Cabinet of Physics
Activities of Preservation
The conservation and restoration of our country’s important historical and scientific heritage is affected by differing attitudes toward the assets that compose it, especially regarding the historical-artistic area.
Without going into detail about the reasons for this gap, it is clear that restoration and conservation in the scientific sector is not only in need of initiatives to encourage the training of dedicated operators but also of a recognition and dissemination of knowledge about its particular needs.
In fact, an institutional study and recovery activity of this type was launched at the Fondazione Scienza e Tecnica in the 1980s. It focused in particular on the restoration of scientific machines and instruments of historical interest and was carried out by specialized personnel starting from the work on the huge collections kept at the Fondazione. An experience was therefore acquired that is configured as out of the ordinary due to its scope and longevity. In fact, the activity is still going on with preventive conservation work and with activities in collaboration with other institutions.
The survival of the heritage
Due to a series of favorable circumstances, and in contrast to what has happened in many other institutes, the collection of the Physics Cabinet of the Technical Institute has survived to the present day with few losses. The most serious ones occurred because of the Second World War, when a series of wooden models of machines was deposited in a shed next to the Institute and was later eliminated. Some laboratory accessory equipment such as accumulator batteries, compressors and dynamos that were no longer used suffered the same fate.
Due to several factors, the destruction and dispersion of a large part of the assets of the Physics Cabinet has been avoided: we must remember that the Institute has been located in the same place and that the spaces occupied by the cabinet have been essentially the same since 1891.
Unfortunately, many collections of schools, high schools and universities have suffered serious losses and, in some cases, have even been eliminated on the occasion of relocations, changes of places or renovation of the buildings in which they were stored. In years when the concept of “historical-scientific heritage” did not exist and nineteenth-century instruments were simply considered an uncomfortable and a useless legacy of the past, these changes have been devastating for many scientific collections.
Often, in fact, when they were not dismembered, dispersed or even destroyed, they were accumulated in cellars or attics where the poor housing conditions sometimes have caused irreparable damage to the objects. But it is also a fact that one of the reasons for the survival of the Physics Cabinet is due to the sensitivity of some directors and professors of the Technical Institute, aware of the cultural value of the collections.
Among them, we cannot forget the late engineer and topography teacher Fernando Faggioli, who did not just work to preserve them intact, but was also among the first to try to sensitize the managers of cultural institutes and the public administration on the need to give more value to them.
The Restoration of the Collection
In 1983, on the suggestion of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, Paolo Brenni was conferred the task of rearranging, cataloguing and restoring the objects contained in the Physics Cabinet by the Province of Florence. The work to be done was massive, and extremely challenging: about half of the instruments were fairly good, but still needed a thorough cleaning and minimal restoration work; a quarter of the collection required more complex restorations; while the rest of the instruments were severely damaged.
In addition, many appliances had been dismembered, or had been separated from their accessories and were found scattered in the mezzanines and cellars of the Institute and had been found in a very poor condition. Instruments no longer used were there because they were broken, useless or replaced by more recent equipment.
Furthermore, though the dramatic flood of 1966 caused limited damage to the Physics Cabinet, where the water level had reached about half a meter, it had completely flooded the cellars, submerging everything contained there.
In the 1980s, almost twenty years after the flood, we found ourselves cleaning instruments still encrusted with Arno mud.
A restoration workshop was therefore created in one of the rooms annexed to the Cabinet (partly equipped with machines and tools left over from the old mechanical workshop) in which, with the collaboration of Anna Giatti, all the instruments were systematically disassembled, cleaned, restored and reassembled.
These operations were accompanied by the collection of texts and documents illustrating the instruments and their construction features as well as by an accurate inventory control.
The materials and the numerous small elements (springs, pulleys, screws, electrical wires covered in silk, clamps, glass tubes, etc.) that were still found in the mechanical workshop cabinets, often date back to the end of the 19th century and have been extremely useful to the restorations. During the works it was possible to find or reassemble disassembled instruments that had been mentioned as “not found” or “eliminated” in the inventories of the early twentieth century. There is still more work to be done.
