Point of Beginning

Conserving Surveying

April 1, 2004
Tour a one-of-a-kind museum and learn how to help it grow.

Photo compliments of the Museum of Surveying.


To view bonus photo coverage of the museum, click here Web Exclusive! Musing About the Museum?.

Come with me on a field trip. A trip to a unique museum in Lansing, Michigan, the state's capital city. In the Lansing Museum Complex, a quaint area of the city where several museums of varying subject share land and sidewalks to invite visitors into their educational, fun and impressive facilities, is a museum that is one-of-a-kind: The Museum of Surveying. The museum, in its 15th year, will officially celebrate its tenure while marking a second grand opening of sorts sometime in 2006. This is when it plans to open its doors to an enhanced facility with a second floor housing more exhibits and a newly established library. To reach this goal, the museum must raise $600,000. And with help from caring donors, it will.

Inside we'll find Lisa Jacobs, the museum's current director, who says, "The museum has come a long way in a short time. The museum is preserving heritage as [the profession] changes." And in 20 years, there has been much change. Let's find out how this museum came about and see what's inside.

The Museum of Surveying, located in Lansing, Mich., boasts a mural that ties the surveyor of the past to the present.

In the Beginning

In the 1960s, a group of fellows with the Michigan Society of Professional Land Surveyors discussed the importance of preserving historical surveying instruments. In the 1970s, the state of Michigan and the Michigan Society planned to open a museum focusing on surveying near one of Michigan's two Initial Points. But this dream fell through because the staggering $3 million needed to bring the idea to fruition wasn't available. It wasn't until 1989 that true plans for an active museum got underway. That year the board for the Michigan Society of Professional Surveyors (MSPS) got to work on creating a museum to serve the profession and the general public.

What the public liked 15 years ago is much of what they like today, beginning with the mural on the outside of the building. The painting on the face of the museum is an art piece marrying surveying of yesterday and today. The picture shows the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan with its meridian line painted in bold yellow. Hand-drawn maps, perhaps from the 1700s, show the many rivers of Michigan. In the lower left corner is a surveyor looking through a compass, which points toward a satellite in the upper right corner. It's a telling example of what visitors can find inside.

Clockwise from top: vernier compass (Thomas Whitney, Philadelphia, Pa., 1820), Rittenhouse compass (Benjamin Rittenhouse, Philadelphia, Pa., ca. 1780), William Austin Burt solar compass (William J. Young, Phila-delphia, Pa., ca. 1840), transit (L. Beckmann Co., Toledo, Ohio, ca. 1885), architect's level (L. Beckmann Co., Toledo, Ohio, ca. 1911).

Exhibiting Pride and Heritage

The Museum of Surveying takes its 1,800 to 2,000 annual visitors back in time and creates an admiration for the surveyors of days past. From Mesopotamia to today, the surveyor's mark, literally and figuratively, is prominent and awe-inspiring.

At only 15 years old, the museum is "in its infancy and is an important institution for furthering education and appreciation for the field of surveying and engineering," says Dale Beeks, a Mt. Vernon, Iowa-based independent curatorial consultant and purveyor of instruments related to early science and technology. Beeks has been a friend to the museum and helped organize a collections policy for the museum, prioritizing the many facets of building collections of materials worthy of future interpretation. "[By] giving to the capital fund [individuals, companies and associations] will help expedite the museum's warranted growth."

And with that growth the museum will be able to create many more exhibits and pull artifacts from storage. Currently, the museum has a small number of books on display for viewing and perusal, but the lack of space has placed many items into storage, including historical papers, books and maps. The plan for the additional floor will include a separate literary area containing these items. With the second functional floor, visitors will be able to enjoy literary treasures like history books spanning beyond 150 years, guides to surveying, government regulations for geodesia, and early 20th century trade catalogs from traditional makers such as Gurley and Berger, and retail companies such as Dietzgen and Keuffel & Esser.

Also currently tucked away in boxes are old photographs, maps never before seen by museum visitors, historical field notes and Michigan engineers' journals-one by L. Beckmann on "how to improve instruments from U.S. and Europe." Beckmann began manufacturing surveying instruments in 1902.

