barrier cubes. Wearing gloves, she then removes the piece of pottery from the Museum’s exhibit case and places it on top of the Volora and into the beveled hole in the Ethafoam. The openings cut in the Ethafoam act as eyelets. Now working from the underneath side of the Ethafoam base, Roadarmel uses twill tape, an unbleached cotton, lacing it through the various openings and pulling it through the top side. She then ties the tape atop the piece of pottery, thus securing it to its base.

An accession number is then attached to the Ethafoam at the base of each vessel, thus identifying each piece in the Museum’s collection, and tissue paper is used to cover each piece as a final form of protection.

Museum Director Stanley Grand muses that each wrapped vessel “looks like a chocolate truffle.

“I guess that means they look good,” Roadarmel said.

One by one, Roadarmel will prepare each ceramic piece for its move. Some pieces are small enough that up to six can fit in a box. With the larger pieces, only one or two can be accommodated in a box.

“If you get a good chunk of time and some people helping, you can really get rolling on it,” she said.

Roadarmel is no rookie when it comes to handling items like those in the Beckwith Collection. She formerly served as curator of exhibitions and collections at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas in Pine Bluff, Ark. She has a bachelor of arts degree in art history and a master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in museum administration from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (SIU-C). While in Carbondale, she worked as a graduate assistant in the University Museum at SIU-C.

Roadarmel chuckled, saying she finds herself “talking” to the Beckwith pottery these days, and wonders what it might be saying to her. She said she is sure the Native peoples who created the pieces would laugh in disbelief at the care being taken with each piece of pottery.

Later this summer, the boxes will carefully be loaded onto an air ride vehicle – one with no bounce – and transported to River Campus.

“The biggest issue is the human factor,” she said, adding those chosen to handle the boxes will be selected with great care.

Once the pieces arrive at River Campus, about 200 will be put on display at the Rosemary Berkel and Harry L. Crisp II Southeast Missouri Regional Museum. The remaining 700 will go into storage and will be available for scholars to view by appointment.

The new 14,000-square-foot museum is a unique structure with more than 5,900 square feet of exhibition space.  It is expected to attract people from throughout the region with its focus on the archeology, history and fine arts of the southeast Missouri region.