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Recapturing scientific treasures

Small teams struggle against institutional indifference to protect historical scientific objects

Gautier's meridian circle: used for a few decades, then forgotten; now on display

Eduardo CesarGautier’s meridian circle: used for a few decades, then forgotten; now on displayEduardo Cesar

A stargazing device that resembles an ancient cannon, almost 3 meters long, is a source of pride at the Museum of Astronomy and Related Sciences (Mast) in Rio de Janeiro. Built in France, Gautier’s meridian circle was installed in 1900 in a temporary wooden shelter at the former location of the Brazilian National Observatory, on Castelo hill. After transfer to the current headquarters, on São Cristóvão hill, it was placed in a wooden dome with a metallic structure and was used for decades to determine the position of stars and the exact time, which are fundamental for astronomic observations. It was dismantled in 1962, for lack of use, and the dome and the building that had housed it were abandoned and, some time later, were in ruins. When the museum decided to restore the equipment in 2000, due to its rarity and antiquity, the first problem was finding the parts, scattered throughout the museum, and the screws, also lost. With cleaned, restored and polished parts the equipment was assembled and, after three years of work, reinaugurated in a new room in 2004.

With its specialized team, an inventory and a collection catalog, planning and procedures, Mast is an exception in this area. “Throughout Brazil, what we see most often is an immense number of abandoned historical scientific objects,” says Marcus Granato, coordinator of the museum sciences team. He and his team have visited research institutes, museums, universities and high schools and found objects with historical value, often abandoned in rooms with broken furniture. In a room used to store old junk at an institute in a university in the state of São Paulo, the museum’s team found a precision clock called a pendulum that had been loaned to the university by the National Observatory at least four decades earlier. In 2014, Mast managed to transfer the device to its facilities, and today it is on display in one of the collection’s exhibition halls. The scientific treasure hunters know that there are many more in professors’ cabinets or drawers, especially those of the older professors who protect the tools with which they worked for decades and who often do not want to let go of them.

Relics in the Mast collection: a tide predictor, above, and precision clocks

Eduardo CesarRelics in the Mast collection: a tide predictorEduardo Cesar

In late 2014, Mast’s museum sciences team and other specialists from universities in the states of Pernambuco, Bahia, Rio Grande do Sul and Minas Gerais completed a nation-wide survey of scientific objects manufactured before 1960 and no longer in use, indicating that there are still many objects to be identified and evaluated—and, on the other hand, that many objects have probably already been lost. Of the 1,486 institutions surveyed (834 universities, 470 museums, 161 scientific research and/or technology institutes and 21 high schools), 1,021 reported not having any old objects used in research or teaching physics, chemistry, earth sciences or engineering.

A minority, 337 institutions (160 universities, 139 museums, 27 science and technology institutes and 11 schools), equivalent to 32% of the total, had old instruments used for research or education that, by law, should be preserved: the 1988 Constitution recognizes scientific objects as a form of cultural heritage. “There is no need to save everything,” Granato reassures, imagining protests over lack of space to preserve the memories of the past, “but those instruments, with their respective catalogs documenting historical scientific activity, should be preserved.”

Some conclusions cause relief, and others worry. Previous mappings recorded collections of historical objects in good condition exhibited in the museums of universities in Rio de Janeiro, Ouro Preto, São Paulo and Porto Alegre. But even in these locations new things can appear. In 2006, on a visit to the National Museum, researchers found 39 scientific instruments used in geology and paleontology that had not yet been cataloged. On the other hand, only a few universities in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais have or are developing guidelines and calls for bids to promote the preservation of scientific instruments used in teaching or research.

Dias cleans and polishes the graduated silver circle of a theodolite

Eduardo Cesar Dias cleans and polishes the graduated silver circle of a theodoliteEduardo Cesar

There have also been successful private initiatives, such as TAM’s historical aircraft museum in upstate São Paulo. There are many railway museums across Brazil—a preliminary survey found more than 60—although some have closed for lack of staff and resources to maintain the collections of objects, books, furniture and buildings from the days when rail transport was thriving in the country. The smaller the museum, the greater the difficulty in maintaining collections and knowing their value. In Pirapora do Bom Jesus, São Paulo, the museum at an old religious school displays scientific instruments alongside stuffed animals, antique furniture and historical objects, such as a helmet from World War I, all with little information about their histories or former owners.

The national survey also showed that museums held most (45%) of the approximately 30,000 objects identified, focusing on the oldest, from the 17th and 18th centuries, indicating that they were probably protected, while universities, with 42% of the objects, had mostly equipment from the 20th century. Institutes hold only 6% of historical objects and, the researchers concluded, frequently discard them whenever they purchase new tools. The 11 high schools, in turn, housed 2,000 objects that depict the teaching of science in the 19th and 20th centuries. “Most people want to protect historical scientific instruments, but don’t know how to,” says Granato. Even when they lack teams, procedures, storage space and money to do what should be done, “they can always do something,” he says.

Precision clocks

Eduardo Cesar Precision clocksEduardo Cesar

The team from Mast has done a lot. On the museum’s website, in addition to reports on the restoration of museum objects and other studies, there are two publications that may be of interest to those who have historical scientific objects. The first is a Thesaurus, a kind of dictionary with 1,153 entries, from abacus to watt-hour meter, with various names, functions and photos of each device. The other is a manual with recommendations for the preservation of antique scientific instruments, suggesting, for example, that they be cleaned only with a cloth and that labels never be affixed on them. Now the priority is to finish and distribute a computer program to facilitate the inventory of equipment by the end of 2015 and, as soon as possible, a site listing institutions and their respective scientific instrument collections, thereby unifying the individual initiatives around Brazil.

