A Night in the Museum

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.

Jar of critters

That jar on the right has about 500,000 critters in it that all need to be sorted into boxes.

Then

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.

Tiger Beetles in a collection in Cuba showing label data from several periods.

Tiger Beetles in a collection in Cuba showing label data from several periods.

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.

These pictures are from my trip to Cuba. While these pictures were taken in 2015, they're still stuck using storing technology from effectivley they early 1900's. This means a lot of specimens are damaged and lost and the system just isn't very efficient.

These pictures are from my trip to Cuba. While these pictures were taken in 2015, they’re still stuck using storing technology from effectivley they early 1900’s. This means a lot of specimens are damaged and lost and the system just isn’t very efficient.

Now

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.

These bottles go into a specific room that's humidity and temperature controlled to maintain the integrity of the specimens.

These bottles go into a specific room that’s humidity and temperature controlled to maintain the integrity of the specimens.

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.

These compactors are how you store seven football fields worth of organisms in only a few floors worth of space.Each compactor weighs 25,000lbs.

These compactors are how you store seven football fields worth of organisms in only a few floors worth of space. Each compactor weighs 25,000lbs and is moved by a computer system.

Some insects, like the really tiny things, are actually kept in slide mounts which have their own storage system.

These slide mounts are kept in a tip-proof file cabinet. Each drawer weighs 300lbs.

These slide mounts are kept in a tip-proof file cabinet. Each drawer weighs 300lbs.

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!

TL;DR

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.

Side Note

12565593_10205816133468115_4785297962418430158_nI know how to drive this sweet motorbike now, so I should be posting more frequently from the middle of the rainforest when I motor to internet.

 


 References

  1. Dalton R. 2003. Natural History Collections in Crisis as Funding is Slashed. Nature 423: 575.
  2. Pringle H. 2014. Selling America´s Fossil Record. Science 343(6169): 364-367
  3. 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

About SciBugs

Entomologist, Science Communicator, and Crafter Twitter: @SciBugs
This entry was posted in Taxonomy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Night in the Museum

  1. Jessica says:

    This is so awesome. I loved pulling out drawers of beetles as a kid. Super awesome wish I was better at identifying insects I would love to work at a museum

    Like

Discuss with Us

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s