On your visit, you'll notice that the introductory exhibit in the museum's main room depicts the wonderful transition of direction and measurement devices: a compass, a transit and a total station are displayed to give a framework of the technological changes the profession has undergone. The next gallery discusses the daily activities of the surveyor from the past using a chronological approach.

Another glance around leads you to the gallery housing an exhibit of the various instrument makers of the times and how, for instance, transits became affordable to the surveyor and then became increasingly mechanized. The fourth gallery may be more comparative to you, as it covers some of the current issues of the day. This gallery is changed out every six months to a year to keep it refreshed and interesting and to allow for new items entering the museum's collection.

Walk around a bit and notice that a few of the exhibit cases describe surveyors of the earlier days of the United States. In these cases, you'll find a wooden compass and Jacobs staff from 1920 and an Indiana compass used to survey two townships in Indiana in 1910.

Just inside the main room of the museum are tall brown wooden cases; in one is a series of compasses, including a solar compass used by Michigan surveyor William Austin Burt, the sextant he created, and instruments from various historical makers such as Bausch and Lomb, Gurley, Beckman and Wild. You'll see on the right side of the room exhibits of tools used in the field-compasses and chains and other innovations in measurement, pieces of witness trees, rolls of flagging, even metal axels and pieces of pottery. More modern-day exhibits include items more like what you use today, such as the collection of EDMs.

The museum also creates several revolving exhibits. Be sure you don't miss the display just outside the main exhibit room that shows aerial surveying documents of Ted Abrams work, an innovator of aerial surveying in the early 1920s who designed one of the first planes used for aerial surveying.

As you first enter the main exhibit room, notice that there are a few particularly dramatic elements in the room. One is the very sizable circular dividing engine, a statement of how important equipment is to surveying since it took dividing a circle from the hands of a craftsman to a machine. Another striking area of the room is the two vignettes depicting surveying in years past-one is a setup of a brass surveying compass on a tripod with a chain laid out below it along with larger pieces of witness trees; the other illustrates a surveyor's office, complete with drafting desk, from the 1940s. The third impressive element is a prominent double row of banners donated by 20-plus state surveying societies; museum staff and board members hope to receive donations from all 50 states. "Fitted" on the right side of the room as you enter is a display of stadia rods, including a self-reading 13-footer, the shortest rod of the collection at 6 1⁄2 feet with target site on it, and the tallest rod at 23 feet high. This display shows the opportunities a second floor in the cathedral-like room offers. The second floor will also have space for the offices of MSPS Executive Director Roland Self and Executive Assistant Jan Bennett.

This circular dividing engine, known as Berger's Engine No. 5, helped standardize the making of transits and levels. Lisa Jacobs, museum director, holds the engine's vertical vernier figuring board. (C. L. Berger & Sons Inc., 1906)

Spreading the Wealth

The Museum of Surveying extends its purpose outside the walls of its unique facility as well. Through its partnership with the Michigan chapter of the Surveyor's Historical Society, the Museum of Surveying reaches out to young learners at outdoor re-enactments and through classroom presentations across the state of Michigan. The museum's website (www.surveyhistory.org) states that children visitors "come face to face with principles of geometry, mapmaking and exploration as interpreters explain the challenge of mapping the state of Michigan in the 19th century."

Museum staff members, along with the Michigan Society of Professional Surveyors Foundation Board of Trustees, have also created a specific incentive for surveying students. In the last year and a half, a couple of students have been the proud recipients of the North American Surveying History Scholarship, which offers a $1,000 scholarship to a student with a major in surveying who has made a considerable contribution to surveying. "We hope that in doing so we will be speaking to students who will be speaking to the public and give them an incentive [to continue in the profession]," Jacobs says. The scholarship is awarded in memory of Patrick Benton, PS. Benton, an early supporter of the museum, was instrumental in its founding. He passed away shortly before the museum opened its doors in 1989.

In the main gallery of the museum, the vertical cases feature a chronological progression of instruments. More than 20 flags from surveyors' state societies decorate the walls.