Recently, by rearranging the cellars, some appliances that we thought disappeared were literally brought to light. In most cases we have been able to restore the instruments in order to make them work. The only exceptions were cases when the restoration of functionality would have required too invasive and significant an intervention than what could be justified where the intention was to preserve (not repair!) objects of historical interest.
The collection now contains more than 90% of the instruments mentioned in the inventories of the early twentieth century, when it had reached its maximum expansion.
Fifty years of renewed commitment to the conservation of the technical-scientific heritage
Video made on the occasion of the exhibition “The saved beauty. Florence 1966-2016”, thanks to the support of the Rotary Club Firenze Ovest.
The restoration of rooms and furnishings
In the last few years, the rooms on the ground floor of the Fondazione Scienza e Tecnica, have been renovated, reorganized and opened to the public. The rooms of the Physics Cabinet were completely restored between 2004 and 2007.
Thanks to an attentive intervention, even the cabinets have been reassembled, repainted and equipped with LED lighting that not only ensures excellent lighting of the objects, but also meets the necessary standards for their best conservation.
Finally, the collection was rearranged in an effort to accurately reconstruct the Physics Cabinet as it was
at the beginning of the twentieth century, using evidence from a series of historical photographs.
The “director’s office”, the storage place of the optical instruments, the “mechanics gallery” with the machines and models and the “hall” with the equipment concerning physical mechanics, pneumatics, thermology, meteorology, magnetism and electricity that the visitor sees today are almost identical to what would have been seen around 1900.
The possibility of preserving and showing the original structure of a nineteenth-century laboratory was central to the choices made during the construction works and the rearrangement, so that today we can talk about the restoration of the entire nineteenth-century Physics Cabinet, and not only of its collection of objects.
The experience acquired in rearranging and restoring the Physics Cabinet has meant that other institutions came to the Fondazione in order to restore their collections of historical instruments. Over the last two decades we have restored hundreds of instruments belonging to institutions such as the Liceo A. Volta in Como, the Liceo Ennio Quirino Visconti in Rome, the Liceo Paolo Sarpi and the Museo Civico di Scienze Naturali in Bergamo, the Physics Department of the University of Naples, the Institute of Agricultural Ecology of Rome, and the Astronomical Observatories of Monte Porzio and Palermo.
Among the numerous instruments that have been restored at the Fondazione, some are of exceptional historical and scientific importance: it is worth mentioning the Ramsden circle of the Palermo Observatory, the Secchi meteorograph preserved in Monte Porzio and the Albrici planetary machine in Bergamo.
The collection of the Physics Cabinet is now monitored with thermohygrometric indicators and regularly inspected to check and monitor any pest attack. Lighting and other systems are regulated in order to contribute to the best conservation.
The operation and use of historical machines and devices, although largely possible, is severely limited for obvious conservation reasons and the possibility to do this is only granted for well-justified and shared study programmes or for the video campaigns that the Fondazione periodically organizes.
Recently, the Fondazione has been taking part in the European project APACHE (Active & intelligent PAckaging materials and display cases as a tool for preventive conservation of Cultural HEritage). This project aims to develop innovative preventive conservation solutions for cultural heritage preserved in museums, collections, archives and libraries, both within the exhibition spaces and storage areas. In fact, one of the project’s goals is the development of novel sensors for microenvironmental monitoring as well as solutions for re-establishing equilibrium in these environments in case of need. Preventive conservation can be a particularly effective measure in small and medium-sized contexts, and this is why the project aims to develop and identify sensors and materials with significantly lower costs than those currently on the market. Another project goal is the creation of an application (Decision Support System) conceived as a vademecum to support decision making and interventions by personnel tasked with collection conservation. In all projects, APACHE is addressing a range of conservation parameters including temperature, humidity, and VOCs and pollutants that derive from the environment, packaging and objects themselves.
Apache web site and social media