I Belong in a Museum
by Kat Bolstad (tintenfisch
Last updated: Dec 2008
I would love to conduct a study on the different associations people have with the word 'museum.' Dusty historical dioramas? Vivid paintings? Curious antiquities? Dinosaurs? Lady Elaine Fairchild? Visitors' guides generally list museums among the local attractions for any given region, but I suspect this is often a cover-all-bases strategy, as if to say, 'there are some cultural relics over there for you three die-hard enthusiasts [yawn], but over here is DISNEY WORLD!'
Last year, in the course of completing a world-wide study on a particular squid group, I was fortunate enough to visit ten natural history museums in seven countries. Some collections I had visited previously, but many were new to me - in fact, many of the host countries were new to me. And while I looked forward to exploring these new places in my scattered days off and a few stolen afternoons, mostly I was eager to head behind the scenes, crack the lids off jars that hadn't been opened in thirty to a hundred years, and peer inside.
Not surprisingly, the public displays in many natural history museums run along common themes. Evolution galleries, glass cases of beautifully pinned butterflies and iridescent beetles, the obligatory weird-looking taxidermied mammals, and stone artifacts from early civilizations with some visual representation of where in the grand scheme of geological time man actually appeared. (I believe, if Earth's history were compressed into 24 hours, man evolved at approximately 23:59:55.)
Behind the scenes there are also similarities. The corridors have a certain aged, yet timeless feel. There are lingering, (usually) faint smells of alcohol and other preservatives, putty-colored linoleum tile floors, humming ventilation, and office doors with Far Side cartoons relevant to the research interests of each inhabitant. Unfortunately many natural history institutions seem to be in decline, due to varied combinations of renovation hassles and retiring staff, and general shortages of funds, personnel and unified plans for the future. In many museums the curatorial and scientific staff is dwindling fast; in one museum the collection manager told me that when she started, there were seven working marine biologists and four technicians. Now there are two biologists and one technician.
The buildings themselves cover a broad range of architectures, some grand and imposing (none more than the colossal British Museum of Natural History in London), some patently unremarkable. The offices, too (at least those graciously provided to visiting scientists) range from airy, well-lit and -ventilated, with the occasional window and sometimes even a view, to dark, close labs with layers of dust and silt, where brittle, ancient latex gloves melt slowly in forgotten corners and the occasional perfectly mummified cockroach lies quietly composed in your borrowed dissecting tray.
The British Museum of Natural History (BMNH), London
Office in the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (RSMAS), University of Miami
One of many labs at BMNH
Office at the California Academy of Sciences, Invertebrate Zoology Dept (CASIZ)
Entrance to the Zootheque (specimen collections), Musee National d'Histoire Naturelle (MNHN), Paris
Office at the South African Museum (SAM), Cape Town
Office in the National Museum of Natural History (USNM), Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC
The storage facilities for specimens are equally varied. I descended dungeonous stairways, traveled to off-site warehouses, walked cavernous aisles of metal shelves, examined jars in the slanted afternoon sunlight coming through dusty windows, poked through vials stored on shelves in someone's office, and watched a heavy summer thunderstorm roll in through a bank of windows that provided the only light, since the power had gone out. Interestingly, the safety procedures were also quite diverse; in one lab, alcohol spills were handled by cleaning staff; in another, by persons trained in spill cleanup; in a third, by sprinkling vermiculite chunks over the floor, sweeping the mess up and dumping it into the wastebasket. (Don't ask me how I know.)
Then there are the collections themselves. I'm not sure what feelings shelves of preserved dead animals evoke in most people, but for me, there is something almost holy about the stacks. They are a physical library of biological science. Standing amongst literally thousands of specimens, with (probably more) thousands of scientific names, representing hundreds of years of cumulative taxonomic research, is infintely humbling. In any sizeable collection, there are probably dozens of specimens representing species that are new to science and haven't been described yet. Others are from well-known species, but may have some previously unseen or unreported physical character. Some will change names several times. Nearly all, if the collections are properly maintained, will outlast the people who collected, fixed, preserved, and described them.
Stacks in the Zootheque, MNHN
Onychoteuthid section at RSMAS
Among these troves of systematic treasures I wandered. Although ultimately concentrating on my particular group of squid, I did usually find the time to at least walk the rows of shelves, peering at giant isopods, dry seashells packed in cotton wool, jars of snakes, giant racks of antlers, and vats of sharks. (In at least one case, I had ample time to admire other collections, since it turned out most of the specimens I would have been interested in were on loan overseas, and had been for ten years.) I found 'my' squid, the onychoteuthids, which range in size from 10mm to 4m long, preserved in tiny vials, snap-top jars, lead-foiled and waxed graduated cylinders, plastic buckets, waist-high glass beakers that hadn't been opened in forty years and had to be smashed (not by me!) and stainless steel vats.
40-year untouched jars at BMNH
100-year untouched vials at MNHN
And even if I didn't love this kind of work, and found hauling dripping and smelly specimens from their long-undisturbed vessels as unpleasant as it probably sounds, it was all worth it. It appears that the diversity of species in this group is a little less than twice that recently recognized, and that in itself is significant. But I do love it. I love the mystery of examining a specimen and the intrigue of assigning its name, and of deciphering labels written by the collectors perhaps 200 years ago, by the cataloguer when the material came to the museum, and by every other scientist who has puzzled over this specimen's identity before me. I recognize that not many people want to spend their lives wandering through shelves of smallish corpses floating in a variety of semi-noxious chemicals. But then, I wouldn't want to be a dentist or a banker, so I guess we all do what we love, however quirky.
Museum curiosity with large Onykia robusta specimen, at CASIZ