Like No Other

In no other place will you be able to find the plethora of surveying propaganda, instrumentation, artifacts and other memorabilia than at the Museum of Surveying. In no other museum will you be able to appreciate a collection of artifacts related to William Austin Burt, including his invention of the solar compass from the 1800s. Try to find an impressive collection of Bausch & Lomb instruments like the one the Museum of Surveying possesses. These, and numerous other relics illustrating the history of surveying, can only be found at this one-of-a-kind museum. In addition to its fine collections, it also parents the MSPS re-enactors, a group that David Ingram, the museum's president for the past two years and an eight-year board member, says is "one of our most valued and prized efforts... These folks donate countless hours in sharing the history of surveying throughout the region at public gatherings ranging from groups of school children to open events that attract tens of thousands of people each year."

But the greatest collectible the museum possesses, Ingram notes, is how it all came together. "Over 99 percent of our collection has been donated by many benefactors," Ingram says. "There is no way the museum could have assembled the collection [it has] if we had [tried] to buy it. While we have bought a few specific items (less than 10), the donation of these hundreds of items is truly amazing."

Ranging in length from 6 1/2 to 23 ft, surveyor's rods line one wall of the museum. Included in the exhibit are precise leveling rods and folding plane table survey rods.

Surveying the Future

To keep this amazing prestige growing, the museum is advancing towards its goal of raising $600,000 to build a second floor. Last month, promised pledges rounded $200,000, with a portion of this lot coming in from the Michigan Society of Professional Surveyors.

"We have received pledges from a number of state societies," Jacobs says, adding that individual state chapters had come forward separately. "Each has pledged a dollar per member per year over the next two years. That's what is really important to remember-$600,000 sounds like a lot, but if everyone chips in $1,000 we only need 600 people. It sounds more feasible this way." Jacobs added: "We'd really like to say that every state society has supported the museum."

There are numerous reasons for donating to the museum's capital campaign-reasons over and above the fact that money goes to the only museum dedicated to the profession of surveying.

"Aside from the everyday historical research professional surveyors must conduct," Beeks says, "most professional surveyors understand the importance and value of understanding their heritage. The museum is a venue to better organize and interpret historical data for presentation to the professional."

"You can't know where you are going if you don't know where you have come from," Ingram says. "Surveying is so dependent on history that we must preserve the past while at the same time looking ahead for new opportunities. The improvements at the museum will allow us to do these things.

"The most noticeable improvement that the public will see will be more exhibit space that will allow us to tell more of the story of surveying and offer a wider variety of exhibits to entice the public to explore our heritage with us. However, that is only a small portion of the benefits. The new library will become the premier research facility in the country for surveying related matters."

In the long term, however, the most significant improvement planned for the museum may be the implementation of a climate-controlling system. Currently, the museum is heated by a steam-powered generator from 1923, and this does not help preserve many of the museum's fragile antique assets. "It's not just the steam heat," says Ingram. "It's the overall lack of a climate control system. The variations in temperature and humidity play havoc with the wood objects in the collection. Other items also suffer because of these fluctuations."

The design group contracted for the museum's addition plan to iron out the finer engineering details in the next year or so, but plans are set to make the building as environmentally stable-and climate controlled-as possible, especially to aid artifact preservation. This, of course, will depend on the museum's success in raising funds this year.

"The museum offers a unique view through the window of the history of surveying and everyone needs to be a part of us," Ingram says. "While I wish that there was a Museum of Surveying in every state, the simple fact is that we are it at this time and the support from across the entire nation (and world) is needed for us to reach out as far as we are able."

With this support and the hopeful success of the museum's campaign, an additional floor will be added, an elevator installed for handicap access, more exhibits put on display and a fresh new library will be available for novices, professionals and researchers. The Museum of Surveying will be able to begin a "second life" of sorts with pride and a renewed uniqueness.

"The added space will allow us to achieve many of our dreams and become a museum that the profession can be proud of," Ingram concludes. "With support from many people we will be able to reach out and serve the profession and the country."

To donate to the Museum of Surveying, send a check made payable to the Museum of Surveying to:

Lisa Jacobs
220 South Museum Drive
Lansing, Michigan

The museum also accepts Visa and Mastercard for donations. For more information about the museum or to inquire about membership, call 517/484-6605 or visit www.surveyhistory.org.