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Meta Friese: The attorney of the objects

Registrar Meta Friese in der Sammlung des Museums für Naturkunde

Meta Friese is an art historian. Someone who treats museum objects with great respect and often recognizes their value at first glance. Since April 2021, she has been responsible at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin for ensuring that collection objects are treated correctly and that no damage occurs to them. Not only when objects must be moved due to construction work, but also when they are requested on loan for exhibitions.

This article was first published in our journal For Nature (issue 8/2023).

Meta Friese walks contentedly through the rows of shelves. Here, in a historic room of the museum, the mammal skins have recently been stored, carefully bedded in archive boxes, labelled and sorted into deep shelves that fill the room like a steel skeleton. Occasionally, paws and snouts peek out, those of a civet cat or a hare, wrapped in white fleece to protect them from dust. A staircase leads to the upper level of the shelf skeleton, below which stands a massive hippopotamus on short legs. A colony of historical bat specimens hangs on skirt hangers wrapped in plastic bags.

The removal of the fur collection was one of the last great efforts to clear the west wing of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin for the upcoming refurbishment. On the way to becoming the open research museum of the future, previously closed rooms will be made accessible to the public. To do this, 7660 skins had to be moved from a research and collection room to a new location in the museum. 

As with every move, Friese was responsible for ensuring that the sensitive collections were not damaged. In this case, it was a partial collection of mammals. Together with her colleagues from Collection Management and an art forwarding company, she devised the safest packaging and gentlest transport techniques and planned, monitored and recorded the logistical processes from start to finish.

This area of responsibility at the interface with other museums is called registrar. "It's always a balancing act, on the one hand we want to show our objects to as many people as possible, but at the same time we have to preserve and protect them," says Friese in a gentle, caring voice. 

The constant stream of loans behind the scenes, which museum visitors are often unaware of, is a cornerstone of the exhibition system that makes many exciting special shows possible in the first place. In 2023, for example, the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden exhibited textile artworks of crocheted coral reefs by artists Margaret and Christine Wertheim together with valuable educational models by glass artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka from the archives of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. The finely crafted, realistic glass corals from the 19th century are so fragile that you don't want to touch them.

Friese ensured that they arrived in Baden-Baden and returned intact. She stipulated the conservation conditions in a contract, including the humidity in the exhibition room and the light intensity. An art shipping company produced special boxes in which they placed the glass corals. Wooden crates with vibration control in turn protected the boxes. 

"In the end, despite all the care taken, an old bond between a coral and an inserted glass element came loose," says Friese regretfully. Fortunately, a glass restorer was able to put them back together again and the insurance paid out. 

Friese also handed over 50 objects to the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, which were on display in the special exhibition "Immortal – Living with Death". All of them were extinct or endangered animals – from the smoky gray flying fox, which was last sighted on Mauritius in 1859, to the Cretan ghost dragonfly, which is highly endangered. "Insect specimens in particular are very sensitive to vibrations, so a wing or a leg can fall off if you're not careful," says Friese. If it is an extinct species or a unique specimen relevant to research, the damage is irreparable.

Each object has its own requirements and requires individual transportation solutions. "Most of our loans therefore remain in Berlin or within Germany," says Friese. From time to time, however, there are also long-distance transports. The giant Brachiosaurus was even sent to Japan 40 years ago.

The future relocation of millions of objects

Originally, it was mainly old buildings that fascinated Meta Friese. She studied art history with a focus on architecture in Cologne and wrote her doctoral thesis on a Romanesque church in Bonn-Schwarzrheindorf. She spent two years as a trainee in monument conservation before deciding to pursue a career in museums. 

As collection manager, she was responsible for the professional transfer of textile collections to a newly founded private museum in Mettingen in Westphalia, the Draiflessen Collection. She came to Berlin because her husband, also an art historian, found a job here. At the German Historical Museum, she initially worked in the textile collection and as a registrar for special exhibitions. At that time, she requested a Humboldt penguin on loan from the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.

At the German Historical Museum, she was initially responsible for the textile collection and as registrar for special exhibitions. At that time, she requested a Humboldt penguin on loan from the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. 

Friese has moved a lot since she joined the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. Around 600 loans were sent on tour in 2021 and 2022 alone. Plus the relocations. 

In order to clear the western wing for the renovation of the listed building, six other collections had to make way alongside the fur collection. The numbers are well documented: 17,000 insect boxes, 170 meters of shelves with fossil vertebrate bones and 200 individual oversized dinosaur bones, 200 linear meters of records from the Animal Sound Archive, 80,000 books from the Zoological Library, more than 2,000 drawers with fossilized plants from the Palaeobotanical Collection – to name just a few. 

The enormous number of objects and the limited space in the historic museums building make each move a logistical challenge. It took two and a half months just to move the mammal skins while the museum was still open. All in all, the moves took six months.

But the real work is still waiting: Meta Friese and her colleagues are already starting to prepare the relocation of the insect collection, the library and other parts of the collection to Adlershof, where a new collection center is being built. From around 2029, they will be stored there in accordance with the latest standards and made accessible for research. 

Friese also sits in on construction meetings on Invalidenstrasse to ensure that none of the millions of objects are harmed during all the back and forth. "We always raise our hands and say 'Attention, our collection objects need protection'," says Friese. "I simply feel responsible for them."

Text: Mirco Lomoth
Picture: Pablo Castagnola