Touring Museum Collections

Last week, the Nature Museum offered volunteers a tour of its collections facility. Some things I saw and learned:

  • The museum has a lot of stuff. In addition to books and records, there are all sorts of specimens of mammals, birds, insects, fossils, rocks, and plants. Some date back to the mid-19th century.
  • There are a few examples of mad scientisty stuff in jars, but not a lot, which is perhaps ironic. The specimens that get stored in jars are generally herps—reptiles and amphibians—which are a pretty large part of the museum’s programming. The reason there aren’t many at the collections facility is that they’re stored in ethanol, which is obviously flammable. The museum does collect those, but they’re stored at a separate facility.
  • They try to collect long series of animals, showing the same species over time. The reason is to show seasonal differences.
  • The place smells of mothballs. Specimens are stored in their own cabinets, with trays of napthalene in them to deter insect infestations.
  • Some of the notable specimens: A California condor, an extinct Carolina parakeet, an extinct passenger pigeon, the type specimen (the first of a species to be identified) of a vole.
  • I hadn’t recalled seeing passenger pigeon before, even though there is a specimen on display in the museum. It’s part of an exhibit where we don’t have any programs, so I don’t spend a whole lot of time there.
  • Something that would have gobsmacked me, had the volunteer coordinator not mentioned it in my orientation (it was still interesting): A rock with pyrite disease, which causes it to crumble. While we didn’t have time to discuss the causes in detail, the facilities staff did mention that diseased rocks are stored separately, since they can spread the condition in the gases they emit.
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