Written by Nancy Miorelli
Basically, things showed up in boxes with with various bits of label data. Some of which is incomplete, some of which the specimens aren’t preserved properly, and some of which aren’t stored properly. This all kind of makes a big mess when trying to actually update and catalogue material. That is of course, if your museum has enough funding and people to actually do that. <<Spoiler Alert: there isn’t enough money or people for that.>>
There’s loads of unlocked and unknown specimens lurking in drawers, desks, cabinets, bottles, and bags that we just don’t have the manpower to sift through and identify, let alone catalogue.
But things haven’t changed that much. Things still show up in bottles, bags, boxes, old donations, and presumably lunchboxes that need to be sorted. So let’s go through the process, then and now.
Intrepid wanders looking for things to do or creatures to find would wander out to the wilderness of some unexpored continent or merrily saunter into their backyard to begin surveying life.
Using their nets, bottles of alcohol, and boxes, these contributors to science would collect and sometimes process their organisms. At the very least, they’d have to label where the insect came from. The problem is when specimens we have specimens and we’re forced to try and decipher handwriting from hundreds of years ago. If you even manage to get through the handwriting, sometimes their label descriptions are as useful as “India” or “North America” which can make identifying the bug even harder and we can’t really use it for scientific investigations.
However, if you want to try your hand at decifering some label data from then you can start here at Notes from Nature and help build our digital catalouge. (There are other museum projects you can get involved in too.)
After they’re all labeled, they go into a wooden drawer, called a Cornell drawer. These boxes are designed to be (almost) air tight to keep out mold and carpet beetles that just want to eat the collections. However, these boxes can warp and distort overtime and should be kept in cool dry environments. From there, they go into a big filing cabinet. From there a room is filled with cabinets. The drawers are just waiting to opened so people can discover what’s inside.
The basic system hasn’t changed much. Collectors and enthusiasts collect and label their insects. the labeling process is a bit more strict and you need to include not only what country you collected the organism, but also the type of habitat, and the GPS location. This helps future biologists conduct rigorous biodiversity and evolutionary studies.
The bugs show up in bottles, boxes, and bags, in the museum and then they need to be sorted.
The equipment we have today is a bit more sophisticated to handle the masses of collections we have. We have specific rooms designed for storing specimens in alcohol.
Things that can’t go directly into bottles are still put into Cornell drawers and labeled, but they then go into specialized compactors which efficiently utilize space.
Some insects, like the really tiny things, are actually kept in slide mounts which have their own storage system.
There’s also websites dedicated to digitizing life, like Discover Life for Moths and IDigBio for general museum work. Basically digitization is difficult to keep up with, even in this day in age, so your time to help put all this information out there is really helpful. Current and future scientists thank you!
I was really fortunate to be able to visit the Natural History Collections in Havana Cuba and to have a behind the scenes tour with Floyd Shockely in the Smithsonian (which you can read here in full). It really let me compare and contrast our old systems with our new ones. In short, our systems of recording and storing life are the same as they’ve always been, it’s just that our storage systems are more advanced to keep up with our growing demand.
The technology we have and the dedication of the people who work in museums to preserve our natural history is amazing and should be aplauded so we don’t lose these worldly treasures.
Dalton R. 2003. Natural History Collections in Crisis as Funding is Slashed. Nature 423: 575.
Pringle H. 2014. Selling America´s Fossil Record. Science 343(6169): 364-367
Tuatz D, Arctander P, Minelli A, Thomas RH, Volger AP. 2003. A Plea for DNA Taxonomy. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 18(2): 70-74