The restoration of an astronomical telescope from the 19th century is also planned for 2015. It is already sitting on a workbench in the Mast metallic object conservation laboratory. “We have done historical research, a parts diagnosis and a three-dimensional model of the telescope using a scanner operated by a team at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro,” said Granato. One of the people responsible for the restoration will be technician Ricardo de Oliveira Dias, who began removing the dust from the instrument the morning of January 16 and “very patiently,” he explained, rubbed a special wax and fine oil on the graduated circle of silver of a theodolite, an instrument used to measure distances on earth and at sea, manufactured in the 19th century. Once a year Dias removes the dust from each of the 2,000 historical objects used for research in astronomy, geophysics, meteorology and metrology in the museum’s collection. Browsing the museum’s exhibition rooms and seeing the compasses, astrolabes, barometers, scintillometers (radiation meters), precision pendulums, tide gages, scopes and telescopes, usually made out of brass or bronze, made in Germany, England or France, is a way to understand how science was carried out and how much more laborious measurements were.

Sometimes Mast staff also responds to requests for help from those who do not know what to do after taking an old and possibly important instrument out of a closet. One of the requests came from Maria Cristina Senzi Zancul in 2007. Zancul had spent 10 years as a physics teacher at the State School Bento de Abreu, founded in the early 20th century in Araraquara, São Paulo. She admired the historical instruments for teaching physics, most made in France or Germany and stored in laboratory cabinets—scales, barometers, galvanometers, prisms, gyroscopes, telegraphs and a steam engine model, among others—and said that someday she would organize those things.

Theodolite (left) and sextant at USP: objects from the late 19th century

Eduardo CesarTheodolite (left) and sextant at USP: objects from the late 19th centuryEduardo Cesar

In 2006, after being hired as a professor at São Paulo State University (Unesp), she went back for a visit and saw the abandoned instruments. She thought of taking care of them, but acknowledged: “I didn’t even know where to start.” Supported by Mast, UNESP and the school itself, Zancul organized about 200 pieces of equipment and remodeled the laboratory, which was reopened in 2009. The study of these objects “can help uncover significant aspects about how science subjects were taught in the past,” she said in a 2009 article. Once a year Zancul organizes an exhibition of the instruments at the school, but has not yet been able to transfer the responsibility of taking care of the collection to another teacher. “The collection is an orphan.”

Now that the work at the school in Araraquara is complete, she is surveying historical scientific objects in other schools founded over 100 years ago in upstate São Paulo. “The situation is very sad,” she says. “In one school in Penápolis, I found three or four instruments; no one knows what happened to the rest.” In an old middle school in Ribeirão Preto, “everything was thrown in a corner,” she says. “No one knows what to do with these collections of objects, which should be formally recognized by the institutions, but aren’t. The value attributed to the historical scientific objects depends very much on who the head of the school is.”

The guardians of scientific treasures do not know what to do if the institutions are not interested in objects of historical value. There are also other questions that go unanswered. Who should take care of the collections, especially when professors and librarians do not want to take responsibility and there is no museum specialist available? What should be done when there is no one available or specialized in this field, nor funds to organize and maintain the objects?

These questions upset Edvaldo Simões da Fonseca Jr., professor at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (USP). Eight years ago, when he became head of the topography and geodesy laboratory, he was given the responsibility of caring for a collection of about 150 objects, such as sextants, theodolites, calculators, thermographs, telescopes, optical levels, compasses and other equipment representing the lab’s heritage. Many of them belonged to the Topography Department, one of the departments from which the Polytechnic School was created in 1893. Two students are currently taking care of the inventory of equipment, which is kept in cabinets in a room still closed to visitors. “We’re trying to make this heritage more visible,” says Fonseca Jr. He obtained funding from USP itself to catalog and restore some of the equipment, but then the money was frozen because of the university’s financial crisis and has not yet been disbursed.

One of the first battles is recognition of the value of the collections by institutions. In 1998, the opinion of an Italian expert on historical instruments who examined the Mast collection reinforced the idea that the objects were indeed rare. Another lesson learned is that recovering objects often means recovering people. The recovery of the meridian circle was only possible with the aid of a retired technician, Odílio Ferreira Brandão, who had stored most of the parts in his home. Brandão helped find other parts and screws and assisted in the assembly of the equipment, but died before it was re-inaugurated.

Collection of scientific instruments of the physics laboratory of Bento de Abreu State School in Araraquara (SP) (No. 2007/07198-0); Grant Mechanism: Regular Line of Research Project Award; Principal investigator: Maria Cristina de Senzi Zancul (Unesp); Investment: R$21,851.51 (FAPESP).

Scientific articles
GRANATO, M. et al.  Restauração do círculo meridiano de Gautier e reabilitação do pavilhão correspondente – Museu de Astronomia e Ciências Afins (Mast). Anais do Museu Paulista. V. 15, No. 2, p. 319-57. 2007.
ZANCUL, M. C. S. A coleção de instrumentos antigos do Laboratório de Física da Escola Estadual Bento de Abreu de Araraquara (SP). Revista Ensaio: Pesquisa em Educação em Ciências. V. 11, No. 1, p. 1-17, 2009.
GRANATO, M. et al. Cartilha de orientações gerais para preservação do patrimônio cultural de ciência e tecnologia. Mast-RJ, 14 p., 2013.